Creating a Happy, Colorful, Handmade Home & life on the shores of lake superior

February 6, 2018

Loving My Small Kitchen: Tips, Tricks and Storage Ideas


WARNING: This post contains some ugly, poorly lit photos of the guts of my kitchen. Viewer discretion is advised :) 
 
I have a pretty small kitchen.  It has a humble little footprint with only four lower cabinets and two of them are corner cabinets, which I loathe.  When we renovate for real I plan to reconfigure things for smarter storage, but for now I've done my best to work with the space I have.  I used to batch cook and coast on leftovers but Hubby and I have been cooking more than ever before - sometimes we cook all three meals in a day from scratch, with nary a leftover to be had.  No matter how much we use it, this kitchen puts the FUN in functional. 

If you've ever been curious about where I keep my stuff, here's how I organize things in my small kitchen - and how we make this small space work for us.


Step One: I Changed My Outlook

It makes me laugh that some of the bloggers who renovate reasonably sized kitchens into epic, commercial-grade kitchens, with miles of cabinetry, are sponsored by those mail order dinner prep services.  I really can't judge though, because if I could have a massive kitchen I totally would and I'd hoard all of the world's best vintage Pyrex and Cathrineholm.  Mwahahaha.

Instead, I have a small space, but I have totally embraced it.  The BEST cooks in my family prepared delicious meals in tiny kitchens.  When I traveled to Hungary, where many of my relatives grew their own food and prepared amazing meals from scratch, I couldn't believe what their kitchens looked like!  Kitchen cabinetry like what we have in North America isn't the norm in other parts of the world.  Many of the kitchens I saw were a combination of old appliances, a hodgepodge of antique hutches and a tiny stretch of counter space.  My friend Dora would whip up delicious crepes before we went out to the bars (she's European - guests must always be fed!) out of a kitchen that was barely larger than my powder room.  Comparatively, my kitchen is massive and I've learned to appreciate the space I have and focus on what I love: the view, the openness, the easy work triangle and the way it just beckons people - it's always the hub of any get together.  Hubby and I have also learned how to work effectively in here: one of us does sous-cheffing on the end on the counter, which is wide and spacious - with a great view of the lake - while the other bustles within the U-shape.   




Step Two: I Pared Down the Clutter

When we moved, I really de-cluttered - including bulky kitchen gadgets and glass serving ware.  It was amazing how many things I wasn't using but was hanging on to, just because I thought I should, like the ice cream maker, bread machine - even the microwave.  I get a lot of flak online for not having a microwave but we literally never turned it on, so it made no sense to keep it.  Rarely used items we couldn't part with are stored in the basement.  The kitchen is now filled with things we use and love on the regular, but I continually re-assess and pare down (especially because I do add things every now and then, like my Veggetti).  I also love items that do double duty, like vintage Pyrex that is hardy and cute enough for baking/cooking, serving, and storing leftovers.  That glass cake stand turns into a punch bowl and I have pretty cutting boards that double as trivets and serving pieces.   

We even pared down our food staples!  I used to have so many kinds of flour and snacks and miscellaneous dry goods.  Now, instead of five kinds of cereal, we have one.  Instead of a million boxes of flavored oatmeal, we have one canister of plain oatmeal that we add fruit and nuts to ourselves.  By paring down the selection, we no longer forget about random stuff that goes stale, which was an added benefit (I always stress about throwing away food). 
   
Streamlining was the first step, but after that I needed to figure out how to store the stuff I did keep.

Step Three: I Turned Cabinets into Drawers

Here's the BIGGEST change we made, that's been the biggest eye opener for us: we turned the cabinet to the left of the stove into two "drawers"!  These new drawers help us access things in the back so much more easily now.  I am obsessed with kitchen drawers!  You can get these pull out drawer organizers in different sizes and finishes and they are so easy to install.


Instead of rooting around for things, I can just open one of my new drawers and easily see/access everything.  It's helped maximize 100% of the tiny amount of cabinet space we have.   


