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5 easy ways to get a more organized kitchen

Organizer Anne Mooney suggests subdividing the fridge with built-in drawers or added see-through plastic bins.  (Getty Images)
By Jennifer Barger Washington Post

Scroll TikTok or troll HGTV, and you might think kitchen organization begins and ends with open shelving stacked neatly with crisp white plates, or a pantry stocked with clear plastic bins filled with items arranged in rainbow order a la the Home Edit.

In the real world, professional organizers are more likely to recommend thinking of your kitchen in functional zones, and then arranging your pots, gadgets and food around how you cook (or don’t) in the space. “It’s amazing how often people unpack their kitchen stuff and don’t think about how or where they’ll use it,” said Scott Roewer of the Organizing Agency in D.C.

Let the classic kitchen triangle (sink, fridge, stove) guide you as you stash your stuff: Store oils and spices near the cooktop, put the dish rack next to the sink. If you have a lot of kitchen clutter, start by taking everything out of your cabinets and fridge and grouping items by category (cake pans, dried pastas). Before putting it all back, purge what’s expired or what you no longer need.

Here are other simple principles to help you tackle the main spaces of your kitchen.

The pantry: Ensure items are visible

Once you’ve sorted nonperishable food and kitchen wares into categories, figure out where to put them back. Store similar items together (canned goods, baking ingredients) and consider affixing labels to the insides of drawers and cabinets to indicate what goes where.

Being able to easily see and access items in the pantry (or the cabinets that function as one) is key. “If things aren’t shoved into cabinets willy-nilly, you can quickly glance into the pantry and know what you have,” said Dana K. White of a Slob Comes Clean. “Then you can ‘shop’ your kitchen before making dinner.”

Organizing gear can help tame the pantry, too. Onions and potatoes might slip into clear plastic bins or simple baskets; spices can be arranged on stair-stepped risers (think mouse-size bleachers). “And turntables are fantastic, since you can just spin them to access stuff that’s at the back of a cabinet,” said organizer Anne Mooney of Oakland, California. “It’s a circular solution to a square problem.”

The cabinets: Focus on what you use and how you use it

The prime real estate in your cabinets – easy-to-reach shelves, drawers close to the dishwasher – should be devoted to whichever plates, dishes and cookware you use most often. “It’s about proximity, putting silverware in the drawer right next to the dishwasher, or coffee mugs right above the coffeemaker,” White said.

Drawers will stay neater if you use compartmentalized dividers like silverware trays and low-profile knife blocks. This also keeps items from sliding around in drawers and becoming jumbled. If your cupboards don’t have slide-out shelves (a feature in many newer kitchens), you can add your own pullouts from companies like Rev-a-Shelf, the Container Store’s Elfa or ShelfGenie.

For dishes and glassware you only need a few times a year – Grandma’s formal china, large serving platters – Roewer suggested “looking beyond the kitchen for storage.” He keeps his wine goblets and collection of cocktail swizzle sticks in his dining room sideboard and recommends that space-challenged clients place holiday-only plates and cups in padded, zippered containers that they stash in a closet or attic.

The fridge: Treat it like a closet

Pretend your refrigerator is a closet for food, and it may be easier for you to organize it. This means that like goes with like once again. “Subdivide the fridge with one spot for drinks, another for meat and cheese, another for produce,” Mooney said. You can do that using the drawers the appliance came with (veggie crisper, fruit drawer) or via a few see-through plastic bins on the shelves.

Roewer swears by a “file not pile” storage mantra, particularly in the freezer. “You want to put stuff into the drawer on its side so you can see more of it,” he said. “You can also take things like frozen pizzas out of their excess packaging before you put them away. That can save room.”

Regularly check the expiration dates of refrigerated items, and watch for rotting veggies or spoiled meat. Some newer smart fridges use AI to monitor food’s freshness, but you’ll still need to enter in when you bought that lettuce or the “best by” date on that yogurt.

The countertops: Corral visual clutter

From instant pots to knife blocks, anything you leave on kitchen countertops can add to visual clutter. “Whatever you can do to cut down on the amount of stuff on the counter helps the room feel neater,” Roewer said. “Everyone has a different tolerance level, but in general, the less you have on the counter, the easier it is to keep clean.”

Magazine-worthy minimalism might not be possible in real life. But you can limit the load on your counters by clearing out a cabinet for storing small appliances, replacing a countertop microwave with a drawer model, or buying a dish-drying rack that folds or rolls up so it can be stored out of sight when it’s not in use.

Corral the items you do leave on the counter in containers or “stations.” Place wooden spoons and spatulas in an oversize jar by the stove or create a beverage station with mugs, tea bags and a sugar canister on a tray next to the coffee machine.

Under the sink or above the stove: Maximize tight spots

When kitchen space is at a premium, awkward spaces can morph into storage spots. “Even though there are plumbing pipes under the sink, you could still add rollout drawers or install shelving for other supplies,” said Shannon Kadwell, a kitchen and bath designer at Maryland’s Anthony Wilder Design/Build. Or place a small tension rod across the length of the under-sink cabinet, just in front of the pipes, and hang bottles of cleaning supplies from it, nozzles first.

While the tiny cabinets above some range hoods usually get too hot for food storage, they can work for water bottles. Stack them horizontally on their sides, with or without a small rack to hold them in place. “And if you have space above your cabinets, put that to use,” Roewer said. “But anything placed in a high spot like that can get greasy or dusty, so put things you don’t use often – holiday cookie cutters, party supplies – in bins with lids.”