Lessons I learned from renovating my small kitchen

Ditch the microwave! Don’t skimp on the sink!

Published May 20, 2022 4:01PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

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!

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small — from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.

I have no complaints about having a small kitchen. I'm an avid home cook, and find it just as easy to create a great meal in my tiny galley as a large chef's kitchen. In a confined space, everything you need is right at hand, and several years working as a cook for a catering company taught me that you can truly cook anywhere (including the deck of a boat and behind a dumpster in two rare instances).

However, design can make or break a small kitchen's utility. When my husband and I bought our apartment seven years ago, our lease on our rental was expiring, so we had to renovate the awkward kitchen on the cheap — and in a hurry. Our remodel was an IKEA special that moved none of the original appliance placements. We did a pretty good job planning it, but with a little more time to get to know the space, I could have designed something even better. Now, seven years in, I am contemplating how to get even more utility out of our small space.

Designing a kitchen is tricky, especially if you have a finite budget, but it's worth the time and effort to get right because you're unlikely to renovate again. If you're hoping to redesign your current kitchen, take the time to observe how you use the space. Make a list of what you like and don't like about your existing kitchen. Note which places always seem to end up a mess. These will give you clues about how to redesign it for better function.

Here are 14 tips for renovating a small kitchen:

Pare back

Before moving into our current home, I did a major edit of our belongings. I was particularly ruthless in the kitchen category, eliminating the duplicates (do we really need two pairs of spring tongs? Two mesh strainers?) and the rarely-used items (goodbye silicone bundt pan!). If your kitchen is feeling cramped, I recommend starting with a long, hard look at what you can do without. For those infrequently utilized items you're not ready to part with, consider storing them elsewhere: our party and entertaining gear is all stashed in a closet and sideboard.

Pay attention to materials

We opted for a basic Shaker-style IKEA door that was in stock, but I wish we'd sprung for the Semihandmade doors we were considering. In a small space like the kitchen, you will be touching and experiencing the materials daily. Luckily, cabinet doors are something I can upgrade with the turn of a screwdriver, if (and when) I want to refresh our space. Now that Plykea is available stateside, I'm considering their birch plywood cabinet fronts; I'm also in love with these colorful wood knobs.

Don't skimp on the sink

Choosing a too-small basin is a common mistake in small kitchen designs, but you need a decent amount of space to wash dishes. One thing I wish we'd had the time and money to do is install a built-in drainboard, which streamlines your sink area by eliminating the need for the usual clunky plastic tray beneath your drying rack.

Explore your dishwasher options

When we first designed our kitchen, I couldn't figure out how to fit in a dishwasher without moving plumbing in major ways. Two years into living in my apartment, I discovered that GE makes an under-the-sink dishwasher and we quickly decided to have it installed. If you don't have the standard 24 inches to spare, an 18-inch dishwasher can do a day's worth of dishes for most families.

Rethink the refrigerator

Don't fret about opting for a smaller fridge. Once you shift your shopping habits, I think you'll discover there are advantages to less cooling space. For one, with a petite fridge, you are much less likely to buy more food than you can eat before it goes bad — and it is less likely to become a black hole of mystery leftovers and ancient condiments.

Embrace new stove tech

My big regret in our small kitchen is the cooking range. We kept the 24-inch gas stove that came with our apartment because it had never been used, but it was a cheap model. Knowing what I know now about the indoor air quality issues with gas stoves, I would definitely opt for an induction cooktop instead. For now, I'm waiting for a 24-inch induction range to come on the market, in the hopes that I won't have to rip everything out to replace the stove. Induction is a great choice for a small space because it gives it a streamlined look, and it doesn't heat up your space unnecessarily.

Go tall with cabinets

Cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling greatly increase your storage space and they eliminate the awkward above-the-cabinet space that usually collects dust. I use my high-up storage for items I use infrequently, like vases and specialty cooking tools. If you're not ready to replace cabinets, place bins or baskets in the under-utilized space above your cabinets. (You can store items you've bought in bulk, like paper towels, foods from a wholesale club, rarely-used appliances, and party supplies.)

Think big for tiles

It may be counterintuitive, but I recommend larger tiles in a small space because choosing bigger tiles reduces the number of grout lines and therefore visual clutter. I have extra-large 1'x2' floor tiles on our floor and mid-size 3"x6" tiles on our backsplash. I would especially recommend avoiding backsplash of teeny-tiny tiles with contrasting grout in a small space.

Consider your color scheme

Prior to my current apartment, I did a kitchen with the popular "tuxedo" look with a darker color on the bottom and lighter cabinets on the top, and I went back to a single-color kitchen because I found that the two-tone look made the space feel smaller. In the same vein of thinking, I'd avoid high contrast between walls and cabinets because it will visually chop up the room.

Enlarge entrances

Opening up doorways and the openings between rooms is a classic architect's trick to make a small space feel larger without major renovation. It's a particularly nice way to make a small kitchen less claustrophobic. My own kitchen came with an arched opening that almost goes to the ceiling, but if your room is closed off, consider asking your contractor to open things up.

Ditch the microwave

I am bracing myself for the backlash in the comments, but here you go: I have never had one in the 24 years since I moved out of my parents' home. Whether built-in or sitting atop the counter, a microwave takes up a serious amount of real estate in a small kitchen. We heat things up on our stovetop or in our toaster oven and are grateful for the extra square feet of space we've gained by losing the appliance.

Trick the eye

I was inspired to commission a mirror backsplash on one side of our galley kitchen after seeing one in a kitchen by Thomas O'Brien. The reflective glass was more expensive than tile, but I like how it amplifies the daylight and gives the illusion of more space (it's also a cinch to clean). In an earlier No Space Too Small column, a Food52 community member suggested hanging a mirror above the sink to create the effect of a window — a great way to fake a view!

Don't forget the little details

Use wall-mounted and hanging accessories to free up space elsewhere; for example, a wall-mounted, magnetic knife rack is a much more efficient way to store your knives than a traditional knife block. I'm considering adding a hanging fruit basket to clear up some additional counter space. Likewise, put the fridge to work with magnetic organizers. In my kitchen I have a paper towel holder and hooks for potholders and scissors. I'm eyeing a set of magnetic spice jars after seeing them on Instagram in Marie Viljoen's apartmente. One note of caution: Don't cover every vertical surface with storage or the room will start to look crowded.

Strive for beauty

This last tip is more philosophical: I've come to the conclusion that beauty matters in a small kitchen. Little touches like a fresh set of dish towels or decanting your dish soap into a pretty pump can do wonders to elevate the look and feel of your cooking space. Any time you purchase anything for your kitchen, whether it's a broom or a kitchen scale, ask yourself if you find it attractive. As you slowly replace the strictly utilitarian with useful beautiful things, you'll notice a difference in your small space.

By Laura Fenton

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