Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Frugal Storage Solutions for the Small Kitchen

Right now, across the country, renters and small home owners are buckling down, stocking up, and preparing to embark on months – maybe years – of financially prudent home cooking.

And right now, across the country, they’re all asking the same question:

“Where the crap am I going to put everything?”

Ahhh … the curse of the tiny kitchen. It’s plagued friends, family members, and fellow food bloggers for generations. Those of you out there with two shelves, one cabinet, and zero counter space know the deal. ‘Cause see, when you don’t have room for a coffee mug, it’s very, very difficult to care about four different types of vinegar.

Happily, there are solutions to the space issue, and many of them can be executed with zero-to-little money. Time, creativity, and research make tremendous differences in a microscopic galley, and here’s what you need to do to get started:

HOW TO BEGIN

Cull and condense. Item by item, go through your kitchen and chuck or sell whatever you don’t need, don’t use, or is too large to fit into your space. This includes long-ignored appliances (bye bye, breadmaker) and food you’ve held on to for eons (et tu, corn flour). Then, stack, hang, and smush whatever’s left.

Store extras elsewhere. Kitchen items don’t necessarily have to be confined to the kitchen. You know the king-sized roasting pan you use twice a year? It’ll fit nicely under your bed. Those Christmas placemats from Grandma? Stick ‘em with the bath towels. And your R2D2 salt and pepper shakers? Well … actually, don’t move those.

Reconfigure if possible. Rearranging your current kitchen furniture may be all you need to open up some room. Little stuff, like moving the garbage can under the sink or placing the microwave on top of the fridge, can make a huge difference. HGTV’s online floor planner can help.

Look for open spaces and take measurements. Is there a clean surface? A blank wall? A gap between two cabinets? A few inches above a counter? If so, something can probably be stored there. Figure out the space’s dimensions, write ‘em down, and bring the paper with you whenever you’re on the lookout to buy storage.

Search for inspiration. Peruse books, browse websites, and gaze longingly at photos. You may not be able to afford the exact equipment you like best, but frugal substitutes abound. For ideas, check out:

… and all those shows where people spend $0.99 to create a mini Le Bernardin.

Once these steps are completed, the real brainstorming can begin.

WHAT TO DO

Collapse it. Taking a cue from campers, wooden dishracks, folding tabletops, and collapsible strainers are becoming increasingly popular ways to conserve space. And while utensils must be bought, furniture can be fairly easily constructed. Heck, if you’re feeling saucy, you can even build a fully collapsible kitchen. (It might run an extra dollar or two, though.)

Hang it. When hunting for extra room to put stuff, it always pays to look up. Pot racks, knife strips, magnetic refrigerator hooks, pocketed shower curtains, and floating baskets are just a few of the myriad ways to suspend items in mid-air.

Organize it. Between the four people in my house, we have approximately 4,000 pieces of somewhat-matched Tupperware. When they’re neatly organized, everything fits beautifully. When they’re not, it’s anarchy. If you can find extra room for inexpensive organizers, you’ll create additional space just by eliminating mess. Perhaps a drawer spice rack, easily-stacked bowls and pots, or simple utensil hanger could help.

Remove it. We recently took the door off its hinges in our small Brooklyn kitchen. Now that it doesn’t swing open anymore, we’re magically left with two more feet of wall space. There’s a modest liquor/appliance/placemat cabinet sitting there now. Disconnecting cabinet doors could do similar wonders. (Renters, obtain landlord permission before you try this.)

Repurpose it. From bedside tables to over-the-door hooks, any extra household furniture can be put to good use in the kitchen. I have an eight-year-old, 80”-tall CD shelf from IKEA that’s currently posing as a giant spice rack. Since it’s only eight inches wide, it’s ideal for cramming into tight spaces. An old bookcase serves a similar function, holding my slow cooker, hand beater, and cookbook collection.

Shelf it. The beauty of shelving is that you can stack shelf on top of shelf on top of shelf, until the storage units themselves become so small that you’re actually organizing atoms. Whether you’re building shelves over your head, covering a wall with them, hiding them in a cabinet, storing them under the sink, or spanning them between cabinets, it’s a good way to inexpensively double your storage. The Boyfriend and I installed an $8 overhead shelf in our bathroom last year, and we’re no longer fighting our towels for sink space. It’s lovely.

Wheel it in. More than almost anything else, I find my small-kitchened friends adore rolling carts. Scooped up at garage and clearance sales, these can be incredibly helpful, creating both extra counter space and storage. Same goes for wire racks, which are eminently portable, easily collapsible, and vastly multi-purpose…able.

Of course, once you’ve had all these wonderful ideas, and you’re pretty sure what you need, you have to find a halfway decent place to hit up for supplies. Sooo…

WHERE TO GO

Amazon. The one, the only, and often the best-priced option around. If you’d rather not buy supplies online, the site remains one of the best places to peruse reviews. Just remember this rule of thumb: if something on Amazon receives below four stars, don't buy it.

Craigslist. As classified sections go, this online bazaar can’t be beaten. It’s good stuff at low prices, straight from the folks who bought ‘em. Don’t forget to check the Free section before browsing For Sale signs, and maybe stay out of Casual Encounters entirely. Just sayin’.

Family and friends. Ask mom first. And if that doesn’t work, ask dad. You KNOW he’s got extra shelves lying around the garage.

IKEA. With an increasingly reliable/decipherable online presence, the mack daddy of Swedish discount furniture stores has every storage solution you’ve ever imagined would or could exist.

Online clearance sections. While internet kitchen outlets may not always be the thriftiest places to visit, you can nail deals fairly often on their Sale pages. Crate and Barrel, Stacks Outlet, Bed Bath & Beyond, Pot Racks Galore, and Cooking.com will get you started.

Yard Sales. Self explanatory.

For a longer list of ideas, check out “Finding Quality Kitchen Equipment on the Cheap.” And once you’re all done, keep these tips in mind moving forward…
  • Try to buy bulk for only what you absolutely need. Rice? Yes. Capers? Uh, only if you really, REALLY like capers.
  • Look for smaller appliances. Since a 15-cup food processor is rarely necessary for one person.
  • Avoid items that aren’t multi-purpose. Because a mango corer will only get you so far, but a chef’s knife is forever.
Readers, what about you? What kind of inexpensive space-saving solutions have you come up with for your small kitchen? Do tell.

(Photos courtesy of Organizing LA, The Kitchn, and Proud of My Loneliness.)

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