How to Keep Kitchen Clutter Under Control

March 23, 2015

Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich will be going rogue on Food52 -- with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.

Today: Enough with the clutter! Take a love stance towards overflowing drawers and shelves and get excited to keep your kitchen spic and span.

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You will be shocked to discover how much more energy and motivation for cooking and baking you may have after even a modest bout of de-cluttering. Whole books are written on the subject. You can make it a major project or a series of small ones. I vote for the latter.

The goal is to clear counters and un-stuff drawers, cabinets, and crocks so that you can work with pleasure and serenity. The process is painless and incrementally rewarding if you do it in small bites, an hour at a time, over several weeks. 


First consider the hierarchy of your space:

  • Prime real estate: kitchen counters, drawers, crocks, and easy-to-reach cabinets
  • Suburbs: convenient pantries or closets, in or close to the kitchen
  • Outlands: basements, garages, and upper kitchen and pantry shelves that require a stepladder to access

To see immediate results, start with prime real estate and attack the low-hanging fruit: Pick one drawer or cupboard or one type of item and just dig in. (I started with an enormous collection of jars, containers, and lids and moved on to my collection of salts.) One thing will lead to another. 

Big hint: Save any hard or traumatic decisions for later -- they will get progressively easier the more you clean.


Toss out the obvious, then shift items from prime real estate to the suburbs (or beyond) based on frequency of use and ease of moving things back to the counter when needed. For example, if you move a heavy appliance to the suburbs or outlands, put it on an accessible shelf at waist level for easy lifting. Otherwise you will never want to use it again -- and when that happens, you might later consider getting rid of it altogether. As you progress, you’ll also find items in the suburbs that belong in outlands, etc. You’ll end up rearranging those areas and the decision to let go of things will become less traumatic. 

Start by tossing these things out:

  • Ancient food in bottles and cans and boxes. I’m not going to gives rule here -- you can read dates or just ask yourself if you would really eat or serve it.
  • Ground spices that smell faint or musty
  • Old oils (these are probably rancid)
  • Old specialty flours, nuts, and seeds (these are also probably rancid)
  • Opened cookies, crackers, cereal, or pretzels that are stale
  • Dried fruits that are rock-hard from age
  • Seasonings from your trip to New Orleans ten years ago 
  • Ugly souvenirs
  • At least half of that enormous supply of jars, containers, and lids for food storage 
  • Pot holders that are too thin, impossibly dirty, or torn

Now consider moving these things from prime real estate:

  • Infrequently used appliances that live on the counter
  • Never- or rarely-used or rusty utensils stuffed into drawers or crocks 
  • Extra cutlery and dishes used for hosting large parties
  • Special or seasonal baking tools, pans, cookie cutters, extra cookie sheets, and cake decorating supplies
  • Rarely used cookbooks
  • Ugly or torn dishtowels that should be in the ragbag 
  • Giant stock, crab, or lobster pots
  • Turkey roaster and rack
  • Miscellaneous, ugly, or cracked mugs, glassware, and dishes
  • Office supplies (isn’t there a better place?)
  • Barbecue utensils 
  • Craft supplies (after your kids are off to or even graduated from college)

Bigger Hint: To jump-start the de-cluttering process -- or to keep the momentum going -- it may be necessary to invite a friend in to play “bad cop” once in a while. It works. Be sure to return the favor.  

What are your best tips for keeping clutter under control? We want to hear them! 

Pick up a copy of Alice's new book Flavor Flours, which includes nearly 125 recipes -- from Double Oatmeal Cookies to Buckwheat Gingerbread -- made with wheat flour alternatives like rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, sorghum flour, and teff (not only because they're gluten-free, but for an extra dimension of flavor, too). 

