It’s a safe bet that you spend a good deal of time in your kitchen.
That time may include a fair amount of food preparation and consumption, as well as the inevitable cleanup process. Chances are, you also do plenty of activities in your kitchen that have little or nothing to do with food, such as work, socializing and school-project supervision.
“Obviously, the kitchen is one of the most useful areas in the home,” says Michelle Linden, co-owner and principal architect at Atelier Drome, a design firm based in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
But carrying out so many activities in the kitchen — perhaps all at the same time — makes it one of the busiest rooms in the house, as well.
“Whoever is doing the cooking or cleaning is probably going to invite everybody in there with them,” Linden says. “You know, you go to a friend’s house, everyone’s hovering in the kitchen.”
With so much energy buzzing through the room, it’s important to channel and direct it. Establishing zones — for cooking, for cleaning, for congregating — can help you achieve maximum efficiency and joy in this very special, very busy room.
Create efficiently with zones
No matter what else happens in the kitchen, preparing delicious things to eat is the room’s core purpose. Thus, it makes sense to make the cooking process as smooth as possible.
The popular “kitchen triangle” rule was designed for this function. Think of the refrigerator, the sink and the oven/stove as the three corners of a triangle, and place them in spots where the chef can move between them easily and without obstruction, neither too far apart nor too close together.
“The shape of the triangle, whether it’s very elongated or perfectly triangle, does not matter that much. It’s the distance that matters,” says Seattle designer Terence Tung. “The rule of thumb preferably is that you have one step and no more than two steps [between corners].”
While Tung — who owns Wallingford-based Luna Kitchen and Bath — does utilize the kitchen triangle idea in his kitchen designs, he also likes to think of the kitchen as encompassing four distinct zones: for food prep, for cooking, for baking and for cleaning.
“When you cook, you access your spices, your condiments, your utensils — you need those to be convenient,” Tung says.
Tung likes the prepping zone — the spot where food gets prepared for cooking — to be located close to the refrigerator and the sink, where the cleanup happens. For this reason, Tung recommends placing the refrigerator next to the sink, if possible. “When you bring everything out from the refrigerator, you want to go up to the sink area and wash and clean it, and then you chop or you slice all the food,” he says.
Tung says baking zones should also be near the sink to make cleanup easier.
The cooking zone is generally centered around the stovetop. For maximum convenience, Tung suggests making sure there’s plenty of counter space nearby. “The right and left sides [of the stove] should have sufficient counter space that you can reach without having to move your body around,” he says.
If you have space in your kitchen for an island, it can be an excellent way to add work zones.
“The island is a great place for food or baking preparation,” Tung say. “You can use it as a prep zone, and once you’re done, you just bring it to the oven or to the sink.” Islands should be centrally located so you can “get anywhere without having to go too far.”
Make it a place for living
Of course, these days kitchens are about much more than just cooking, Linden says.
“I think the work triangle is very efficient as far as preparing meals, but the kitchen is no longer just about preparing meals. It’s where we all congregate,” she says, emphasizing the need “for multiple people to gather and work.”
Managing that flow of people and movement is crucial, especially given potential kitchen hazards such as boiling liquids and broiling ovens. This is where a kitchen island can come in handy.
An island can be used for a variety of tasks, ranging from food prep to school or office work. Adults making dinner and kids doing homework can still enjoy each other’s company without getting in each other’s way.
“An island is a really great option to act as a divider to keep people out of your kitchen — you can have an efficient work area on one side of the island and a place for congregating on the other,” Linden says.
Another way to create separation is to set up a dedicated beverage zone to accommodate socialization and draw foot traffic away from the food zones.
“A bar or coffee or tea area helps in not having traffic concentrated in the cooking area,” Tung says. “Now you can have people serving themselves, away from the cooking zone.”
An extra sink on an island can be a valuable addition, Tung says, so those congregating in the beverage zone don’t need to use the main kitchen sink. But he cautions that any second sink should be far enough away from the main sink that there’s a sense of separation. “If it’s just a foot away, then it’s pretty useless. People won’t end up using it,” he says.
When planning zones, also keep in mind that good lighting and open areas will attract people.
“You can actually tailor your kitchen to where you want people to be,” Tung says. People are likely to “go to a wider, brighter space rather than going to the darker parts. That’s just human nature.”
Match the needs of your household
Above all, make sure your kitchen zones work for those who will be using them.
“One of the things that is really important to think about when we’re designing a kitchen is who is going to be using it,” Linden says. “You need people to be able to reach and access different things. So, rather than designing or arranging your space based on what Instagram or Pinterest tells you, really think about customizing it to your individual family.”
For example, she says, consider placing the microwave in a location where children who are old enough to use it can reach it without needing help.
Tung says older adults may not be as spry or flexible as they once were, and their kitchen zones should reflect their accessibility needs.
“As we get older, our physical abilities change,” he says. “If we don’t have to bend down too much or stand on a stool to get things, it’s really appreciated.”
Finally, don’t be afraid to add design elements in your kitchen zones to suit your tastes. This will help make them places where you like to spend time.
“Don’t be shy about bringing in touches that maybe don’t have a purpose, but they make you happy,” Linden says. “So if you like those funky drawer pulls and they make you smile, use them. They can always be replaced if you change your mind later, but it’ll bring you maximum joy every time you go in there if you see something you really like and are excited by.”