Kitchen Design

Lessons I Learned From Renovating My Small Kitchen

Ditch the microwave! Don’t skimp on the sink!

April 27, 2022
Photo by Weston Wells

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.

I have no complaints about having a small kitchen. I'm an avid home cook, and find it just as easy to create a great meal in my tiny galley as a large chef’s kitchen. In a confined space, everything you need is right at hand, and several years working as a cook for a catering company taught me that you can truly cook anywhere (including the deck of a boat and behind a dumpster in two rare instances).

However, design can make or break a small kitchen’s utility. When my husband and I bought our apartment seven years ago, our lease on our rental was expiring, so we had to renovate the awkward kitchen on the cheap—and in a hurry. Our remodel was an IKEA special that moved none of the original appliance placements. We did a pretty good job planning it, but with a little more time to get to know the space, I could have designed something even better. Now, seven years in, I am contemplating how to get even more utility out of our small space.

Designing a kitchen is tricky, especially if you have a finite budget, but it’s worth the time and effort to get right because you’re unlikely to renovate again. If you’re hoping to redesign your current kitchen, take the time to observe how you use the space. Make a list of what you like and don’t like about your existing kitchen. Note which places always seem to end up a mess. These will give you clues about how to redesign it for better function.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I too did a small galley kitchen remodel, mostly to make the space more functional. As another commenter did, I gained uninterrupted counter space by relocating the refrigerator. I bought a counter depth fridge, which makes the space look bigger. Also things don't get lost in the back. There was a 3-1/2 x 4 ft space that was unused in the prior kitchen (a crime!). I could have added more counter space and cabinets, but instead I turned it into a walk-in pantry. Small but functional -- in addition to food items I store my cordless vac, small appliances such as Instant Pot, pasta maker, etc as well as my frying pans and cookbooks. The kitchen opens onto a sunroom, dining room, and hallway leading to the front of the house, all of which have hardwood floors. So I used hardwood for the kitchen and then refinished all the floors so they match. I also installed an induction cooktop, which I love and which I've commented on elsewhere in this thread.”
— Marion B.

Here are 14 tips for renovating a small kitchen:

Pare back

Before moving into our current home, I did a major edit of our belongings. I was particularly ruthless in the kitchen category, eliminating the duplicates (do we really need two pairs of spring tongs? Two mesh strainers?) and the rarely-used items (goodbye silicone bundt pan!). If your kitchen is feeling cramped, I recommend starting with a long, hard look at what you can do without. For those infrequently utilized items you’re not ready to part with, consider storing them elsewhere: our party and entertaining gear is all stashed in a closet and sideboard.

Photo by Weston Wells

Pay attention to materials

We opted for a basic Shaker-style IKEA door that was in stock, but I wish we’d sprung for the Semihandmade doors we were considering. In a small space like the kitchen, you will be touching and experiencing the materials daily. Luckily, cabinet doors are something I can upgrade with the turn of a screwdriver, if (and when) I want to refresh our space. Now that Plykea is available stateside, I’m considering their birch plywood cabinet fronts; I’m also in love with these colorful wood knobs.

Don’t skimp on the sink

Choosing a too-small basin is a common mistake in small kitchen designs, but you need a decent amount of space to wash dishes. One thing I wish we’d had the time and money to do is install a built-in drainboard, which streamlines your sink area by eliminating the need for the usual clunky plastic tray beneath your drying rack.

Explore your dishwasher options

When we first designed our kitchen, I couldn’t figure out how to fit in a dishwasher without moving plumbing in major ways. Two years into living in my apartment, I discovered that GE makes an under-the-sink dishwasher and we quickly decided to have it installed. If you don’t have the standard 24 inches to spare, an 18-inch dishwasher can do a day’s worth of dishes for most families.

Rethink the refrigerator

Don’t fret about opting for a smaller fridge. Once you shift your shopping habits, I think you’ll discover there are advantages to less cooling space. For one, with a petite fridge, you are much less likely to buy more food than you can eat before it goes bad—and it is less likely to become a black hole of mystery leftovers and ancient condiments.