Step Four: I De-canted Dry Goods into Glass Jars

You might have noticed that my drawers have neatly lined rows of Mason jars.  Oddly sized boxes and bags of dry goods were so awkward to store so I started decanting anything I could into the same size jars.  It makes it easier to pack more into our cupboards, plus everything is sealed really well to deter little buggies and keep everything fresher, longer. 

Step Five: I Created Makeshift "Drawers" From Bins

Across from these new "drawers" I have another cabinet and that's where I keep spices, canned goods, cooking oils, etc.  I use two plastic bins for spices and baking stuff which act like mini "drawers" and makes accessing that jumble so easy. 


I keep my cooking oils, pepper mill, etc., on a plastic tray to save the inside of my cabinets from drips and make cooking easier.  (This tray is cute because it doubles for cooking/baking - it's oven safe!)  I just grab a spice bin (sorted by "savory" and "baking"), the oil tray and get cracking.


I do the same thing with baking ware (cookie cutters, flour sifter, powder sugar shaker, etc.), hot drinks (tea, tea bag filters, coffee, coffee stuff, what have you), magic bullet stuff, and Tupperware: they all go into big bins so I can slide out a bin and grab what I need without having to sift through mountains of teetering piles while I'm crouched awkwardly in front of these terrible corner cabinets.



I even corral pot lids into bins, so I can stack the pots easily and save space. 


Seriously, kitchen drawers (real or fake) are the way of the future.  A stackable set of bins, like this one, is another clever way to maximize vertical space in small cabinets.  

Step Six: I Added Open Shelving and an Open Pantry

The original upper cabinets were terrible: low, awkward, and deceptively small.  I couldn't open the cabinets to the right of the window without climbing onto the counter.  Between the wall mounted microwave and the fake cabinet above the stove, it looked like there was way more storage than there really was.  To make matters worse, the corner cabinets were really narrow and so I couldn't fit plates or mixing bowls in there.


Tearing the upper cabinets out and adding open shelving really added functional storage for us because we were left with nice, long shelves for uninterrupted storage of plates, glasses, mixing bowls, and casseroles - although I still wish we could have run the shelf entirely above the stove as planned (stupid building code).  That break in the shelving still bugs me.

Open shelving is really polarizing, but I shared my honest thoughts about them - including how I keep them clean - in this older post.  Although I will definitely (okay, usually) clean it first, I never style the kitchen for photos.  What you see is how it really looks - unless I'm in the middle of cooking, baking, crafting or re-potting plants, which are all tasks that I tackle here.  When I'm mid-task, it will look like a disaster but I always restore it to its tidy state when I'm done.  And yes, I use the stuff at the top, although admittedly I have way more Pyrex than I need for day to day.  I'm not bizarrely tall, but I guess I'm taller than average so I can grab stuff from the top shelf without a ladder - and I do.  Having pretty stuff that I use to cook, serve, and store food made this open shelving thing easy, but I've seen really eclectic open shelving that looks great too.  One day I'll have real cabinets again, but only if they go right up to the ceiling and actually offer up some storage.


In addition to swapping awkward cabinets for open shelving, what really gained us space was the floor to ceiling open pantry to the left of the fridge, which houses more serving pieces, our cooler for summer grocery trips, and also 12 massive jars for dry goods like cereal, flour, oatmeal, pasta, rice, quinoa, and marshmallows.  All of the staples, haha.



(We finally built a door for that lower cabinet, to hide the cooler, so I no longer have to crop this angle out of photos!)

Even if you don't want to swap cabinets for open shelving, if you're struggling with storage, adding a row or two of open shelves for dry goods storage in identical canisters, or putting a shelf under cabinets for plates and cute mugs, can help eek out a little more room in even the tiniest kitchen.  Plus it's so much fun to style and display stuff!

Step Seven: I Make it Pretty

Those massive food jars make cereal and flour look so good!  That's another trick in a small space: making things pretty.  Once things look nice, it becomes so much easier to store them in out-of-the-box ways.


Another example: by switching our mismatched and beaten up kitchen utensils for a brand new set of colorful KitchenAid utensils, I was able to put them on the counter in a cheap glass vase, where we can easily access them and free up drawer space.  That's the motivation behind picking as many pretty kitchen things as possible.    



