An expert guide to organizing your kitchen cabinets

A place for everything and everything in its place

By Ariel Scotti
Published July 24, 2021 4:29PM (EDT)
 (Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Ty Mecham / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Over the past 18 months, our kitchens have been like big (or small), warm blankets that wrapped their stainless-steel/cast-iron/wooden arms around us and gave us a safe space to fail at making sourdough starter, and try our hand at kimchi. Many of us added in new gadgets and tools like air fryers, loaf pans, and pizza stones, and others moved into new homes with empty kitchens to start afresh in.

Now that things are finally starting to look normal-ish again, our kitchens deserve a little TLC after all they saw us through. So, whether your cabinets are new and empty or packed tight, it might be time for a complete cabinet overhaul and reorganization. Where to start (and continue, and end) can feel overwhelming, so we brought in the professionals to help: Leslie Hatch Gail, professional organizer and owner of Declare Order Professional Organizing, and Kristiana Laugen, Home Expert at Handy, an online marketplace for home services. Read on for their best tips to achieve the organized kitchen of your dreams.

Come up with a game plan

It might be tempting to start pulling all of your plates, pans, and pots out from your cabinets, but the only thing this will do is overwhelm you. Instead, Laugen recommends working in zones and identifying what the organizational issue is in each before tackling it. For example, if you have a pile of pot lids that always collapses into a loud mess whenever you reach for one, perhaps a rack with a space for each lid would be helpful.

"In splitting the kitchen up into sections, you can easily spread the job across multiple hours, days, or weeks to keep it from becoming too discouraging," she says. "Rather than tearing apart your cabinets and being left with a huge, intimidating mess, take the time to first come up with a plan that will address your biggest organizational challenges or the aspects of your current system that causes the most inconvenience."

Hatch Gail adds that "some people get overwhelmed seeing everything out all at once" and that "taking it all out always takes more time than you think," which you might want to keep in mind if you feel tempted to do a big purge right on the spot.

Figure out your flow

One of the key organizational issues in many kitchens is that where things live doesn't always make much sense. Laugen says that items like plates, mugs, glasses, and silverware should be in cabinets and drawers near the sink or dishwasher. This will make putting them away after washing significantly easier. Near the stove, keep your sheet pans, pots, and their lids tucked away in a nearby cabinet to create a cookware zone that makes sense, considering that's where you'll be using those pieces the most.

Similarly, "store seasonal items like your holiday cookie cutters or ice cream makers in other storage areas or spare cabinets to prevent them from taking up too much prime kitchen real estate," she adds.

Remember that there are two characteristics to consider when deciding where your kitchen items will be stored — their size and their proximity to the appliances they'll be used with. After getting a better idea of where these areas are and what the problem spaces are in your kitchen, you can move on to the fun part.

Drawers

If the first thing that comes to mind when you think of kitchen drawers is utensils and small tools, then you're perfectly aligned with our organizers. But Hatch Gail says that many newer homes or remodeled kitchens are being built with super-deep drawers that are meant for plates. You can keep these "heavy items low," she says, to lessen the risk of one falling from a higher cabinet and to make them easier to store and retrieve.

If you're working with standard-sized drawers that are more shallow, "use them to store your smaller items or the kitchen tools that don't demand a lot of vertical space," Laugen adds. "Using drawers for items like utensils, specialty kitchen tools, and gadgets and other cutlery optimizes drawer space and prevents these smaller items from getting lost in the shuffle."

Cabinets

Whether custom-built or sourced from a favorite home store, cabinets — both above and below the counter — bring a ton of style and personality to our kitchens while carrying the bulk of the load of our cookware.

"Cabinets are the ideal place for items like tableware, serve ware, or drink ware that are taller or pile up higher," Laugen says, as opposed to those shorter items that make more sense in your drawers. Lower cabinets are the spot for heavier items like Dutch ovens and cast-iron grill pans. Organizing tools like metal racks that look like sideways filing cabinets are great here for baking sheets if you're opposed to stacking them, and sliding metal shelves make grabbing stockpots so much easier.

Hatch Gail adds that if you have particularly tall cabinets or a lot of space between shelves, you can make the most of that by utilizing organizational products like expandable metal shelves to add another level for hovering salad plates above dinner plates, for instance. She says to add "storage and hooks on the backs of cabinet doors" and underneath them as well for things like mugs when the inside of the cabinet is overflowing. For cabinets under the sink—the most dreaded of storage spaces—keep things that you don't mind getting wet or damp near the pipes, like cleaning products, backup dish soap bottles, a box of garbage bags, and your dishwasher pods.

If you're stuck with cabinets that are very high up and difficult to reach, and that feel like dead space, utilize them for items that you don't need to climb up there often to get, like Christmas cookie cutters, Thanksgiving turkey holders, and Passover candles.

Pantry

We resisted the urge to add spice containers to the drawers section above. That doesn't mean we disagree if this is the route you choose (it is, of course, your kitchen), but Laugen convinced us otherwise. This, however, doesn't include things that you reach for daily, like salt, cooking oil, and sugar. If you have a salt cellar, sugar packet holder, and olive oil cruet that you like to look at, then, by all means, keep them out near the stove where you'll be utilizing them as you're cooking or making your morning coffee. If you're a baker and flour is something you need to scoop out often enough, then don't let us tell you not to decant it into an easy-on-the-eyes canister near your work station.

"While spices and smaller everyday food staples are fine to keep in convenient drawers or cabinets, the pantry really is the place to house your unrefrigerated food products," she says, noting that keeping all of your pantry-appropriate food items together means that you'll always know where they are and that they'll have a dedicated space in the kitchen that isn't preventing other things, like your forks, from having a logical space to call their own.

"For those larger appliances that would otherwise monopolize a lot of countertop space," Laugen says (looking at you, air fryer), "employ the higher shelves or floor space of the pantry to prevent your countertop from looking like an appliance display."

Both of our pros love pantry organizational tools like soda can dispensers, expandable shelves, bins, and lazy Susans. Just be wary of kitchen organization trends, like decanting dried food into canisters, Hatch Gail advises.

"My concern is that people are spending hundreds of dollars on these containers without realizing just how much work it is to maintain them," she says. "You have to clean them often, and you still need additional space for the food that's purchased but not ready to move into the containers. Interior styling is not the same as being organized."


Ariel Scotti

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