Organizing Your Kitchen

With Christmas busyness behind, the yard in winter dormancy, and tax season still far enough ahead not to be urgent, it’s that time of year when thoughts turn to home organization. Our God is not a God of confusion and disorder, but a God of peace (1 Cor. 14:33). Order brings peace to our minds and families, and order or disorder in the kitchen has more impact on a family than in any other area of the home. The kitchen is often called the heart of the home and for good reason.  It is often where the most members of a family spend the most of their waking hours and have the most interaction. Organizing the heart of the home takes brain power!

If your home is anything like mine, your kitchen is a high-traffic area.  The side door to my house, from my driveway, opens to the dining room and you have to go from there through the kitchen to get to the rest of house. On the opposite end of the kitchen is the door to the stairs that lead to the basement.  If you are facing that door, the back door to the deck is to your left and the entrance to the living room is on your right.  You can’t get anywhere in my house without going through the kitchen.  Not the best design feature, it presents an organizational challenge. At least when I am busy in the kitchen, no one can come or go without having to get past me!

Regardless whether your kitchen is this centrally located, whether it usually accommodates a small crowd or you are usually cooking in blessed solitude, certain principles will help you maximize this premium space in your home.  The first step is just to recognize that your kitchen is your home’s prime real estate.  Unless you have one of those million-dollar homes with vast expanses of countertops and multiple pantries, everything that takes up residence in your kitchen should have to qualify to be there, either on account of beauty or function, or both.

The second step is to realize that that the first step is an ideal that might not fully work in practice.  For example, the upper and lower cabinets in my kitchen that are closest to the door to the deck, contain almost nothing kitchen-related.  These cabinets contain insecticides, herbicides, fertilizer compounds, kitchen sprayers, flashlights and other things that belong in a garage (except we don’t have a garage) or a utility room (except that we turned that into our home office) or a basement.  We do have one of those, but it did not take many months of experience in this house to demonstrate that no one — no matter how well-intentioned –was going to consistently walk these noxious things downstairs and back up, day after busy summer day in the garden. Instead they were going to end up in a collection on the kitchen counter near the back door — not a good thing!  The solution was to provide a safe, confined, designated area in which to store them right at the point where they went in and out of the house on a regular basis. (Besides, a man who turns his utility room into his wife’s home office does not deserve to be nagged about insecticide on the kitchen counter!) Someday, we may have a garage and that stuff will be out of my kitchen before the paint is dry on it, believe me.

This brings up the third point.  In order to organize your kitchen, you need to deal realistically with how the space is actually used.  Let’s say you have a desk in your kitchen, but you never use it as a desk.  Is that because it is so piled with stuff that you don’t have a clear surface to write on, or is it because there is some other spot that you prefer to sit at and write?  If you really want to use it as a desk, if it is comfortable and there is good lighting, then you need to organize it for that purpose.  But if it just happened to come with your house and you prefer to write, pay bills, read cookbooks and meal plan at another location, then stop thinking of that thing as a desk and think about what other use it could have. Maybe the surface is just the right height for storing baking supplies and using your mixer. Or perhaps it can become the dock for your coffee pot and toaster, with mugs or even bread stored in the drawers.

Organizing, then, has a lot to do with observing yourself at work.  Try to catch yourself walking across your kitchen to get something and ask yourself why you are doing that.  Why isn’t the item you are fetching right by where you are doing the task you are using it for?  One of the most common mistakes people make in organizing a kitchen is jumbling the tools for various kinds of tasks so that there is no designated area for the tasks and no logical storage for the tools to get it done.

The tasks in your kitchen fall into several main categories, food prep, cooking and baking.  They are very different tasks, requiring different equipment and your kitchen should be organized accordingly.

Food prep is getting it ready to cook.  The categories of food you usually prepare to cook are meat and vegetables and sometimes fruits. For this you need knives and other implements for cutting, peeling, coring, chopping etc.  This area should be near the sink and have ready access to the trash can and compost bin.  These tasks demand one of the largest surface areas of your kitchen and all implements needed, manual or electrical, should be stored within reach.  Since I have a garden and often have to process vegetables from it, my food prep area is the counter closest to the back door.  It happens to be the longest stretch of counter space in the kitchen and includes the sink.

Cooking is another task, separate from food prep.  Sometimes I see that someone has a nice set of knives in a block sitting next to the stove and I wonder: when does she ever use a knife on food that is in a pot or pan cooking?  Or open a drawer near her stove and you might see a peeler, an egg slicer, a grater, an apple corer, and assorted other food prep tools not used at the stove.  Odds are that if she needs to measure two cups of water or a teaspoon of salt into a pot, she has to go find a measuring cup or spoon in a drawer at the other end of the kitchen.  This is a person who will always find working in the kitchen stressful and inefficient.

Baking is the last kitchen task that requires a designated area and separate tools. My kitchen was too small to accommodate a separate baking center within the existing counter and cabinet space, so I created one against the far wall in the eat-in area.  My kitchen table doubles as my baking work space, just the right height for rolling dough or kneading bread, while a baker’s rack and kitchen cart hold all the equipment I need. It you have a small kitchen, your food prep and baking may have to share the same work space, but separate the equipment for them as much as possible and keep the baking supplies off the counter area, where they will do nothing but be in the way while you are preparing meat and vegetables.

Clear counters are key to having a kitchen that is easy to work in. If your kitchen is large enough to permit your baking work space to be well away from your cooking area, then duplicates of certain things will be needed so that each work space is always equipped and you are not wasting time fetching things from one end of the kitchen to the other. When it comes to measuring cups and spoons, for example, you should have two sets, one near your stove and the other in your baking center.

Having designated areas for each task, with all the tools at hand, greatly facilitates you getting help in the kitchen.  When I have company or when family is present, I can easily give tasks to people who want to help because there is space for them to work without being in each other’s way or in mine, and because the tools they need are right in front of them.

So far I have covered the function side of the equation, but what about beauty?  What if you want decorative things in your kitchen? I take a back seat to nobody when it comes to having decorative items in the kitchen, as I have a huge collection of decorative pottery — over a hundred pieces — and they are all visible in my kitchen.  But only those items that are useful —  such as crocks to hold utensils or the pretty bucket that collects scraps for the compost pile — are allowed to take up premium counter-space.  Everything else occupies the top of the cabinets, or is hung on the wall.

I have covered only cooking, baking, and food prep areas, but you might want to set up other centers of activity in your kitchen — anything from a wet bar, to a craft area, to a laboratory for your budding scientist. Thinking about the organization of your kitchen in terms of areas or “centers” where certain tasks are performed can greatly reduce your stress and workload while increasing your enjoyment of your kitchen and the ease with which others can join you there. Isn’t that just what we are aiming at in the heart of the home?

(© 2013 Mary Kochan)

Mary Kochan, former Senior Editor of CatholicExchange, is Editor-at-Large  of CatholicLane.com.

Raised as a  third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary worked her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday, 1996.  Mary has spoken in many settings, to groups large and small, on the topic of destructive cultism and has been a guest on both local and national radio programs. To arrange for Mary to speak at your event, you may contact her at kochanmar@gmail.com.