If yesterday’s post about kitchen renovations left you feeling like you’ll be stuck with the same dysfunctional kitchen forever and ever and ever, amen…today’s post is for you.
The truth is, you don’t have to knock down walls and buy new cabinets to make your kitchen more functional. You might need to do that to make it prettier, but pretty is a nice secondary. The most important thing about a kitchen is that it works. And almost any kitchen can be made to work better. Not necessarily well…but better.
That’s a lesson I’ve learned in every home I’ve lived in as an adult, none of which has boasted anything close to a dream kitchen from the start. This Hawthorne House Renovation is the first time a real, genuine kitchen renovation has been in the cards for me, so for 20 years before that, my cooking, hosting, large-crowd loving self had to figure out how to make the best of what had been handed to me. And what had been handed was never good.
Here’s what I learned.
1.) Clean out your cupboards.
Most of our cupboards are filled with kitchen gadgets and gizmos that we rarely use. The crockpot that gets pulled out every few months? The blender you haven’t used since your smoothie kick last summer? The Asian soup bowls you got as a wedding gift but haven’t used once in five years? When your kitchen is tight on space, none of those things need to be taking up valuable real estate. So, if you don’t use a certain item at least monthly (or even weekly in a really tight space), send it to the basement or the garage. If it’s still in the box it came in five years ago, to the Goodwill it must go. The idea that you might use it “one of these days” is not enough to justify keeping it in your already not working well kitchen.
Think about doing the same for items you use more often. Rice cookers are great…but is it really worth the space it’s taking up on your counter or in your cupboard when a regular old pot works just as well? Likewise, you don’t really need a food processor and a blender if space is limited. And while AeroPresses, Chemexs, and Espresso Machines are all awesome, is having one of each really necessary? Assess all the “extras” in your kitchen and try to part with at least half of them. You’ll be surprised at how much you really don’t need…and how much those basic pots and pans can do when you give them the chance.
2.) Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
I’m not talking about garbage here. I’m talking about your most used kitchen items: glasses, mugs, plates, and bowls. It may seem better to keep lots and lots of those on hand, using new ones with each meal, but especially if you don’t have a dishwasher, it’s really not. You aren’t saving yourself any work; you wash the same amount of dishes whether you wash the same plate after every meal or a new plate after every meal. But you are creating the conditions for dishes to pile up on your counter and sink, while at the same time taking up more of that valuable cupboard real estate.
If you have plenty of room for a full set of dishes (or more), that’s ideal. If you have a dishwasher to wash those dishes, even better. Keep things as they are. But, if you are tight on space and overwhelmed by the constant pile of dishes in the sink, maybe aim for one plate, one bowl, one cup, one mug, one wine glass, and one set of silverware for every person who lives in your house (and make everyone older than 7 wash their own). Throw in a couple extra for surprise guests. The rest can be stored in the basement or garage with that blender, and pulled out when company comes (although paper plates work for that, too).
3.) Organize by task.
If possible, organize all your kitchen items that perform similar tasks together and store them as close as possible to where that task is performed. So, keep plates, bowls, silverware and glasses near the sink or dishwasher. Put your knives, mixing bowls, and peelers where you do your prep work. Have pots, pans, and baking dishes near the stove. Keep Tupperware, saran wrap, and foil close to each other, too.
I know this is perfect world stuff. You can’t always have four separate storage areas near where four separate tasks are performed. But don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Figure out how many task-centered zones you can create and then pick the ones (or one) that are most important to you. In my old kitchen, I had to choose between keeping my prep stuff near where I chopped and mixed or my dishes near where they got washed (because that was the same place and there was only room for one set of stuff). I chose to create a prep zone and put the dishes further away. That worked well for me. It wasn’t ideal, but it made the kitchen more functional for the primary work I did in it.
4.) Clean off the countertops.
No matter how much countertop space you have, it’s never enough. I know. I went from having 15 square feet to almost 60, and I still use every bit of it when cooking for anyone besides Chris and me. But, in the old house kitchen, I made that 15 square feet work by not keeping hardly anything on it. The microwave and toaster oven went in a cabinet. The coffee pot went on a tiny free standing table I squeezed into one corner. I put spices in a drawer near the stove, and left only knives and a few other essentials on the counter. Today, even with 60 feet of counter space, I still keep my countertops as clear as possible. Far more than subway tile and beautiful light fixtures, this is what makes my kitchen work.
5.) Use your walls.
