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.

The Questionable Value of a Top-of-the-Line Kitchen

I think it’s interesting that so many people will plunk down tens of thousands of dollars to create a top-of-the-line kitchen in their homes, complete with the latest design in cabinets and hip counter surfaces, even though they rarely cook. It’s all about having a kitchen that looks like it belongs in a magazine or on a cooking show, I guess.

Personally, I adore my hip cabinets. Check this out:

Those are genuine 1980s vintage cabinet fronts. Inside you’ll find sturdy plain old wood cabinets and shelves from the 1950s, when the house was built. I suspect that’s also when they installed my very cool counter tops:

That’s right, speckled Formica. We’re talking the height of luxury!

OK, so I’m being sarcastic. The fact is that I love my kitchen. It’s made of very sturdy materials that have lasted for years and still have a lot of life left in them. Since I cook from scratch every day, and we do a lot of dishes because we don’t have a dishwasher, we spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Yet it doesn’t bother me at all that I don’t have the latest cabinets or countertops.

You see, I’m a firm believer that there’s a trade-off between time and money. You have to give up one to get the other. Personally, I value time more than money, and the older I get, the more valuable time is to me. I can live without a $20,000 upgrade to my kitchen, because I don’t want to spend the time it takes to earn that 20 grand just to have a fancier kitchen. The one I have works just fine.

Some of my attitude stems from the fact that we’re debt-free. Most people will put a kitchen upgrade on their credit cards and think nothing of it. But we worked very hard to get debt-free, so we aren’t part of the how-much-a-month crowd. We also like to keep our expenses down so we can work part-time, which gives us more time to pursue other interests. Being able to live this way is much more important to us than having the latest kitchen upgrades in our home.

Besides, five years from now, today’s cabinets and counters are going to look outdated anyways.