Making your kitchen more efficient isn’t that different from hacking your workday—decide what you actually do, and trim the resistance to doing it. Here’s how you can upgrade your kitchen with a pen, a few hours, and fairly cheap upgrades.
To be honest, the heart of my own kitchen’s recent reboot was not cheap—it was a total gut and remodel, with contractors and drywall and all that fun stuff. Putting the root-level changes aside, it was also a chance to empty out our cabinets and drawers, pack up all the dry goods and spices, and rethink where we wanted everything to go. You can do this, too: piece by piece, or, you know, you can jam it all into four hours of French-press-fueled mania on a Saturday night, as shown in the clip above. Your call.
Armed with a copy of Cooking for Geeks (specifically its chapter on “Organize Your Kitchen Like a Programmer”) and a bunch of advice from foodie friends and design blogs, here’s how I was able to improve by moving things around, buying cheap after-market upgrades, or scribbling with a dry-erase pen.
Issue One: Everything Is Just Kind of Everywhere
I know what you mean. Looking back at how our original kitchen was packed, the methodology could be “It Fits Here, So It Goes Here.” Most of us are so understandably anxious to move into a new kitchen, we don’t take time to think about how the small inconveniences—walking over to find a pan, searching for a spice, digging through a junk drawer—add up to steal time and make your cooking space feel less comfortable.
Start with a list—a really simple list. Walk through a week of cooking and living in your kitchen in your head. What do you actually cook? What gear do you cook it with? What spices and ingredients typically go into your meals? Don’t go through your ideal week, where you’re making interesting magazine recipes and eating healthy whole grains every morning. Go through your actual week, with leftovers, takeout surrenders, and lazy weekend mornings included.
Walking through my own week, I realized that my wife and I have a stock American view of weekday meals: protein, starch vegetable. Most of those meals are made on the stovetop or with minimal ovenware. Wilted greens or steamed vegetables, rice or baked potatoes, broiled fish or stir-fried chicken. Some weeks we eat healthier, some weeks we indulge in 14-ingredient roasts, but pans and boiling water are the mainstays. Our recipes generally use olive oil, salt, pepper, maybe some vinegar, and occasionally some fresh or dried spices, but we save the allspice and 18-year balsamic vinegar for the meals where we’re impressing guests, and have lots more time to dig and reach.
When we’re not making dinners or basic breakfasts, we’re making coffee or tea. Lots of it. Beyond that, we’re occasionally baking food, or baking cookies or other goods, and occasionally using gadgets like a food processor or mandoline slicer. I roughly drew out my kitchen divided into sections, with the most-used things as close as possible to the stove and sink, no bending or reaching required.
Standard kitchen designs aren’t always the best for efficiency and space conservation. If you can, hang your pots and pans. It not only makes it easy to grab them and always put them back in the same place, but frees up an entire cabinet. Julia Child hung her own pots and pans from a pegboard—which, if you don’t believe it, you can see in the Smithsonian. Similarly, see if you can move your spices from the cabinet that’s usually right near the stove into a drawer—more on this a bit further on.
Cooking for Geeks suggests a simple, revolutionary idea: “Storing your everyday kitchen tools near the food items with which they are most commonly used.” Combined with the basic outline I’d made above, that freed me to do great things. I put the French press pot and coffee grinder on the same shelf as the coffee beans, and gave them all an entire shelf, right next to the fridge that held the other components: water and cream. I hung a spare set of measuring spoons next to the spices, and a set of measuring cups near the bulk goods. The can opener went in the drawer closest to our cans, the oven mitts as close as possible to the oven—you get the idea. It looks simple, written out, but look at your own kitchen—is it organized by function, or groups of semi-similar stuff?
Issue Two: The Spice Paradox
You want your spices easily accessible, but also, you don’t. That is, you want them convenient to find and pull out, but you also want them kept dark and cool, and so away from the stove.
Cooking for Geeks suggests holding your spices in a drawer instead of a cabinet. This is where buying your own spice jars pays off. You can label the tops of your jars, then arrange them in whatever system (alphabetical, cuisine, regularity of use) you’d like. If your cabinet seems just a shade too short, look to see if you can modify it to fit. Geeks author Jeff Potter managed to shave 1.5 inches off his own drawer by removing a nonstructural slat from the front. Image via flit.