Embrace new stove tech

My big regret in our small kitchen is the cooking range. We kept the 24-inch gas stove that came with our apartment because it had never been used, but it was a cheap model. Knowing what I know now about the indoor air quality issues with gas stoves, I would definitely opt for an induction cooktop instead. For now, I’m waiting for a 24-inch induction range to come on the market, in the hopes that I won’t have to rip everything out to replace the stove. Induction is a great choice for a small space because it gives it a streamlined look, and it doesn’t heat up your space unnecessarily.

Go tall with cabinets

Cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling greatly increase your storage space and they eliminate the awkward above-the-cabinet space that usually collects dust. I use my high-up storage for items I use infrequently, like vases and specialty cooking tools. If you’re not ready to replace cabinets, place bins or baskets in the under-utilized space above your cabinets. (You can store items you’ve bought in bulk, like paper towels, foods from a wholesale club, rarely-used appliances, and party supplies.)

Think big for tiles

It may be counterintuitive, but I recommend larger tiles in a small space because choosing bigger tiles reduces the number of grout lines and therefore visual clutter. I have extra-large 1’x2’ floor tiles on our floor and mid-size 3”x6” tiles on our backsplash. I would especially recommend avoiding backsplash of teeny-tiny tiles with contrasting grout in a small space.

Consider your color scheme

Prior to my current apartment, I did a kitchen with the popular "tuxedo" look with a darker color on the bottom and lighter cabinets on the top, and I went back to a single-color kitchen because I found that the two-tone look made the space feel smaller. In the same vein of thinking, I’d avoid high contrast between walls and cabinets because it will visually chop up the room.

Photo by Weston Wells

Enlarge entrances

Opening up doorways and the openings between rooms is a classic architect’s trick to make a small space feel larger without major renovation. It’s a particularly nice way to make a small kitchen less claustrophobic. My own kitchen came with an arched opening that almost goes to the ceiling, but if your room is closed off, consider asking your contractor to open things up.

Ditch the microwave

I am bracing myself for the backlash in the comments, but here you go: I have never had one in the 24 years since I moved out of my parents’ home. Whether built-in or sitting atop the counter, a microwave takes up a serious amount of real estate in a small kitchen. We heat things up on our stovetop or in our toaster oven and are grateful for the extra square feet of space we’ve gained by losing the appliance.

Trick the eye

I was inspired to commission a mirror backsplash on one side of our galley kitchen after seeing one in a kitchen by Thomas O’Brien. The reflective glass was more expensive than tile, but I like how it amplifies the daylight and gives the illusion of more space (it’s also a cinch to clean). In an earlier No Space Too Small column, a Food52 community member suggested hanging a mirror above the sink to create the effect of a window—a great way to fake a view!

Don’t forget the little details

Use wall-mounted and hanging accessories to free up space elsewhere; for example, a wall-mounted, magnetic knife rack is a much more efficient way to store your knives than a traditional knife block. I’m considering adding a hanging fruit basket to clear up some additional counter space. Likewise, put the fridge to work with magnetic organizers. In my kitchen I have a paper towel holder and hooks for potholders and scissors. I’m eyeing a set of magnetic spice jars after seeing them on Instagram in Marie Viljoen’s apartmente. One note of caution: Don’t cover every vertical surface with storage or the room will start to look crowded.

Photo by Weston Wells

Strive for beauty

This last tip is more philosophical: I’ve come to the conclusion that beauty matters in a small kitchen. Little touches like a fresh set of dish towels or decanting your dish soap into a pretty pump can do wonders to elevate the look and feel of your cooking space. Any time you purchase anything for your kitchen, whether it's a broom or a kitchen scale, ask yourself if you find it attractive. As you slowly replace the strictly utilitarian with useful beautiful things, you’ll notice a difference in your small space.