In a perfect world, I'd love to put everything away, but for our small space it works really well.  There are so many really pretty kitchen staples available these days, things that you used to only be able to get in black or white but that now come in ever color and style (and fancy finishes and materials), like this super cute turquoise drain rack for dishes.  Even just investing in a few large canisters for the counter, or setting up a convenient little coffee station and liberating a sweet mug collection from the cupboard, can help ease clutter in overcrowded cabinets and drawers.   

Step Eight: I Go Nutty for Small Bins Too

My flatware habit is where I get into trouble with this small kitchen.


I have two sets of flatware, which is such a waste of space.  I really want to track down more of the vintage silver set (which belonged to my grandmother) and sell the brass set or keep it with blog props in the basement.  I use typical standard cutlery organizing trays plus some extra long and narrow trays from the buck store to keep everything sorted.


There's one little sentimental vintage bin at the back of one drawer and that's where I keep random things I couldn't bear to part with: a pez dispenser, a few serving pieces I rarely use, some forks for road trips. 

Bins really let me cram way more in and keep things functional - I even use them in the fridge!


Step Nine: I Gave up the Junk Drawer

I gave up the kitchen junk drawer and bought one of these "Really Useful Box" storage systems, which I stash in the laundry room cupboard.  It keeps those odds and ends (like rubber bands, twist ties, random junk) organized and frees up a kitchen drawer, which is where I used to toss stuff like that.

Step Ten: I Make Use of Other Storage

We hung our DIY fauxdenza in the dining room, which is a handy place to keep table linens, candles, napkins, and the plates and glasses we use on the patio.  We used to keep stuff like that in the kitchen, but we had to re-think where we keep stuff when we moved here.  Leaning on other spaces for storage helps make our small kitchen feel much less small.  Just shuffling things around a little and keeping the kitchen storage focus on things we actually use in there helped a lot. 

 
I've tried to include a few brand new, up to date photos of the kitchen - and as many shots of my cutie pies as possible - to help counteract those gritty views into my kitchen cabinets.




Hands down my best ideas have been to make dry goods storage pretty by decanting nearly everything into the same size jars and to turn cabinets into drawers - those pull out metal organizers are my favorite purchase ever.  Really examining what we need and love, from kitchen gadgets to grocery staples, and only keeping the things we want made such an impact too.

As I think about our kitchen reno (which is all of the time), let me know your BEST kitchen storage tips in the comments!  I am always collecting clever ideas for cleaning and organizing - and I know you all have some of your own tips and tricks that I could implement when I get to start this kitchen from scratch... 
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23 comments

  1. OMG this post was SUPER useful, thanks a ton for sharing such detailed information and photos! I'm going to be studying this post carefully and making notes, lol. I also enjoyed playing spot-the-szuka/hynda!

    When we moved into our rented place, there was a terrible moth infestation because we'd had to leave the house unexpectedly for 6 months (long story). That effectively meant we couldn't use the only sensible piece of storage - a cupboard with mesh doors. This left one corner cabinet, one dark, bottom cabinet and one useable one. We finally bought a beautiful sideboard but before that I maximised space by putting pretty but rarely used beer mugs etc on top of the fridge. We also bought another little fridge and put it in the living/dining area which really helped.

    I should really look for those pull out boxes. Thanks for the tip!

    - T

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    1. I’m so happy this post was fun to read! I love the little pupper cameos too, haha.

      Your moth problem sounds like it was so frustrating! It sounds like you came up with some really clever solutions for your space. Hopefully the problem is all sorted out now? That kind of thing really makes you appreciate the little things, doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing your own tips!

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  2. My very small tip is to store the toaster in a shallow tray. I keep mine tucked away in the cupboard, but easily accessible. I keep it on a plastic tray, so when I use it and put it away I don't have to be meticulous about cleaning every last crumb off the darn thing. Every few months I dump out the crumbs and give it a quick clean. I loved this post!!