In my kitchen, that tactic wouldn’t fly, as the drawers are just too narrow, or deep, to make decent spice stores. So I had to use a cabinet that was just far enough from the stove, but I still improved my situation. I grabbed two of these two-tier chrome shelves for $5 each, and they fit my cabinet perfectly. Label your jars so that the spice name is higher up, and you’ll be able to see everything at once, without needing to knock over five jars only to not find the nutmeg in the back.
While you’re getting your tiny jars back onto the shelves, check their expiration dates, and be ruthless in tossing anything that’s a good bit beyond its prime. Spices get notably dull with time and exposure, and dull spices create dull food.
Issue Three: Lids—Awful, Awful Lids
Lids feel like the third wheel in my loving relationship with my pots and pans. Sure, they’re occasionally useful, but they’re annoying to store, being neither perfectly flat nor easily stacked.
We’ve previously suggested two repurposing tricks that our commenters are fans of: the curtain rod as lid-handle holder, and a versatile vertical file holder. I may end up going with the curtain rods. A $5.99 vertical organizer I tried out is going right back to Bed Bath & Beyond, as it both can’t hold larger lids without tilting, and holds them too high to close even my tallest drawer. A cheaper incline file sorter from an office supply store fared no better. If I was in the spending mood, a pull-out cookware organizer might do the trick, but after a kitchen remodel, I am not in that mood. (If you’ve got a great way to stash your lids, by all means—share it in the comments.)
Issue Four: Junk Drawers
Lifehacker reader Lionel Felix offers this advice for a no-nonsense kitchen clean-out: you have to be ruthless. Admit that you made mistakes in your previous purchases, and admit that a drawer with just a few useful items is far handier than a stuffed drawer that barely opens. Above is what my drawers to the left of my stove looked like, prior to my four-hour binge.
Standard cutlery trays are usually cheap and plastic, and if you’re renting, they might not look right in your next kitchen. But go with wood or metal, and make sure it’s expandable, and a tray like this lets you compartmentalize your not-quite-essential gear—pizza wheels, pastry brushes, tongs, and the like. The expanding nature fits both narrow tools and wider items. If you still can’t fit everything in and close your drawer, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth re-arranging everything to fit that one extra-long whisk, or if it might go up on a top shelf.
Issue Five: In-Between Items
There’s stuff you probably use once or twice a year: electric turkey carvers, gigantic salad bowls, outdoor ice buckets. Then there are the items you bring out occasionally, but not often. They want space, but you need as much close-at-hand space for the stuff you cook with.
So spend a bit of time finding the best deal you can on a step stool. Read reviews, make sure it’s sturdy, buy one a bit taller than you’d normally have, and make sure it doesn’t look too bad folded up inside or just outside your kitchen. Then place your in-between items on the top shelves of your cabinets—or on top of the cabinets, if you’re just plain out of room. It seems like the opposite of efficiency, but the twice-a-year, 10-foot lugging of a step stool is going to be far less painful than having a turkey roasting pan fall on you while you’re rooting around, looking for that thing you actually do use on occasion. If you lack for top shelves or tops-of-cabinets, put the stuff in your basement, spare closets—just somewhere else. Be terribly honest with yourself about what you cook in the time you have, and you’ll get to cook more in that time.
Issue Six: Groceries Get Lost in Cabinets
It’s true—when I was re-stocking my shelves, I was amazed at the three kinds of wild rice, five flavors of cocoa mix, and nigh innumerable volumes of various sugars we’d somehow socked away. No matter how much cabinet space you have, stuff always ends up behind other stuff. You might even cook that stuff, if only you could find it.
One solution I’m liking is half-inspired by Cooking for Geeks, half-inspired by my wife’s love of marking up paper. Post-It (and many other brands) make “Page Markers”, intended for sticking into books and removing without damage. The efficiency is that they’re only partially sticky. So buy yourself some uniform storage containers—glass preferably, with airtight lids—and use these notes for easy stick-on, tear-off labeling of all the weird stuff you pick up from recipes and buy on a whim.
Honestly? My kitchen isn’t done with a capital D. I’m still figuring out a few odds and ends, and I am entirely open to ideas.
What’s the big time-sucker and groan-inducer in your kitchen? What’s the best piece of cheap gear, or clever fix, you’ve seen in a cooking space? Share the links and war stories in the comments.
Send an email to Kevin Purdy, the author of this post, at email@example.com.