Tips for a Tiny Kitchen

I saw this article on how to make the most of a small kitchen–with over 200 helpful comments!–and realized I have learned some things about this in my years of making do with smallish kitchens.  The 3 places we’ve lived in the past 15 years all had kitchens under 100 square feet, but we were able to prepare full meals from scratch (and even the occasional elaborate baking project!) in all of them, and we’ve always figured out ways to store the food we stockpile when it’s on sale.

Here are some ideas that have worked for us in at least one kitchen:

  • Have the main pantry area somewhere else.  For one house, we bought wire shelves that hung from brackets over the door, and put them on the door to the basement steps, creating a pantry next to our refrigerator.  (We also stored some bigger packages of food in the enclosed back porch, but that didn’t work out so well!  It’s important to maintain a pantry so you know what you have and will notice if it explodes.)  In another house, the 8’x9′ kitchen had 3 doors–to the dining room, basement steps, and hallway–but since the dining room also connected to the hallway, we didn’t need both doors; we placed a bookcase in the doorway that led to the hall and used that as our pantry.  (We completely covered the back of the bookcase with cartoons clipped from Funny Times, creating a gallery to enliven our long, boring hall!)  In our current house, we set up a tall metal shelving unit at the foot of the stairs in the basement.  Yes, we have to walk across the dining room and down the stairs just to get a can of beans.  That’s how we stay so slim!  Even in an apartment with no basement, you can find places to stash your pantry stuff–check out Whole Natural Life’s tips for food storage in small spaces.
  • Have only one dining table, and be willing to use it for food prep.  Don’t waste kitchen space on a table if you have a dining room–or, if your dining room is carpeted and your family is too messy to eat over carpet, have the dining table in the kitchen and use the “dining room” for something else.  Wherever your table is, consider using it for big projects (like frosting cookies) that are difficult to fit into your counter space.
  • Clean as you go.  Put away things as soon as you’re done using them to reduce clutter on the counter.  If they need washing, stash them in the sink or dishwasher immediately after use.  Wash mixing bowls, food processor, or other bulky tools as soon as the food is in a passive cooking stage, and get that stuff into the dish-drainer, at least, so it’s not cluttering the sink or counter.  Put ingredients that you use frequently in complex recipes (like spices and baking stuff) in a cabinet that you can have open while working on the counter directly below it, so that you can put away each ingredient immediately after use without walking around or having an open door in your way.
  • Only things you use almost daily should be kept on the counter.  For us, the toaster-oven is in this category, but the food processor is not, so the food processor lives in a drawer and is brought out onto the counter only when we’re using it.  As soon as we’re done with it, even before its blades and bowl have been washed, the machine base itself gets wiped clean and put back into the drawer–no reason it should hog a square foot of our scarce counter space!
  • Stash stuff on top of countertop appliances.  Because the toaster is on the counter–at the back, where it takes up approximately half the vertical space under the cabinet–the space in front of it is just barely big enough for the cutting board.  So, when I’m chopping several ingredients before I start cooking, I transfer one ingredient to a bowl and stick it on top of the toaster, freeing the cutting board for something else.  I’ve also been known to place an open cookbook on top of the toaster–and I was really glad it was up there that time I spilled milk all over the counter!
  • Fill the top of the refrigerator.  Put things you want to grab routinely along the outside edge(s), and use the middle for less-used things like big bowls and pans (stored upside down to prevent food surfaces from gathering dust).  I learned just how much you can fit up there when I lived in a dorm room with no kitchen or closet, with a wardrobe cabinet the size of a typical refrigerator; I had my out-of-season clothes in a cardboard box (almost tall enough to touch the ceiling) in the middle back, and all around it were smaller boxes with the flaps cut off turned on their sides to make shelves, with my heavier kitchen stuff inside them and lighter stuff standing on top of them.  I’d just hop onto the bed or desk chair to reach things!
  • Put a cutting board across an open top drawer or over the sink to make more “counter” space.  Make sure your drawer is very sturdy if you want to cut on the board or place heavy things on it.
  • An old medicine cabinet makes a good spice rack.  This style is particularly space-saving!  The one we had was the style that normally would hang under a mirror (I can’t find a good picture)– one wide shelf, about six inches deep and high, with sliding doors.  We hung it above the stove.  It was the perfect size for spice jars and held lots of them, conveniently reachable from the stove yet protected from grease, steam, and dust.
  • Subdivide your shelves.  Where you are storing things that aren’t as tall as the space, buy or make some shelves that stand on legs so that you can put some things under them and others on top.
  • Suction cup hooks.  If you have glossy tile walls, or even very-high-gloss painted walls, you can stick these anywhere you want to hang up a lightweight item.  They also work on smooth refrigerators.  (Don’t put them on the oven door, though; they’ll melt!)  We use these to hang our dishcloth, dish towels, hand towel, bottle brush, and aprons.
  • Make use of any weird alcoves.  For example, our current kitchen has a space about 10″ wide between one side of the refrigerator and the wall.  That’s where we keep our table leaves and our stash of disposable bags for reuse.  (I don’t understand where those bags come from!  We use cloth tote bags nearly every time we go to the store, and we use or give away excess plastic and paper bags at every opportunity, yet somehow we always have a huge supply!)  Check out the photos of a weird gap used to store baking pans, concealed by an attractive curtain, in this article on storage in a small house.
  • Knife rack behind the stove.  This was an idea that crossed my desk when I worked at an invention marketing company.  The inventor said he had been manufacturing his design on a small scale.  Although I was not supposed to contact inventors myself, I copied his phone number from his file, called him from home, and arranged to mail him a check and have him mail me the knife rack.  It was great!!!  It made an unused space useful, and it got the knives off the counter into a place where nobody would bump into them accidentally.  We moved it from one house to the next, but in our current house the stove stands against the fire wall (between row houses) which is impossible to drill, so we left the knife rack behind.  Searching online, I couldn’t find that invention or any other behind-the-stove knife rack for home use–it seems the idea has caught on only for RVs!–but it seems that some magnetic knife racks can be mounted there.  The one we had was not magnetic; it was a long plastic rectangle with a slot to place the knife blades in and some holes to screw it onto the wall.
  • Give a guest a chair.  When someone who isn’t helping you cook is in the kitchen talking to you, he tends to get in your way.  You charge toward the sink with a pot full of pasta, and he leaps out of the way and leans against the fridge, and two seconds later you need to open the fridge so he has to move again.  It’s annoying for both of you.  Instead, place a chair or stool in the one spot that is not in the way (in most small kitchens, this will be in the doorway or actually slightly outside the room) and tell the guest to sit there.