Do you have a small kitchen? What are the ways you get the most out of it? Let me know in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mel
  • samanthashepherd
  • Toddie
  • Sami
  • DeanC
Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


Mel June 26, 2022
I NEED that fridge door paper towel holder! Where can I find it?
samanthashepherd June 25, 2022
Another thing I did on my recent renovation is to use part of a wall between the kitchen and bathroom and open it up between the studs and addd adjustable shelves to make an open shelving pantry and spice rack. It's a great way to use space that otherwise gets closed up. Most cans, spices, pantry items are only 3-4 inches deep so you can get a lot of extra and accessible storage that way.
samanthashepherd June 25, 2022
Using tile for a backsplash is the worst idea ever. I do not know why it is such a popular option. It can be pretty, yes, and add a design feature, but having grout behind a cooktop where grease can accumulate is a no for me -- difficult to clean and does not age well. In my last two renovations of tiny kitchens, I used the same material as my countertops (engineered stone) that had no seams.

No microwave is also a bad choice. For thawing out frozen food, cooking a frozen store entree when you're busy or don't want to cook, and so many other heating-up tasks, it's an indispensable appliance. There is a 24" unit that can over a cooktop.

Get a dishwasher -- figure out how to make room for one. It saves so much on water usage and takes the drudgery out of washing dishes. Could not live without it. I gave up some under counter cabinets to be able to squeeze in a full-size 24" unit on my current apartment -- previously I put in an 18" unit, but I cook a lot so depending on your needs, go for as big as you can fit into your plan.

Lastly, there is a 24" induction cooktop (Bosch) last time I looked a few years ago (though not a range with oven, but maybe there are some available now). The problem I had was my co-op in NYC would not allow me to install it because it required 220V power and wouldn't approve it. That may be a big problem for other city dwellers as well, since many buildings will not allow you to shut down electrical legs to be able to do an upgrade and/or pull more service to your meter to install that kind of unit.
Toddie June 8, 2022
I replaced my microwave with a combination microwave/convection oven. I love it. I have a very small oven and the convection oven gives me more options when I'm preparing large meals. Also, it heats up very quickly, so I can have fresh cookies from freezer to tummy in less than 20 minutes. And, it doesn't heat up the kitchen like a traditional oven, so I don't mind firing it up during the summer.
Sami May 17, 2022
Barbara Kafka was a best friend of Portland's gourmet chef James Beard. And she wrote the cookbook "Microwave Gourmet."

If one wants expert advice to cook vegetables and rice among other foods, check it out.
DeanC May 15, 2022
Hey Laura- Cool focus and nice piece on kitchens! We recently developed TheOnlyBowl - and are introducing it on Kickstarter right now - to help cooks with small spaces (and cooks of all types) save space, time, hassle and mess with their meal prep, serving and clean-up. Love for you to check it out and let us know what you think?! We're on Instagram at #theonlybowl_launch Thanks!
Marion B. May 14, 2022
I too did a small galley kitchen remodel, mostly to make the space more functional. As another commenter did, I gained uninterrupted counter space by relocating the refrigerator. I bought a counter depth fridge, which makes the space look bigger. Also things don't get lost in the back. There was a 3-1/2 x 4 ft space that was unused in the prior kitchen (a crime!). I could have added more counter space and cabinets, but instead I turned it into a walk-in pantry. Small but functional -- in addition to food items I store my cordless vac, small appliances such as Instant Pot, pasta maker, etc as well as my frying pans and cookbooks. The kitchen opens onto a sunroom, dining room, and hallway leading to the front of the house, all of which have hardwood floors. So I used hardwood for the kitchen and then refinished all the floors so they match. I also installed an induction cooktop, which I love and which I've commented on elsewhere in this thread.
lsybrandt May 14, 2022
Gneiss Spice makes terrific magnetic spice containers for refrigerator or inside a cabinet door on a mounted metal plate
Cookeattweet May 13, 2022
Would you mind sharing the source for the overhead light?
Laura F. May 17, 2022
It's Schoolhouse Electric, but I don't think they sell this particular combination any longer, sadly. Base is ceramic.
KSDB May 13, 2022
Another small galley kitchen renovation here.

Lots of ideas, but one (two part) piece of advice: Whether you hire a contractor or you do the renovation yourself, (1) never stop measuring, and (2) unless you really don't cook much, do figure out where you're going to put everything -- and I mean everything -- you use. You'll still end up rearranging lots when you're done. But at least you'll be certain to have room for what you need.

