Initializing the Kitchen : Kitchen Organization (part 2) - Uniform Storage Containers & Counter Layout

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3. Uniform Storage Containers

There are several benefits to using food-grade storage containers for bulk items such as flours, sugars, salts, beans, rices, cereals, grains, pastas, lentils, chocolate chips, cocoa powder, etc. Using standard-sized containers makes optimal use of space, and using plastic containers for storage keeps pantry moths in check. Pantry moths (weevils) can enter your kitchen as free riders in packaged dry goods such as grains or flours. If you’re concerned, freeze newly purchased bags of rice, beans, flour, etc. for a week before transferring their contents to storage containers.


Yes, there are bugs in dry goods like flour and cereal. Bugs happen. Take their presence as a sign that the food you are buying is nutritious.

Storing dry bulk goods in standardized containers is a more efficient use of space and prevents spills from torn paper bags. If you have the cupboard space, consider getting wide-mouthed containers for flour and sugar that are big enough for you to scoop directly from.

I store my bulk items in food-grade PVC containers, roughly 3″ × 3″ × 12″ / 7 cm × 7 cm × 30 cm, that I purchased online from U.S. Plastic Corp. (http://www.usplastic.com, search for “PVC clear canister with lid”). Look for a product that has a screw-on lid and meets FDA standards, that has clear sides so that you can clearly see the food inside, and that has a narrow enough opening that you can easily pour from the container into dry measuring cups without spillage. (For flour, you might want to use one of the larger Cambro storage containers.)


Having a hard time getting stuff to pour out of the container? Try rocking the container back and forth or rolling it in your hands to tumble out things like flour in a controlled manner.

If you have a particular food product that you buy regularly that comes in a suitable container (mmm, licorice!), you might be able to reuse the empty containers and skip the expense of buying new ones. As with spices, I label the tops of the containers and store them so that I can view the labels at a glance. This way, they can be stored sideways in a cabinet for a front view or in a pull-out drawer for top-down access.

4. Counter Layout

Should you have the luxury of designing your own kitchen, there is one rule that can make a profound difference: design your space so that you have three distinct countertop or work surfaces, each of which has at least 4 feet / 1.2 meters of usable space. Think of it like swap space: without enough space for raw ingredients about to be cooked (first counter), plates for cooked food (second counter), and dirty dishes (third counter), your cooking can crash mid-process as you try to figure out where to stack that dirty pan. This isn’t to say the three counter sections will always be used for those three functions, but as a rule of thumb, having three work surfaces of sufficient length (and depth!) seems to make cooking easier.


The 3 × 4 counter rule is a slight variation on the “Cooking Layout” design pattern from Christopher Alexander et al.’s A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction (Oxford; see p. 853). It’s a great book that examines the common design patterns present in good architecture and urban development.

If your current kitchen setup violates the three-counter, four-feet rule, see if you can come up with a clever way to extend a countertop or create a work surface. If you have the space, the easiest option is to buy a “kitchen island” on wheels, which you can move around as needed and also use to store common tools. If you don’t have the space for a floating island, see if there’s a spot where you can mount a cutting board onto a wall, hinged in such a way that you can latch it up out of the way while not cooking. Or, you might be able to extend a countertop over an unused space. (Ikea sells excellent and cheap wooden kitchen countertops.)

Kitchen Layout Tips

Most commercial kitchens are optimized to turn out meals as efficiently as possible. What tips can you borrow from the commercial world and apply in your home kitchen?

Cabinet doors. Restaurants don’t use them because they slow down access. If you cook often enough that dust isn’t an issue, see if removing a few strategic cupboard doors and going to open shelves might work. If you’re tight on storage, consider getting a Metro Cart or similar freestanding wire shelving.

Hanging pots. Yeah, hanging pots, pans, and strainers can look a little showy. But it’s also handy: they’re faster to find and easier to get to. And again, if you’re tight on space, hanging up your pots and pans will free up the cupboard space that they would have otherwise taken up. If you’re on a budget, look for a steel bar and some S hooks. For a couple of dollars you might be able to rig up a serviceable solution.

Counter space. Running out of space can be more than just frustrating; it can lead to kitchen lockup. The kitchen I had in college was miniscule. I once resorted to putting a warm pot that I was finished with on a rug near the kitchen, having run out of counter space for dirty dishes, only to discover that the carpet was synthetic nylon, followed shortly by the discovery that synthetic nylon melts at a rather low temperature. If you’re short on counter space, see if you can rig up a removeable cutting board between two counters.

Cleanability. Consider ease of cleaning in your setup. Commercial kitchens are usually designed to be scrubbed down: white tile, drains, stainless steel. While you’re probably not going to go that far, keeping the countertop free of various containers, jars, coffee grinders, etc. makes wiping down the space easier.

I once had a studio apartment with two feet of counter space in a tiny galley-style kitchen. I was able to add another work surface by building a “temporary” counter that spanned the galley space: I screwed a 2″ × 4″ board to the wall opposite the sink and found a cutting board large enough to span from wall to sink. Two dowel pins kept the board from moving. Whenever I needed the counter space, I could just pick up the board and drop it into place. It was simple, cheap, and easy—and well worth the two hours of time it took to put it in place.

If hacking your kitchen space isn’t for you, you might still be able to reclaim some space through judicious relocation of kitchen appliances from counter to cupboard (do you really use that bread maker every day?). Spending a few hours creatively reorganizing your counter setup will avoid a lot of potential headaches down the road.

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