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    1. Oooo that is a good tip! Our old toaster oven was terrible at depositing crumbs, it always made a huge mess. Your idea sounds like a major time saver too - thanks for sharing! I love hearing people’s real solutions.

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  3. Don't feel bad about your cutlery collection. I have three sets, our everyday set, my Grandmothers silver and a huge set of the brass with the bamboo look handles. Two of the sets are not stored in the kitchen as I use these on occasions. Even with that I still have a lot of everyday stuff as I have specialty pieces in my everyday stuff. The life changer for me was a double decker cutlery drawer, twice the storage in the same amount of space. I have had it for several years now and would never be with out one again.

    Yes, drawers, roll outs or tray dividers should be everywhere! There is good corner storage solutions out there for when you get your new kitchen. In the meantime you have made great use out of the space that you have.

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    1. Oooo I wonder if I could fit a double decker cutlery tray??? I’m going to measure! Our drawers are not very deep but that is a really good ideas. Thanks for the tip!!

      So happy to hear I’m not the only one hanging on to cutlery. Another sentimental set used to occupy drawer space but I actually moved it to the boat, lol.

      I can’t wait to make those corner units better. Something that pulls out would be great. Maybe if we widen the U shape we could even get drawers in there! Someday....

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  4. I'm drooling over your turquoise. I like the idea of painting the lower cabinets, and using accent colours on top. Makes it not too turquoisey. I have the same Pyrex problem; I own lots of turquoise, with some pink thrown in for good measure.

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    1. Thank you! I love pink and turquoise Pyrex together. My mom collects the pink and every now and then we’ve considered swapping just for fun. So happy to hear from another Pyrex collector!!

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  5. Learned some new and very useful tips here, thanks. I think you should keep the brass tableware, even if stored in the laundry room or so. It would make a nice change for special events, or great for fall/winter dinners. Or just for fun.

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    1. I have been hanging on to that brass flatware for so long!! I just can’t part with it, I love the shape. It does look so lovely with fall table settings and it pairs so beautifully with turquoise. Okay, I’ve got to get rid of something else then, hah. Or stash it in the dining room credenza :)

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  6. I love so much (really everything) in this post. I have decluttered my kitchen many times and I still could do it again.

    I love my open shelving at the cabin (where I cook even more than at home and for more people). It forces me to be efficient.

    One thing I do that is different is storage containers. Random Tupperware, non-stackable sizes, weird shapes were driving us crazy. Gone are the reused yet oh so nice takeout containers, the odd Rubbermaid, etc. now I buy only one size of cheap yet reusable Gladware that stacks and snaps.

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    1. So happy you liked this post! I’ve been loving the feedback and have picked up some great ideas myself.

      I love your idea to buy one kind of Tupperware. I really, really should do that. Around here they don’t recycle every type of plastic, so I feel compelled to reuse stuff because some plastic gets thrown out. But I hate the random awkward piles of takeaway stuff I hang on to! One day I’m going to try your idea because it’s so smart.

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  7. Really nice post :) But I have to add this -> you American/Canadian have no idea what a small kitchen looks like... for Europian standards, this is a normal (or even big) size kitchen :)

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    1. Thank you :)

      I agree though - I literally said this exact same thing very early in in my post, lol.

      But I’m happy to have it confirmed!

      Even in North America it varies geographically. I’m sure many New Yorkers would say this is big too. But a lot of people leave me comments, saying they could never handle such a small kitchen.

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  8. I absolutely loved this post! LOVED IT! We are mid kitchen remodel and are going to do open shelving. I'm off to read how you keep yours clean etc.

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    1. Hi Kristen, I'm so happy to hear that! I am so jealous that you're remodeling your kitchen - that's the fun part. And I love your choice to do open shelving. I find the key is to keep using everything! Dust seems to settles places I don't touch or move things much.

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    2. That is very good advice - thank you. I know my husband is a little worried that it's going to be a dust trap. We have a weird situation that is kind of hard to explain, but the short version is if we did hang upper cupboards they would have to sit a little lower which would make almost no clearance for things to sit on the countertop beneath them - not even our keurig. So, we had to embrace the idea of open shelving. I think I'm really going to like it though. Quick question - what are your kitchen floors? I love the gray color. Thanks!