Photos by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Herschelian
  • Traveler
  • anamaria rodriguez
    anamaria rodriguez
  • luvcookbooks
  • LeBec Fin
    LeBec Fin
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Herschelian March 29, 2015
My feeling is that you should address your kitchen 'stuff' much as you would your wardrobe but with a slightly longer time-line.
If you haven't used something for two years (or more) either sell it on ebay, donate it to a charity shop or chuck it out with the rubbish. There are one or two exceptions to this. Hang on to a fish kettle (but store other things inside it), keep a jam pan (if you haven't room for it lend it to someone who will use it,on the proviso you can get it back if you decided to have a marmalade-making spree). If you have gagets which duplicate functions, choose the one you like/use most and get rid of the others. If in doubt - chuck it out! Store things logically and keep a list of what you have and where it is.
As to the edible stuff, fresher the better. Dried herbs and spices become flavourless dust after a relatively short time. Buy the ones you use regularly in small quantities and replace them as and when. No-one needs a shelf full of stuff you might never use . You can tell I was once a librarian, can't you?!
Rose M. April 18, 2015
I've used the one-year concept in my wardrobe for many, many years. And now, thanks to you, I'll extend the practice into my kitchen "not used for two years" and it's gone! Thank you! Thank you!!
Traveler March 29, 2015
My motivation was a complete redo of my kitchen which meant taking everything out of the cupboards and drawers. The layout remained the same but I had my cupboards and drawers refaced and had new countertops (Caesarstone) installed, among other things. I also had a portable island that I got rid of (it was really in the way in my narrow kitchen). So I actually lost space in the redo. I had a trash compactor which I decided I really didn't need, so that came out and I had slats put in the space for cookie sheets, racks, etc. That space also gave me an extra drawer. I had one drawer converted to a spice drawer with slanted shelves. Spices put in in alphabetical order - so much easier to find what I need. I do keep all red spices in the refrigerator (cayenne, nutmeg, chili powder, etc.). They seem to deteriorate much quicker if left at room temperature (I live at the beach). I transfer all recipes I want to keep to my computer. When I want to use one I email it to myself and use my iPad to read the recipe in the kitchen. I cleaned out a nearby linen closet and put vases, seldom used party supplies, etc. on two of the empty shelves. Big stock pots and turkey roaster went into the garage. Luckily, I have a lot of counter space, so I do keep out those things I really use: Big food processor, small food processor, blender, toaster oven, two crocks of utensils (wooden spoons in one and other utensils in the other), coffee pot, cookbooks, and a few decorative objects. I am still doing some re-arranging, but I am very pleased by how things have worked out.
anamaria R. March 29, 2015
me facinan sus ideas para la organicacion y orden en toda la casa y en general
luvcookbooks March 25, 2015
Need more on this topic. Love the real estate metaphor. Thanks!
LeBec F. March 24, 2015
I was nodding through your whole piece! Some organizing tips from me:
--I store my heavy stainless bench scraper under my ancient irreplaceable toaster oven.There is a space where it just fits, and the large rolled edge at the top of the handle- is just big enough that it keeps the scraper from disappearing under the appliance.
-- my recipes are printed out and stored in plastic sleeves and stored in folders. I am lazy about putting away used recipes, so i store them flat in an attractive tray/box under my island and then sporadically do a big re-filing.
--to discern between dish washing sponges and clean-up sponges, i snip off a corner of my clean-up sponges.
-- I keep a pretty blue glass jar filled with a weak bleach solution-on the window sill behind one of my sinks . This is where smelly sponges occasionally vacation.
--we have a large garden and we generate a good amunt of compost, so to collect it, we use a blue grey Rubbermaid plastic rectangular bin with lid- on the back of the griddle section of our commercial range.

--All our constantly used cooking utensils are stored on the shelf above our range- upright, in rectangular decorative terra cotta plant pots that we have outfitted with a jury-rigged grid of dividers (like a wine box) to keep the utensils from falling over.
-- all our knives live on magnet bars affixed above a work counter.
I hope some of these might be helpful to other 52ers!
SallyM March 23, 2015
I really like this - the ideas are great and the language is fun!
Your O. March 23, 2015
Great advice. My mantra: don't wanna move anything to get to anything. Use the walls. Use hanging rails (IKEA!) and hooks... one utensil, pot or lid per hook My "ah-HA!": use the 1" or so lip on the back of your counter top (at the backsplash) to stand cutting boards. They lean in just enough. I like it so much, I used Command hooks and pretty ribbon to create a "guard rail" for the cutting boards when I realized that I really LIKE my cutting boards on display. And now they don't jump off the ledge when I'm pounding the chicken...!
Tucker &. March 23, 2015
I swear Alice has been in my kitchen! I recently did a lot of this, and wow, did it make a difference. Very inspiring, and might nudge me to take a second look. Thanks!
Pegeen March 23, 2015
Great tips and approach - thank you, Alice! Makes so much sense to break it down in the ways you describe. Question for Food52: is the wood caddy for holding cooking tools available in the Provisions shopping section?
Veronica F. March 23, 2015
Ah- unfortunately not anymore. The walnut utensils holder by onourtable used to be sold in the food52 shop.