Decluttering a Working Kitchen, Part 2

Cleaning out that spice shelf in one cabinet resulted in so much neatness that I became inspired to keep going. I used the same principles that helped me get the kitchen set up when we first moved here. As I stated in my e-book Secrets of Small-House Living:

I had to eliminate kitchen items I really didn’t need anymore, if I was being honest with myself, especially the duplicate items we all seem to have, such as:

multiple utensils

more serving dishes and platters than we ever use at one time 

damaged items that I thought I would have fixed someday but was surviving without

far too many glasses, mugs, bowls and cups

multiple layer-cake pans (went from five to two)

cutting boards (went from four to one large and one small)

I did keep my two sets of measuring cups, because I often use them both when I’m cooking, rather than take time to wash one out in the middle of a recipe.

I also kept my old bread maker after finding my Zojirushi at the Goodwill for $5; both machines are old, well-made and hard to find, so it’s worth having a backup. But I keep the backup in the basement because there’s no room in the kitchen.

It’s amazing how some things multiply in those cabinets, especially mugs. I also found I had a few too many utensils in one drawer because for a while I was on a search to replace a beloved spatula, so I kept bringing them home, each one better than the last, until I had five!

I had already gotten rid of the excess bread maker a few years ago, because I no longer make bread or rolls as often as I once did. In its place in the basement sits a brand new hand mixer, waiting until the one I use now completely dies (it doesn’t sound too good but it still works).

If you’re having trouble giving up items you don’t really use very often, if at all, consider this:

Now, I’ve never been one to collect small appliances, so I only ever had the basics, and when we got here, I even got rid of the toaster because we didn’t use it. But I’ve known people who had egg cookers, rice makers, tortilla warmers, rotisseries, electric cheese graters, electric can openers, iced tea makers, electric fry pans, baby food makers, electric woks, fondue pots and hot dog cookers, all crammed into every nook and cranny of their kitchens, and most of them collecting dust. People with big kitchens can do that if they wish. But when you downsize to a small kitchen, you don’t have room for a collection of rarely used appliances. You need to prioritize.

If you use something daily or even weekly, that’s one thing. Otherwise, keep only multi-purpose items. You don’t need a hot-dog cooker; just cook your hot dogs on the stove, or microwave them. Unless you have arthritis or other dexterity issues, surely you can survive with a hand-held can opener and give up the counter-hogging electric can opener. As for the rotisserie, if I put one in my kitchen, there’d be no counter space left to do anything.

Even if you have a large kitchen, why keep items that you never use? Give priority to keeping multi-purpose items, like a good-quality, cast-iron frying pan on which you can cook eggs and warm tortillas, or a nice pot in which you can make rice and cook hot dogs, thus replacing four appliances.

And if your kitchen is small, like mine is, and you still have more equipment than storage space, consider converting a nearby closet to kitchen storage, as my husband did:

You can also repurpose storage areas. When we bought our small house, it had a narrow broom closet facing the kitchen. It barely held a broom and a vacuum cleaner. After my husband saw my collection of kitchen appliances and other items that wouldn’t fit in the kitchen, things I used regularly like a crock-pot, food processor, cookie sheets, cooling racks, etc. he told me he thought I needed additional storage more than a broom closet. Despite my initial misgivings, I let him put horizontal shelves in most of the broom closet, with some vertical shelves across the middle. As a result, I can now keep all of my must-have small appliances and supplies in there, plus there’s room for cookbooks on the top shelf and a basket of cleaning supplies on the floor. You can’t imagine how much I use that former broom closet when I’m cooking. He even put a hook on the inside of the door for my apron. The broom is now in the attached garage (just outside the kitchen door) and the vacuum is in the guest room closet. His idea turned out to be just what I needed.

Going forward, there is something else you can do to keep from having overcrowded counters and cabinets:

One more idea for maximizing kitchen space: when an item breaks, try to replace it with something smaller. Recently yet another coffeemaker died on us. Instead of buying the same model with its large water tank and bulky glass carafe, we chose a more diminutive 12-cup percolator. It works great and takes up much less space.

Next time, we’ll look at decluttering the eating area.