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    3. Interesting problem! I know someone in a small apartment and their landlord had the same issue so they used upper cabinets that aren’t standard - I think the kind for above a fridge? Maybe you could find something shorter and still keep cabinets? If not, open shelving is a cheap solution. You can always try it and see!

      The flooring is painted vinyl: http://www.danslelakehouse.com/2016/10/how-to-paint-vinyl-floor-diy-painted.html

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  9. Your posts are always a great read, but THIS one is sooo helpful! We've been living in my mom's little house now for five years, and at first it just seemed invasive to move out the things she had (even if we didn't use them), but now that her dementia has progressed and she spends less time in the kitchen, I'm going to take the plunge. Four sets of dishes and flatware is. Simply. Excessive.

    I've been looking at the pull-out drawer kits ever since we got here, and am glad to see a happy review. They are not cheap, but I've had the feeling they would be the answer to our extra-deep base cabinet problems. I spend too much time crawling all the way to the back of a cupboard to get a can of soup, then bumping my head when I'm backing out! I'm a great bin fan, too, especially in the fridge and freezer. We have some open shelving, and I'm planning to take doors off a couple of our top cabinets to increase accessibility. All this is partly motivated by my desire to put in a dishwasher (I know, Julia Child never had one in France, but...) and not knowing if I can compress enough stuff to make room. We'll see.

    Final query: I remember admiring your kitchen sink when you put it in, and asking about cleaning a square-cornered sink. Has it worked out well for you? It certainly is gorgeous.

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    1. I’m so sorry to hear that your mom’s dementia has progressed. Stuff for me always takes on more significance when it becomes wrapped up in memories and people and loss. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to displace her things.

      But we know this about our moms: they want us to be happy. She must be so grateful to have you there! I’ll be thinking about you as you streamline to make the kitchen work for you. I’m on a downsizing mission this year, parting with things I inherited and it’s difficult to let go.

      Those drawer inserts ARE expensive but totally worth every penny! I bought mine at Lowe’s and recommend them to everyone (I linked the exact brand too). And they’re durable - I’ve been using them for about a year and they function like new.

      I remember you asking about the sink corners! I can’t keep them clean with a normal rag but with a thin, square, Chore Boy scrubbing cloth and baking soda, I get them gleaming - in all corners! It’s been easier than I thought to keep clean - I’ll have to share a photo one day! Maybe I’ll do an update on various projects and stuff. The bigger headache has been that rack that keeps things from denting the sink. I love its purpose but scrubbing that thing sucks, lol.

      And I am team dishwasher!! I would give up a lot of things and space for a dishwasher to if I didn’t have one.

      Good luck!!! :)

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  10. Thanks so much for your kind thoughts, Tanya. I'm definitely choosing some treasures from Mom's kitchen to cherish. She even has some wonderful old bread pans that her father got for her (he was an excellent baker), so those will stay, too. But nobody needs ten paring knives or five colanders, and I think I can let those go without any great pain.

    Glad to hear that your sink has been a success! (Might want to try soaking that rack overnight in a mild ammonia solution and see if that helps.) I'd love to see/hear more about how you like the floor paint you used in the kitchen, as well as the "intermediate" stage counter top finish you used in your bathroom before the great renovation there. Did it wear well enough that a person could use it for more than just a year or two?

    Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks for the ammonia tip!

      The floor paint was such a surprise - it has held strong! One or two little flecks lifted, I suspect there was a grain of dirt or sand under there. We just touched them up with a tiny brush - no problem. I can do a more detailed post with new photos too. We never did a counter finish, but we did do the tile and cabinets and both held strong! We still have the painted tile in the powder room with zero issues. And that Rust-Oleum cabinet paint system held up so much better than the turquoise paint I used. The kitchen cabinets have needed touch ups, sadly, but we do bang them around a lot...

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  11. I actually do love small kitchens! They kind of oblige us to keep a practical and clean decor, it's great to avoid clutter (which is something I'm not really that careful on a regular basis).

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