In many homes, spring cleaning is a seasonal ritual, a necessity masked as a rewarding exercise to clean thoroughly and toss out some junk. It’s pleasurable for some, a despised chore for others. Either way, it’s best to start in the kitchen, the inevitable dumping ground for all kinds of paraphernalia, utensils, small appliances, paperwork, mail, art projects, magazines, and the vast assortment of stuff you’ve purchased and inherited. That’s even before we get to the food.
Spring cleaning generally involves three steps: declutter, clean, and organize. First, you get rid of stuff you neither need nor want, then do a thorough, below-the-surface cleaning. Organizing will make your kitchen neater, more functional, and efficient with everything in a logical place.
If you’ve learned anything from decluttering expert Marie Kondo, follow her advice to lay it all out: place the contents of your kitchen cabinets and drawers on a kitchen counter, table, or the floor. Take a good close look. You can decide, a la Kondo, what “sparks joy” or simply choose to keep, donate, or discard each item. Have two big boxes handy for the latter two categories.
For example, do you have attachments to appliances you no longer use, lids without matching containers, and slightly greasy foil pans? Into the trash or recycling bin they go. Have coffee mugs you never use, two or more of the same utensils, and ages-old serving dishes gathering dust? Add to the donate box.
Do the same with food. Discard all suspect and spoiled foods. Look, smell, and taste before you toss, though, because sell by/use by/best by dates refer to quality, not safety. (Check out the USDA FoodKeeper App.) Before tossing half-used jars of capers, roasted red peppers, olives, and kimchi, try using the items in a sauce or relish. Add vegetable “scraps” to soup, a stir-fry, or pasta sauce. Cut up leftover meat and veggies and grate any small chunks of cheese to make a tasty flatbread or calzone. Donate anything unopened yet still good to a local food pantry.
Ready to clean? Start with the refrigerator. Remove the drawers, bins, and small shelves (note how they’re affixed so you can return them to their proper position) and clean them in the kitchen sink using warm water and dish soap. Don’t use harsh chemicals on anything that comes into contact with food. Use a lightly soapy sponge or cloth sprayed with a natural multi-surface cleaner to wipe the inside of the fridge, including the rubber door seal. An old toothbrush comes in handy to remove crud from crevices. Install a new box of baking soda in the fridge to help absorb odors.
Fill up a washing machine with potholders and oven mitts, aprons, the kitchen rug, and kitchen curtains if they haven’t been cleaned in a while. (Dish towels should be laundered every few days.) Scrub your cutting board with dish soap and hot water. Occasionally, spritz it with distilled white vinegar, let it sit for a few minutes, then run under cool water to remove the vinegar. If the board is cracked or has deep grooves from cutting — a perfect hiding place for germs — it’s time for a new one.
Unless you’re a fastidious pot and pan washer, there’s a good chance your baking sheets have burned corners (from oil residue) and brown sides and rims. Either give them a good scrubbing with a mild abrasive cleanser or replace them, especially if they’re warped and make that uneasy popping sound in a hot oven.
Vacuum or wipe out crumbs and debris from kitchen drawers. Clean or replace old shelf paper. Wipe countertops with mild dishwashing soap or a natural kitchen cleaner. (Remember: no strong chemicals where food is present). Rid the toaster or toaster oven of all its crumbs.
If you discover any tiny pantry pests (weevils, beetles, or moths), get rid of all infested foods, including nearby unopened packages of flours and grains. Wipe down the shelves with a multi-purpose cleaner. If it’s an ongoing problem, store staples in air-tight hard plastic or glass containers.
Get on a ladder (carefully) and use a damp rag to wipe away dust and spider webs from the tops of cabinets. Are those dead bugs in your light fixtures? Time to give the fixtures a thorough cleaning. Wipe down windowsills, windows, switch plates, handles, and knobs. Give wood cabinet doors a little love with a cabinet cream or oil.
For the oven and other major appliances, follow the cleaning instructions in the owner’s manual or check out various online remedies. Speaking of owner’s manuals, keep them in one handy place so you can refer to them. For the (possibly) smelly sink garbage disposal, scrub the underside of the rubber splash guard, then grind a few lemon wedges with cold running water.
Finally, the floor: Sweep or vacuum, lightly scrub any dirty areas, then mop the floor with a good, safe (especially if you have kids or pets) floor cleaner.
Once the room is sparkly clean, it’s time to put everything back in a logical place. Check out The Container Store or similar retailers for solutions to every storage problem. Try tiered shelves, cabinet door-mounted spice racks, turntables, and all sizes of bins for stashing supplies. Drawer organizers will prevent a tangled mess of bag ties, rubber bands, pens, scissors, and utensils. Store less frequently used items on higher shelves and seasonal things in another room or closet.
When you return foods to your newly clean refrigerator, keep regularly used condiments, sauces, and jams in the door compartments so they’re easily accessible. Place infrequently used items in the back and leftovers and more perishable foods in front so you don’t forget about them. Check out what’s lurking in the back of your freezer; it might yield some pleasant surprises. But toss any really old stuff.
One of the most useful annual chores, and which will make your food taste better, is to freshen up your spice pantry. While buying spices and dried herbs in bulk may save you a few dollars, you probably won’t use them up before they grow stale. Claire Cheney, owner of Curio Spice Co. in Cambridge, advises buying ground spices in small quantities to use within six months, 12 at the longest. Dried herbs lose their natural oils even more quickly, she says. Whole spices, such as cumin and fennel seed, peppercorns, nutmeg, and cloves, last longer (up to two to three years) and are best ground as needed.
Spices, like oils, are best stored in a dark, cool place, away from sunlight and heat. Every few months, take a whiff: if there’s no scent or it smells dull or musty, toss it. If there’s still a bit of aroma, use up spices in a homemade blend, perfect for summer grilling, says Cheney. You can also mix spices with oil and crushed fresh garlic or ginger to make rubs and pastes.
Final organizing tip: Learn to love labels. Note both the contents and purchased/cooked/baked/expiration date of foods, especially anything destined for the freezer. Frozen blobs all look the same after a few months.
In just a few days, your kitchen will be clean and organized and extra space will magically appear. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.