Decluttering a Working Kitchen

What do I mean by a “working kitchen”? You have a working kitchen if you cook. So many people these days eat in restaurants or pick up fast food even though they have a fully outfitted kitchen at home with all the latest appliances to impress their friends and their Instagram followers. That’s not a working kitchen. That’s a showplace that needs to be dusted occasionally.

But those of us who cook on a daily basis have working kitchens, and we have to work to keep them that way. We don’t leave the mail, backpacks or briefcases on kitchen counters because we need that space to work (and it’s not sanitary). We may or may not have the latest appliances, but we use our appliances regularly, so we can’t have anything blocking them. If we have knick-knacks or decorative pieces, they are up on shelves or on windowsills, not where we do our actual food prep. We cooks are a busy, picky bunch.

That said, as time passes, it’s very easy to allow clutter to creep into our kitchens if we’re not paying attention:

  • Someone buys us a hand mixer for a gift but we already have one we love; now we have two.
  • A child makes a large decorative platter for us at a ceramics studio and we add it to the stack of platters in a cupboard.  
  • An unsuccessful clothes-shopping trip is redeemed when we discover some cute, brightly colored spatulas and tongs in the clearance aisle. Not that we needed more, but they were irresistible.

Occurrences like these over several years can result in overstuffed cupboards and drawers that slow us down and frustrate us when we’re in the middle of making or baking something. Clearly, it’s time to declutter our kitchen.

In my e-book Secrets of Small-House Living, I describe how my family moved from a very large house with a huge kitchen to a much smaller house with a tiny kitchen. It was quite an adjustment; I had to give up a lot of kitchen equipment that I just couldn’t fit into the few cabinets we have.

Five years later, I’ve decided that our kitchen is actually quite efficient, despite its small size. Being u-shaped, it gives me everything I need within a few steps. The challenge is making sure that its small storage areas hold only what I need.

One person’s needed item is another person’s Goodwill donation, so what I share here may not fit with how you outfit your kitchen. But the principles are the same.

The Counters

An excerpt from my e-book:

But after my children left home, I had trouble cooking for fewer people. I thought I was going to have to retrain myself, so that I would stop doubling or tripling recipes. But since I’m blessed with a husband who actually likes eating the same thing two nights in a row, I finally realized that I could keep cooking in quantity, as long as I saved some for leftovers and froze the rest. (This meant more nights where I had a homemade, precooked dinner just waiting for us.) The same principle applied to baking: I could keep baking dozens of cookies as long as I froze most of them (left on the counter in a container, they would soon go stale, something that never happened when our children lived at home). So I felt like I’d found a solution to the question of cooking for an empty nest.

But when we downsized to our small house, my habit of cooking large became instantly constrained by our tiny kitchen. There was no place to set down my giant cookie sheets and casserole pans unless I kept the counters completely clear. …I didn’t want to give up my habit of cooking large, because it saves money and time (there’s the same amount of clean-up whether you make one dozen cookies or six dozen, after all.)

Keeping the counters clear is still the reigning principle in my little kitchen, because I need every square inch of counter I can get. Since we don’t have a dishwasher (there’s no room for one), we use part of the counter next to the sink for a drying rack. The microwave eats up a little more counter space. I must have what little is left so I can work. That’s why I regularly purge the counters of anything that isn’t essential.

This past Christmas, my husband gave me a small aquarium and some fish. The only place it could go is the far end of the kitchen counter. So before he set it up, I got rid of everything in that area. I had to make decisions about what needed to stay nearby, and what wasn’t essential. Several items went into drawers. My overflowing recipe box and clear recipe card holder had to be pared down; I filed many recipes that had stacked up there, and rewrote some on index cards so they could go in the box instead of being stacked on top. (These recipes were newspaper clippings or printouts from the Internet.)

There were some spare spice containers that were used often enough that I’d left them on the counter near the stove. I couldn’t fit them into the overflowing spice shelf in one cabinet so I’d left them on the counter. But they had to go, so I emptied out the entire spice shelf, pitched old spice containers (and some empty ones), and then neatly organized the remaining spices on a stacked shelf I found at the Goodwill for a few dollars. It really looks nice now, and no more spices on the counter by the stove:

Next time we’ll consider decluttering the cabinets.