How to Organize a Small Apartment Kitchen: A 7-Step Plan

updated Jul 16, 2020
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(Image credit: Andrea Sparacio)

Kitchen set-ups often dictate the tone of the moments that make up our home lives—from the kinds of breakfasts grabbed during the morning rush to how often a home-cooked meal makes it to the table. Whether you’re starting afresh in a new place or you’re ready for a re-do of your current space, here’s how to organize a small kitchen so that rather than creating a Pyrex-wrangling, pots-and-pans banging mess out of you, it serves you.

Step 1: Empty all the cabinets.

Not empty one cabinet at a time, but empty out every single cabinet at once. Put everything on the counters and the table if you need to. The idea is to see everything that you have in your kitchen. (Note: If you really can’t empty out everything at once, at least get out everything of the same category at one time. This will also give you a jump-start on Step Two.)

Step 2: Categorize.

Put like with like. All pots and pans go together. All gadgets get put into one pile. And each and every spatula gets reunited with all his spatula friends.

Step 3: Purge.

Now that you have all your items grouped together, you have a clear picture of what you own. You can no longer disguise the fact that you have six sets of salad tongs by having one in the utensil drawer, one in the countertop utensil container, and four hanging out in the “miscellaneous” drawer.

Keep one of every item that you actually use, setting duplicates aside for donating or giving away.

Step 4: Consider how you use your kitchen.

Do you like to have dishes and silverware near the kitchen table for when it’s time to eat, or do you prefer to store them above the dishwasher so they’re easy to put away once they’re clean? Do you bake often or never? Do you hesitate to use your Vitamix because you don’t want to go through the hassle of getting it out? Thinking in this way helps you figure out what you use most often and, in a general way, what you’d like to have where in the kitchen.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Step 5: Use “prime real estate” first.

Prime real estate in your kitchen is the shelves that are most easily reached and the ones that are at eye level. Items that are frequently used (thank you, Step Four) should get put away first and in these prime spots. Don’t be afraid to separate items that feel like they should go together. For instance, if you have a set of dishes that includes mugs but you always reach for your Anthropologie mug collection, your dish set mugs can go on a high shelf or even in storage.

Another way to think of prime real estate is putting items near where they will be used. Your Dutch oven can go in a cabinet near your stove so you aren’t carting it across the kitchen. (Pro tip: If you enjoy looking at it, you can even “store” it on the stove.)

Counter space is also prime real estate because everything on the counter is super accessible. But be extremely choosy with what you put on the counter because too much stuff left out makes for a cluttered-looking kitchen. Again, think of how you live when deciding what to leave out. If you drink coffee twice a day from home, it makes sense to leave your coffee maker out. But no matter how gorgeous your Kitchen Aid mixer, if you never bake, leaving it on the counter takes up valuable space.

The prime real estate concept can also be used in relation to where things go within the cabinets themselves. For instance, everyone’s different, but the blender probably shouldn’t go behind the fondue pot.

Step 6: Fill in the rest of the cabinets.

Less frequently used items can go in the harder-to-reach or get-to spots in drawers and cabinets. Again, try to put these away in order of what gets used most often. This way, by the time your cabinets are full, if you have anything still left out, it’s the items you use least often and you can find another place in the house for them. For example, the ice cream maker that only gets busted out once a year after you go blueberry picking might be able to go on that high shelf in the entryway closet.

Step 7: Look for opportunities for creative storage.

Even if everything is in a good location in the kitchen, maximizing accessibility is important. Do you have to sift through chopsticks and skewers to get to the meat thermometer? Are the measuring cups buried inside bowls that you have to take out every time you need to measure a quarter-cup of sugar?

It’s at this point that you strategize the details. Invest in drawer dividers that allow you to put like with like and see what you have, separated for easy access. Maybe it makes sense for you to put hooks on your cabinet doors for hanging measuring spoons. Also try to store vertically where possible. Pulling out something that is “filed” vertically is so much more pleasant than trying to yank something out that’s in the middle of a stacked pile.

By getting rid of excess and putting detailed thought into where you place your kitchen items and how, you’ve got a kitchen that’s organized to the tune of that old familiar mantra: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” If you can tell someone, “Please get me the cherry-pitter. It’s in the drawer to the left of the stove in the back compartment of the drawer divider,” you have arrived.

Related: 9 Ways to Organize a Kitchen Without Many (or Any!) Cabinets