Also, not really advice, but a word of caution: If you cook a lot, think before you take down that wall. You might still want to do it, But you lose an awful lot space for hanging tools (and artwork!).
Joe May 13, 2022
I replaced my lower cabinets with gloss white/wood topped tool boxes and couldn't be happier. They cost a fraction of the cost of custom cabinets and gave me the clean look I wanted. All of my pots and pans fit in a single drawer as do all the sheet pans and cutting boards. My silverware and knives have never been more organized and again...a single drawer. The lower drawers are deep enough appliances such as instant pots, blenders, toasters, etc..
pa May 13, 2022
What a brilliant idea. I would love to see a picture. Did you take the wheels off the bottom?
Renee May 13, 2022
Photo please?
Joe May 13, 2022
Nope…wheels on so I can clean and/or move as needed.
Joe May 13, 2022
Can we post photos?
Renee May 14, 2022
Do you have photos of this innovative kitchen design on another app like Instagram or FB? If so share the link here.
KS May 13, 2022
I totally agree with everything you said. Well, except I really do use 2 tongs at once sometimes. Here’s another idea: counter depth refrigerators. Only the doors protrude into the room. This makes a big difference visually, and if your floor space is small, a huge difference in maneuverability.
Peter C. May 13, 2022
Hi, I love your kitchen! What is the brand/model of your coffee maker?
Laura F. May 13, 2022
It's a VERY old Braun (80s or 90s). These were truly the greatest drip coffee makers ever made. (They stopped making coffeemakers for a decade or so. I have not tried the new ones that they recently introduced.) If you see one at a yard sale or buy one on eBay, I think you will like it. They get the water very hot, which makes for strong coffee. Plus, they have a minimal countertop footprint and with no bells and whistles, there's nothing to break. I once wrote a love letter to them:
Amy May 1, 2022
Love this kitchen! What material did you use for the floor?
Laura F. May 2, 2022
It's a very inexpensive ceramic tile sourced from a local tile shop, grouted with the closest match we could find.
Emily May 1, 2022
We've been looking at induction too. Our local city is banning gas stoves in new homes so looking at options. When researching induction my partner read about the magnetic properties interfering if someone had pacemaker. Anyone hear about this? Seems a bit far fetched but wanted to see if anyone has heard this from reliable sources.
Complicity May 1, 2022
Can't speak to the specifics (that would be for a cardiologist), but know that induction has been the go-to burner in Europe for nearly 30 years. My first induction cooktop here was a relabelled French one, imported through Canada (and, yes, approved here). Units made for the American market have been around for a decade or so only.
Complicity May 1, 2022
Induction is faster than gas to cool down, almost instant, because has no heat-retaining cast-iron grid. Heats fast and is much more energy efficient. Doesn't work with aluminum cookware, but most of us abandoned that for health reasons long ago.
MacGuffin May 13, 2022
Speak for yourself. I have Stanish omelette pans and several pieces of Ballarini Profi-Granite. In addition, I have lots of Brooklyn Copper and Émile Henry cookware as well. My newly restored Chambers stove will continue to cook and bake with the gas turned off which, by my reckoning, is pretty energy-efficient. Cool-down-instantly isn’t the way I cook; your own mileage, of course, may vary.
Complicity May 1, 2022
Agree with Laura re induction. The.newer models are superb! Wouldn't return to gas for the world. (Was an editor at Gourmet, so have fair amount of cooking experience.). Clean, compact, noxious vapor-free. Requires adequate amperage, which can be a problem in pre-war NYC buildings.
Laura F. May 3, 2022
We've decided to do an article on induction cooktops after seeing the many comments here! Would love to know if there's a particular model you have used and loved!
Jane May 13, 2022
Until I moved to an area without gas I never used an electric stove. I hated it and within a month I bought an induction range. It is without doubt my favorite purchase EVER. I will never go back to gas. Where I live, HD and Lowes don’t ever show any induction . I can’t believe they are so behind the times.
KS May 13, 2022
I’m envious of your clean induction cookers. I don’t have the amperage for one, nor for A/C, nor for an electric dryer, nor for charging an electric 🚗…and no way to increase my electric service. The gas and electric utility just installed all new gas lines and meters, too, so I guess they don’t have any plans to ban it. Seems backward to me. But DO check very carefully before setting your heart on something you can’t have.
