How to organize a small kitchen (without relying on your pantry)

Utah-based home organizational expert let us in on how to organize a small kitchen properly for a beautiful and practical cooking space, no matter how compact.

kitchen organization
(Image credit: IKEA)

Moving into a new rental or browsing property listings online can quickly go from exciting to daunting when you realize the size of the cooking space you’ll be dealing with... Ultimately, this means you'll be organizing a small kitchen which is no easy feat. From limited counter space to a lack of shelving, most kitchens these days don’t exactly do much for the budding home cook. 

And while it’s true that everyone wishes they had a bigger kitchen or a built-in pantry, it’s also true that there are plenty of clever kitchen organizing tricks and tips that’ll make even the smallest of spaces efficient and surprisingly optimized – if you’re willing to get creative.

Below, we spoke to Jen Martin, founder of Reset Your Nest (opens in new tab), to get her best advice on exactly how to transform your kitchen into a home cook’s dream. From decluttering with purpose to finding storage space you didn’t know you had, here’s what you’ll want to do if you’re hoping to make the most of your small kitchen.

Only store what you use regularly

'Small kitchens can be a big challenge for anyone,' shares Martin. 'My team has helped turn hundreds of chaotic kitchens into stunning, well-organized spaces by encouraging our clients to only store what you use regularly.'

When you are limited on space, getting serious about what you really need is the most critical thing you can do. Ask yourself the following:

  • Which pots and pans do I actually use? Most of us really only use a couple on a regular basis. If you have extras, consider donating them to a local charity and be sure to organize pots and pans that are in use, efficiently.
  • Do I have small appliances that are handy, but not essential? 'We all have small appliances we love. Mine is my electric tea kettle. However, when you have limited shelf and counter space, you need to make choices or consolidate,' says Martin. 'Think about storing small appliances you don’t use frequently in another room or closet to free up space.'
  • How much food do I need to store? 'I love shopping at Costco. I have a large family and we go through food fast, but that also means we need to store all of that food,' says Martin. 'When you have a small kitchen, be thoughtful about the quantities of food that you purchase. I recommend keeping a reserve of items you use frequently and storing some emergency food items, but that can of expired beans that’s been sitting on your shelf for two years? Go ahead and toss it.'
  • How many times a year do I use it? Sometimes we hold on to items that are seldom used…special silverware, seasonal dishes, or huge turkey platters. Do you really want to dedicate an entire space to something you only use once a year? 'Think about boxing it up and storing it in another room or passing it on to a family member with a bit more space,' suggests Martin.
  • How many dish towels do I have? There are only seven days in a week. Do you need twenty dish towels? Definitely not.

'Remember, clearing the clutter in your small kitchen will make it function better for you and make it feel bigger,' adds Martin. 'The more that you declutter, the better you’ll feel.'

Maximize vertical space

(Image credit: IKEA)

'When you live in a small space, every inch matters. Don’t overlook vertical space, including the walls,' says Martin. You’ll want to consider adding a shelf to your cabinets, using stacking bins, and adjusting the spacing to maximize precious space in your cabinets.

'You can add a magnetic knife holder anywhere along your backsplash or above your stove. Pots and pans can be hung from racks, aprons from a hook, and dishes and essential food items (placed in airtight containers) could be stored on floating shelves,' she explains. 'I’ve used the side of a cabinet for hanging a wall spice rack and it looked beautiful.'

Do you have a number of cutting boards, for example? Martin suggests turning them into wall decor. Hang them and then pull them down when you need to use them. Find where your kitchen has space to spare and get creative about how you can make it function better for you.

Eliminate bulky packaging

kitchen organization

(Image credit: Reset Your Nest)
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'Getting rid of bulky packaging and replacing it with streamlined storage bins and containers is my number one tip for organizing any space and it’s especially important when organizing small spaces,' explains Martin. 'I promise you will be shocked once you start to implement this principle. Your space will literally expand.'

This will also ensure all your ingredients and shelf stable foods will be easy to see, making it much more feasible to know exactly what you have in stock and how much is left.

Style your kitchen with function in mind

kitchen organization

(Image credit: Reset Your Nest)
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Your counter is a great place to add a little style and also make the most out of limited space, says Martin. For instance, if you drink coffee, why not store your coffee in a cute jar? You could put your favorite mugs and a small tray with your favorite mix-ins next to it.

Short on counter space? If you have wall space, you could add a buffet. If you have floor space, consider adding a little island, she suggests. You can store baskets of food or pots and pans underneath and use the top as counter space.

kitchen organization

(Image credit: Etsy)
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How can I organize my small kitchen without a pantry?

Every kitchen is different – and as such, Martin suggests getting creative to make the best use of your space, proving that you don't need a pantry just to stay on top of it all. Here are some ideas that Martin has implemented with great success in her clients' homes:

  • Use the inside of cabinets to store paper towel rolls, hang dish rags, or store dish soap. 'I've lined the insides of cabinets with hooks for everything from drying towels, window cloths and dusting mitts to fly swatters,' she says. 'Hooks are so handy!'
  • Use the inside of your sink to store essentials used in the sink (scraper, washcloth, scrub brush, etc.). 
  • Do you have a broiler pan or large cookie sheet that doesn’t fit anywhere else? Consider storing it in your oven. Just remember to take it out every time you preheat, says Martin.
  • Think about how items can serve multiple functions. Mason jars can serve as drinking glasses, food storage, vases, and meal prep. A wooden cutting board can serve as a trivet, a cutting board, and a platter. The right kind of casserole pan can serve as baking ware, a serving dish, and Tupperware.
  • Collapsible tools are space savers. 'There are so many items you can now buy in a collapsible version,' she explains. 'Colanders, bowls, Tupperware, popcorn maker. If you have an item that is just too big, look to see if there is a collapsible version available.'

'Trying to make a small kitchen a happy kitchen can be very challenging. However, after organizing hundreds of homes and making multiple small kitchens work myself, I know that it is very doable,' says Martin. 'As you prioritize the items that you use the most and maximize every inch of space in creative ways that clears visual clutter, I know you will create a kitchen that can function and create calm no matter what the square footage is.'

Kaitlyn McInnis

Kaitlyn is an experienced travel and lifestyle writer with a keen interest in interior decorating and home optimization. An avid traveler, she's currently splitting her time between her apartment in a century-old châteauesque building in Montreal and her cozy chalet in the woods (that she built with her own two hands... and many YouTube tutorials!). Her work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Tatler Asia, Forbes, Robb Report Singapore, and various other international publications.