Un-Clutter Your Kitchen Before the Holidays

10 ways to improve your cooking space – and your state of mind.

6 min read

Not only do I subscribe to the cliché, "you are what you eat," I believe that when your surroundings are cluttered and disorganized, your life and frame of mind are often equally disheveled. Not that I keep an immaculate house -- just ask my husband. But I notice that when my house is in reasonable order, things seem to go more smoothly in other areas of my life.

With the holidays approaching, we may not get around to overhauling the entire house - let's be realistic. But the kitchen? That's doable.

I'm not alone in thinking that the heart of a family seems to reside in the kitchen. It's the one room everyone in the HAS to go to (other than the bathroom). Often, it's where our best conversations take place. It's where comforting pots of coffee or tea are brewed. For most families, it's where the television and other distractions are not.

Before the holiday ball starts rolling, take a couple of hours to un-clutter your kitchen. You and your holidays may be better and happier for it. Here are my 10 tips for un-cluttering your kitchen:

Many of us handle mail and bill-paying in our kitchens. And during the holiday season, we're more likely to misplace a bill or lose track of what's due when. So it's more important than ever to get organized. Find an area in your kitchen (or office) where you can go through the mail as it comes in, filing bills away in the order they are due. Find an organizing system that works for you, even if it's just a few different color folders (green means "go" pay the pills, yellow means "these bills are coming up" and red means "stop worrying about it; these bills are paid") that you keep in a special area of your kitchen or office.

Did you ever notice how beautiful the kitchens look in model homes? Just standing in them makes you feel happy (at least, it does for me). I think this has something to do with the uncluttered countertops. It's as if having room to work gives you room to breathe easier. So start at one end of your countertop and work your way to the end, being hyper-selective about what stays on the countertop.

Ask yourself what's really vital to the day-to-day workings of your kitchen. Go through every cabinet and every drawer, determining which kitchen gadgets, cookware, and tools you hardly use. Do you really use that mushroom scrub brush, or those plastic prong-like ends you stick in corncobs? How many frying pans do you really need? If you're good with two, decide which two are in the best shape. And why are you keeping that crusty old toaster oven now that Aunt Betty has given you a fancy new Italian one for your birthday? For everything you decide to toss, this is a great time to donate to your local charities.

Not all of us have that ideal working "triangle" in our kitchen, formed by the refrigerator, stove/oven and sink/dishwasher on each end. But that doesn't mean you can't make your kitchen space more sensible. Stop and ask yourself: Where is the safest, most convenient place for the toaster oven or toaster, the coffee maker, and the microwave? When you moved into your kitchen, you may not have had a chance to strategically think about which kitchen items should go where. Now is a great time to consider the best place for:

  • Glassware and cups (they should go near the refrigerator or near the sink/dishwasher)
  • Kitchen utensils (near the stove)
  • Pots and pans (near the stove/oven)
  • Spices and herbs (in a cool, dark cabinet near where you use them most)
  • Coffee mugs (near the stove or coffee maker)
  • Measuring cups and spoons (near the mixer, or the counter area where you tend to do the most cooking)

For about $10 apiece, you can add a few sensible drawer and cabinet organizers to your kitchen. Vertical dividers help organize cookie sheets and cake pans; a lazy Susan keeps your spices quickly visible; and well-placed shelves can double your storage. Plastic drawer dividers can organize utensils like thermometers, timers, zesting tools, scrapers, cake decorating tools, etc. Flatware holders can keep your eating utensils clean and organized. And for a few dollars, you can organize key cleaning supplies in an under-the-sink caddy.

If you're thinking of designating a drawer where you dump things that don't belong anywhere else, resist the urge! Once you start a junk drawer, it takes on a life of its own. Space in a kitchen is so valuable that you shouldn't use any of it up with, well, junk. If you have to have someplace to dump out-of-place items, put them in a paper bag that you keep somewhere out of sight. If, after a year, you haven't gone searching for any of the items, it's a good sign that everything in the bag can be tossed.

Once you begin piling up papers, there's no turning back. You WILL lose papers in the piles, and you WILL spend precious minutes trying to find a particular paper you need. The first rule is to keep paper in the kitchen to a minimum. The paper that does pass muster should be sorted into categories (takeout menus, coupons, recipes ripped out of magazines or newspapers) and stored in some sort of organized system. I use small decorative baskets that sit on the shelf above my kitchen desk.

Just by installing one shelf in your garage, pantry, or mudroom, you can free up valuable space in your kitchen. Such a shelf is the perfect place to keep appliances and large cookware you don't use often. Does a large roasting pan or deep-fat fryer ring any bells? Perhaps it's the espresso machine you asked for three Christmases ago, or the bread machine you bought to make cinnamon rolls once or twice a year. Banish these rainy-day appliances to the new shelf - be merciless.

It's time to go through your pantry and throw out those cereal boxes with a quarter-cup of cereal in the bottom. Look through those cans and packages of stuff you thought you would use last year, but didn't. You can donate these unopened items to the holiday canned food drives in your town. Don't forget to look in the back of the shelves and cabinets, because this is where bags of hardened, dried coconut and stale crackers and cookies reside. When going through my pantry, I keep six words in mind: When in doubt, throw it out.

Face it. We can outgrow all sorts of things, even cookbooks. If you have a cookbook you haven't opened in a few years, it may be time to donate it to your local library or Salvation Army. If you need to look up an obscure recipe, Internet recipe sites make it easy (and don't take up kitchen space). If you aren't actively using some of your cookbooks, but you want to save them as a reference, find a place to store them so they aren't cluttering your kitchen. (Remember that shelf from Tip No. 8?) And what about the cookbooks you are using? I have a cookbook holder I keep front and center on my kitchen island. This is where I put my latest cookbook (right now it's Comfort Food Makeovers), and you can use a similar setup for whatever cookbook is inspiring you at the moment.