Marion B. May 14, 2022
I've used induction for more than 10 years. I have two mid-priced cooktops: a Kitchen Aid 30" in my principal home and a 36" Bosch in a vacation home. I've never had a problem with either one. Induction is a great way to cook -- as responsive as gas, faster at bringing liquid to a boil, better at holding very low simmers. Also easy to clean. One house has a small kitchen. I love the way the cooktop provides extra counter space and visually disappears into the black granite countertop, making the space look sleeker and bigger.
lsybrandt May 14, 2022
We have used free standing induction cook tops on our boat and RV for years. Heston makes a very compact model. We have 2 that we store in a drawer leaving the limited counter top open and giving us flexibility regarding cook space. We can also use it to cook outdoors
Complicity May 1, 2022
Don’t forget toe kick drawers!
kathy May 1, 2022
I love the look of your kitchen! Your article is perfectly timed as I am in the middle of a galley kitchen remodel. I have one question regarding the mirror which is an excellent suggestion to bounce the natural light throughout the space. My kitchen has the oven on the opposite side of the sink. Both seem problematic for a mirror with either grease from the stovetop or water. What are your thoughts about this layout? Could I still add glass or is the placement a problem. Thank you!!
Laura F. May 3, 2022
I can't speak from personal experience, but I've seen it done! Examples here in this ancient blog post:
Dianne N. May 1, 2022
The one thing I would never do is have an induction stove top. We did a lot of research and after talking with one chef and restaurant owner, we learned a lot. He had been selected to test out induction cooking and he said he thought it was great. After the test, he had it all removed and went back to gas. He said he could never create the quality of product from induction. I have used both gas and electric and for me both are preferable. If you don't want gas, then just go to old electric.
louise61 May 1, 2022
This is interesting, since I've sort of been considering getting rid of the gas and going to induction. Did he say why specifically? Is induction less responsive than electric, in the sense that it takes longer to heat up and cool down? This is why I switched from electric to gas in the first place.
kathy May 1, 2022
thank you for sharing his input. I am struggling moving from gas to electric. We are remodeling a rental that we are going to live in for the next 6 months. I opted to go electric vs. induction to eliminate the need for magnetic cookware for the future occupant. There is an overwhelming amount of articles stating induction is the way to go. Still unsure of my decision
pa May 1, 2022
I'm a former restaurant chef, and I can see why a chef would conclude that induction can not compare to a commercial gas range. Professional ranges are much more powerful than anything you could put in your home, so not a good comparison. Chefs need this because they are turning out dozens of dishes per hour. I have also used residential induction cooktops and love them. They heat instantly and the stovetop does not get hot. Newer models allow you to choose specific temperatures. Say you want to cook a custard to 140 degrees, you can set the stove to do so, or set the perfect temperature to poach eggs. What intrigues me is the porcelain slab countertops with induction burners inbedded. Just looks like countertop and can be used as such if you're not using the burners.
louise61 May 1, 2022
Thank you!
Laura F. May 3, 2022
pa: We've had such a lively comment discussion about induction cooking that we've decided to do a whole post about it! If you'd be willing to answer a few questions by email about cooking on induction, I'd love to include your insights as a chef and Food52 community member. I'm [email protected]
Linda May 13, 2022
Induction is much more responsive than regular electric. Maybe try a single burner induction…they’re relatively inexpensive. I’ve been cooking with a single induction burner and the smallest Breville smart toaster oven that was a temporary solution to a dead stove I didn’t want to replace right away. It’s going on three years now. I absolutely love the induction burner. I have an inexpensive no-name model purchased on eBay and it still heats faster than my electric stove ever did. I make coffee in a Moka pot every morning…4 minutes. A small pot of oatmeal is done in less than 10 min. Eggs scrambled perfectly in about 2 minutes. I’m no gourmet, but home cook all my meals. I’ve cooked with gas in the past and still would choose induction. I may never spend the money for a new stove.