To free up cupboard and counter space, look for ways you can put your walls (and ceilings) to work. Pot racks—hung on walls, ceilings or in front of windows—get pots and pans out of your cupboards, freeing up needed space. Ikea has also has wonderful options for storing knives, utensils, oils, and all sorts of other kitchen necessities in your kitchen’s vertical spaces, including underneath upper cabinets. Extra large cutting boards can be propped up on walls, then dropped over your sink to give you a couple extra feet of counter space. Then, there’s the Pottery Barn Daily System. I’ve been using it in my offices and kitchens for years, and it’s a great way to organize papers, magazines, charging cords, plugs, pens, and other odds and ends that clutter up your kitchen work space.
6.) Bring in free-standing furniture.
If you have even a couple feet of empty wall space, consider importing some furniture into your cooking space. A small table can become a coffee station. An armoire can hold dishes or small appliances. A bookshelf can make a great pantry. If you already have brought some additional storage into the kitchen, reassess it. Is there something else that could hold more (or hold it more effectively) in the same amount of space? Or is there a different way you could use what you already have?
In my old 1915 kitchen, a vintage Hoosier Cabinet did quadruple duty for me, holding the microwave, toaster oven, and coffee mugs, as well as giving me a bit of extra prep space when needed. I also squeezed in a little 18” table that held my coffee pot and cookbooks, keeping them all off my precious counters. In the kitchen before that, we bought a large baker’s rack from Ikea to compensate for the extreme lack of both cupboards and counter space in our 1920s rental. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked well with our grad school budgets. And it helped.
7.) Organize your food storage area.
When I first saw people decanting rice, cereal, and Goldfish into clear jars, I thought they were nuts. Why make all that extra work for yourself? But I’ve come to see the wisdom of it. When you can see exactly how much oatmeal or rice or polenta you have on hand, making out your weekly grocery list is a heck of a lot easier. And when you have specific baskets, bins, or trays dedicated to canned goods, pastas, cookies, and crackers, it makes finding those items faster when you need them. It also makes putting groceries away easier for everyone in the house who is not you. Most important, it saves you space. You can stack things higher and tighter. You can use the full depth of whatever pantry you’ve got. And the neater everything stays, the more room there is.
Importantly, you don’t have to run out to the Container Store, and spend a fortune to bring a little organization to your pantry. The Dollar Store has tons of options. So does HomeGoods or Walmart. For our pantry, I mostly shopped my house, gathering up baskets from various closets, and then spent $48 at HomeGoods on the containers. I lived for 18 months with this pantry unorganized. It was a constant source of frustration, even in this otherwise functional kitchen. It’s been looking like this, however, for about 6 weeks now, and it is finally functioning as well as the rest of my kitchen.
8.) Change up your appliances.
Okay…you might not be able to do this today, and it will cost a bit of $$$. But, if you can make a few appliance purchases, it might be enough to tide you over until you move or renovate. For example, your range. In recent years, appliance manufacturers have realized how to make better use of the 30” most of us have allotted for our ranges. They’ve added fifth burners, griddles, and double ovens, allowing people to do more with the space they’ve got. I bought a GE Cafe double oven four years ago, and am as in love with it today, as I was then. I love it so much, in fact, that I brought it with me from the old house. Being able to cook multiple dishes, at different temperatures, all at the same time is fantastic. So is having the space to cook more for a crowd. Double oven ranges start at about $800. It’s not cheap, but it’s cheaper than knocking out a wall.
If you live in an older home and have a gigantic fridge jutting out from wall and blocking traffic, you also might consider swapping it out for a smaller, more European-style fridge that takes up less kitchen real estate. You don’t have to give up the big fridge—it can go to the basement, mudroom, or garage. Then milk, eggs, and items you need today can stay in the small fridge, and items for the rest of the week can go in the big fridge. You also could just get the fridge out of the kitchen altogether, if you have a mudroom or space right off the kitchen that can accommodate it. I did all three in our old kitchen—bought a smaller fridge, kept it the small mudroom off the kitchen, and moved the big fridge to the basement. It made a huge difference in that small 1915 kitchen.
Last word on appliances: dish washers. You might not have space for a full-sized dishwasher, but what about an 18” dishwasher? That’s what I installed at the old house, and it more than suited my needs…even when I had families of 8 staying with me. It’s not everything, but it’s something. And something is often what helps you hold on to the last shred of your sanity in a poorly designed kitchen.
It’s true: None of these things are going to expand the size of your kitchen, improve your lighting situation, or prevent cabinet doors from falling off their hinges. But, a tightly edited, carefully organized kitchen can make up for a lot of design faults and carry you through to the day when you do get to take a sledgehammer to your kitchen walls…or even forestall that day altogether. Beautiful kitchens are nice. Functional kitchens are even better. But as long as people in your kitchen feel welcomed, listened to, and loved, you’re doing what you need to do.