We’d been managing so well in small kitchens that, by the time we were shopping to buy a house, we weren’t looking for a big kitchen so much as a well-designed one.  Here are my tips for finding a useful kitchen in your next home, or designing a new or renovated kitchen:

  • Square is better than rectangular.  The same square footage is more useful and roomy-feeling in a kitchen that’s at least 8 feet wide in each direction because it can have appliances, counters, or storage on two facing walls with space to walk between, instead of a tight hallway-like configuration.
  • Think about the “work triangle.”  Mentally draw lines connecting the sink, stove, and refrigerator.  How far would you have to walk while cooking, and is anything in the way?
  • Cabinets should go all the way up to the ceiling.  I’ve never understood why anyone builds a false wall boxing in all that great space above the cabinets!  Put another row of cabinets up there, or at least leave it open so the space can be used!  (This is one of the few things I dislike about our current kitchen.)
  • Drawers, not cabinets, under the counter.  You can pull a drawer all the way out and easily get things from the back, instead of crawling halfway into the bottom cabinet and scraping your spine on the door opening and finding out that whatever is in the very back invariably includes spiders.  (I suppose that in my current kitchen, which has only drawers on the bottom, the spiders are behind the drawers in that space I can’t see or reach.  So what?  They’re not bothering anyone!)
  • Window above the sink.  You need the headroom anyway, and it’s nice to have a view while washing dishes, and you can keep the dish detergent on the window sill where it’s not always standing in a puddle, and you don’t lose cabinet space in another part of the room.  (When installing a new sink against an exterior wall, make sure the pipes are protected from freezing!)
  • Avoid cabinets that go around a corner.  That space inside the corner is only useful if it has a lazy Susan (and those aren’t so great unless you manage to fill them only with things that can’t possibly fall off and get jammed in the very back!) or big pull-out bins for flour and potatoes (and you actually keep large quantities of things like that).  Usually you’re better off with cabinets that run along one wall into the corner, a gap in front of them large enough to open the doors or drawers, and then another appliance or counter against the other wall.
  • Are the electrical outlets in the right places?  They should be very close to the places where your everyday small appliances will be most usefully located, because most of those appliances have fiendishly short cords, and having an extension cord across the counter is annoying and dangerous.
  • Steel cabinets!  I’ve already raved about how great they are.
  • Glossy tile on the walls.  Great for suction-cup hooks, and it’s easy to clean, too!

Those are some things that make a small kitchen work for me!

UPDATE: Here’s Danielle’s list of small kitchen hints, with many ideas I hadn’t thought of.

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

13 Responses to Tips for a Tiny Kitchen

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  2. What a great list of tips! We have had so many small-ish kitchens. Your list has some great ideas for me to remember. Especially having a guest sit somewhere to the side.

    I also like your list of considerations for what to look for in a kitchen. We will be moving in September, and the kitchen is almost always my priority. Thanks for the tips!

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  12. My grandmother’s house had a small square kitchen with the stove on the left wall, the refrigerator on the right wall, and everything else in between. But it didn’t have a pantry. My grandfather build shelves under the steps to the basement and she kept the most used food in the lazy susan corner cabinet or one of the upper cabinets. It never occurred to me that it was a hassle to not have a pantry until I had homes of my own without them!

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