How To Organize Your Kitchen

How To Organize Your Kitchen

I love cooking, but there are two things about it I don’t like one bit—cleaning, and clutter. Actually, I just don’t like cleaning stuff. Fortunately, I have a tacit arrangement with my partner which means I get to cook all I like and he does 99.9% of the dishes and cleaning. It’s truly dreamy. But if you’re not similarly blessed in the domestic bliss department, cooking can become a real chore.

I’ve lived in wall tents with sparsely stocked camp kitchens that were easier to cook in than the most well-stocked designer kitchens. Why? Because they were laid out to keep the stuff you needed as close to where you needed it as possible, and they streamlined the cleaning up process. Whether or not your kitchen is overflowing with rarely used specialty baking pans, single use gadgets, and spices you bought three years ago to make just one recipe, keeping things streamlined and organized will make cooking feel like less of a chore. 

So let’s start with the basics. The stuff in your kitchen generally falls into two different categories - things you use to make food, and the food (raw ingredients) itself. For today we’re going to leave the food out of it. How to stock and organize your refrigerator, freezer, pantry and spices are topics worth tackling, but they really deserve their own posts.

Step one is to empty out all your cupboards, drawers, and wherever else you might be hiding things. Place everything out on the counters where you can see them. I had to use a folding table as well because there was so much stuff in our kitchen. As you’re taking things out, immediately triage anything that is broken, redundant, or you haven’t used in several years. Yes, this is basically the “Marie Kondo” phase of organizing your kitchen but instead of asking “does it bring me joy?” you’re going to ask “does it make cooking easier?” which if you’re me are basically the same thing.

When I did this, I immediately decided to get rid of a garlic press the moment I unearthed it from my gadget drawer. Why? Because I actually love chopping garlic by hand, and I hate cleaning the garlic press, so I never use it. Maybe you’re like my friend Maggie and you hate chopping garlic so much that you buy the premade garlic paste at the store. If that’s the case, you do you. Buy the garlic paste, keep the garlic press, whatever makes cooking easier and more enjoyable.

By the end of this process, you’ll probably have a pretty sizable pile of broken/obsolete/unused items. Consider donating or giving away anything that’s in good condition - the previously mentioned offending garlic press came from my mother because she never used it either. Apparently I get my love of chopping garlic from her? But if it’s broken and sub-functional to the point that you want to throw it across the room every time you try to use it, throw it out.

This is also the time to do a deep clean of all those nooks and crannies you don’t normally clean because they’re filled with stuff!

Now you should just be left with the things you actually use. How to arrange these will depend both on personal preference, and the layout of your kitchen. My “prep station” (the nifty butcher board countertop my partner built when I moved in to accommodate all my cooking escapades and where I do 90% of food prep) is actually a full three paces away from my rangetop, which means I need to store the things I use to prep and the things I use to cook in two entirely different places. I used to often walk three paces back over to the rangetop to grab a spatula from the utensil crock whenever I needed to scrape a bowl batter into a cake pan. Now I have two utensil crocks - one at my rangetop with the utensils I use most often to stir and flip while cooking, and one at my prep station with my whisks, spatulas, and mashers.

If you have a smaller, or more intelligently laid out kitchen, your prep station and cooking area will be closer to together and you may not need to separate the two. Whatever your layout, your job at this stage is to think about what you use and where you use it. It’s helpful to think about this in zones. I organized our kitchen using the following zones, but yours might look different:

  • Zone 1: Everyday Serveware - plates, cups, bowls, and silverware all designed to be used on the regular are all in the cupboards closest to the sink and dishwasher, and within easy reach of the rangetop. This makes both serving up and cleaning up that much easier.
  • Zone 2: Food Prep and Storage - for me, this zone is distinct from where I do my cooking. My knives, cutting boards, measuring cups, prep bowls, immersion blender and food processor, scale, spatulas, whisks, and gadgets all live here. I also like to keep my food storage containers, wraps, and bags close to my food prep station so I can easily grab something in which to store the ingredients I invariably chop too much of.
  • Zone 3: Cooking - as previously mentioned, I have an impractical 3 paces in between my food prep area and my rangetop, and I’m not willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a kitchen remodel to change that. Within easy reach of my rangetop I keep my heat-proof turners and spatulas, pot holders, and pots and pans. Pro tip - you know how recipes always say to add “salt and pepper” to taste? Keep a small dish of salt and a pepper grinder next to your rangetop for just this purpose so you’re not trekking back over to your spice cupboard or wherever you normally store these things just to adjust your seasoning.
  • Zone 4: Pantry - again, this deserves its own post, but my pantry is actually divided into two different locations. Like the distance between the range and prep area I could fix that if I wanted to drop a couple of g’s on a kitchen remodel, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. Closet to my food prep area I keep the things I reach for most often (my large collection of oils and vinegars, baking ingredients, and spices. In the proper pantry, several paces away, I keep the ingredients I use left often.
  • Zone 5: Breakfast, Coffee, and Tea - I’m a morning person, but there’s still something incredibly annoying about having to open up three or four different cupboards when I’m barely awake in order to make my breakfast and tea. I keep my oatmeal, chia seeds, almonds and raisins in the same cupboard as my loose leaf teas, which is right next the cupboard where I store my tea infuser, mugs and bowls. Joe’s whole coffee beans, grinder and Bialetti stove top coffee maker also live in this little corner of our kitchen.

After creating your zones, try to keep the items you use the most at eye level, and out from behind closed doors. Lots of things that often live in drawers, like measuring cups, are actually a lot more practical to store on hooks right in front of where you’ll use them. We hang our heavy duty cast iron pans on our wall because a) it looks coo, duh, and b) they take up a ton of shelf space when they’re sitting flat.

Once you’re organized, the truth is it’s probably not going to stay that way. Especially if you share your kitchen with a well meaning and lovable dishwashing partner who doesn’t understand your organizational system, or a less lovable roommate who just doesn’t care. It’s worth doing a spot check once a month to keep items from drifting, and to ask yourself “have I really used that thing?”

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