My first ‘real’ New York City apartment I rented post-college was absolutely perfect in almost every respect: it overlooked a quiet residential street close to incredible restaurants in Astoria, it was a 5 minute bike ride from work, and had just enough space for me, my partner, and roommate to cohabitate peacefully. The one room in our house that decidedly did not have enough space was our kitchen. Granted, the kitchen was more spacious than other apartments I’ve seen but with three people constantly cooking in it, we quickly outgrew the limited cabinet and counter space. In our three years of living there, we relied on tips and hacks to store things like our cookware, utensils, and ingredients in ways that were still functional for everyday use.
The biggest lesson was that there’s no such thing as useless space in a small kitchen — almost every inch of your walls or cabinets can be optimized to hold more stuff, whether with extra shelves or knife and utensil storage. The way you store pantry items like rice and flour also can make it easier to keep track of ingredients and make everything feel less cluttered.
I recently moved and while the new kitchen has more storage space, I’m still using the same organizational tricks. These are all of the items and tips that I used, plus a few more that would work for different kitchens and layouts.
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Making The Most Of Your Counter And Wall Space
There are a ton of storage opportunities in a small kitchen, if you know where to look. Empty wall space can become versatile hanging pegboard organizers that lay out all your cooking utensils or be used to hang pot racks. The weird gap between your stove and the fridge might be able to fit a spice rack, and a magnetic knife bar on your backsplash can free up valuable counter and drawer space.
It’s also a good idea to capitalize on vertical space whenever possible. Items like shelf risers will make it easier to stack things like plates or spices while still keeping everything accessible, or allow you to store more items within a smaller counter footprint.
This Fit-Anywhere storage cart from Yamazaki Home is true to its name, and is able to squeeze between awkward nooks and crannies or sidle up next to your fridge. The slim shelves are wide enough for spice jars or canned goods, and have a low profile siding to help things stay place while in motion while still maximizing visibility. The two small hooks on the top rack can also hold your oven mitts or a spare towel.
We previously raved about Food 52’s stylish oven mitts, but their smaller pot holders are also an MVP in a small kitchen. The cloth and silicone design feels soft on your hands, but can effectively handle a piping hot cast iron pan or baking sheet with ease. They also double as a trivet, and when it comes to organizing a small kitchen, the more versatile your stuff is, the better. Additionally, the feature that made these a must-have in my small kitchen is that they’re magnetic, so they can stick to your fridge or oven without taking up valuable drawer space.
If you’ve run out of out space in a small kitchen, you can simply make more with these organizers. They slide onto your existing cabinets, so there’s no drilling required (aka renter friendly), and they make use of that empty void beneath your shelves. Baking enthusiasts can use the baskets to store rolls of foil or parchment paper, or you could keep all your favorite coffee accessories above your pour over station.
One of the best ways to better optimize a small kitchen is with a sleek dish drying rack. This two-tier rack can fit plenty of bowls, plates, and utensils in half the space of a conventional drying rack, and it even has a slot for a cutting board. I personally like the matte black finish of this model, which will look good next to a wide variety of countertop and appliance finishes.
Take a page out of Julia Child’s book and organize your kitchen with a utilitarian pegboard. You can fully customize it to hang utensils, pots, pans, or even have it as a stand-in for pantry storage if you add a ton of baskets or shelves. Not only can a pegboard help you maximize the vertical space in your kitchen, but keeping everything visible on the wall will help you stay organized.
Once you’ve set up your pegboard, you’re going to need plenty of hooks, bins and peg locks to organize all your kitchen essentials. This set from Amazon has 80 pieces to hang everything from pans to spatulas and tongs, plus small caddies that hold spice jars or your trusty supply of kitchen Sharpies.
If you don’t have the wall space for a full pegboard layout (or just want to take a less maximalist design approach), a mounted rack can clear up tons of cabinet space. Depending on where you hang it, you can store pots and pans on the top shelf, and use the hooks beneath it for utensils, more pots, or even mugs. I had a similar one in my old apartment that we used to organize and display items like a microplane, box grater, and kitchen twine.
If you don’t have enough counter space for a knife block or can’t use your wall to mount a magnetic knife strip, you can dedicate a drawer (or portion of one) to safely store them (instead of having a random drawer of dangerously sharp objects, like I did). This organizer from Williams Sonoma is perfect for slotting in an impressive amount of knives without making them feel cramped. The wood grooves are also gentle on the blades, and will prevent them from being damaged.
If you have available wall space or a backsplash, you can install this stainless steel magnetic knife bar with the included mounting hardware or with extra-strength mounting tape. This particular model is 16 inches long, which is plenty to hold everything you use most. This will free up counter and drawer space for other kitchen tools and add a utilitarian look to your kitchen.
This silverware organizer by Joseph Joseph, with thousands of passionate fans, lets you stack your cutlery and is much more space efficient. Subtle icons help you identify what’s in each little cubby and the 15.5 x 6.9 x 2.2 inch dimensions are small enough to fit into more narrow or shallow drawers. While it’s currently out of stock, it’ll be restocked as soon as May 4th.
This over the sink dish drying rack is perfect for those who don’t have a dedicated, permanent space for drying their plates and bowls. It rests on the edges of your sink with silicone covered stainless steel, so it won’t damage your counters. The whole thing can be tightly rolled and stored in a drawer or under the sink when not in use and it also gets points for small kitchen versatility because it doubles as a trivet.
This drying mat from Yamazaki Home is even more minimal and compact for the tiniest of kitchens. You can use it in conjunction with a dish rack or just on its own, and the sloped sides drain excess water straight into the sink. Unlike most dish drying pads, this looks more like a design piece in your home rather than an obtrusive piece of plastic.
When most folks look at the surface of their fridge, they see a landing pad for novelty magnets or holiday cards, but this magnetic storage organizer and towel rack from Yamazaki Home is much more useful. The top rack can hold spices and a small bottle of your favorite olive oil, the middle bar has an integrated hook for your paper towel roll, and the bottom bar and hooks can be used to hang towels, utensils, and more. The entire thing snaps to any magnetic surface, making it perfect for renters who want to ensure they get their deposit back.
It’s safe to say that most small kitchens don’t have a Pinterest-worthy pantry to store ingredients and cooking accessories, so you’ll most likely have to make do with a few cabinets and shelves (if you’re lucky). Organization and visibility is even more crucial when it comes to your actual ingredients — if your spices are all tossed haphazardly, you’re more likely to end up with three different jars of dried basil (as I discovered when packing up my old apartment).
Easy to grab baskets and jars are essential, as they allow you to grab a large amount of ingredients at once so you can bring them down to eye level with ease. For example, we kept our extensive hot sauce collection in baskets on a shelf I’d normally ignore. If we wanted a certain bottle, we simply had to bring down the basket instead of individually pulling down bottles -- it’s way less messy and more efficient.
Below, a few other tips to keep your spices, sauces, and more organized.
Using transparent containers for dry goods like flour and beans makes it easier to take stock of what I already have on hand and also reduce messes. I love these OXO ones because the POP seal mechanism both is airtight and easy to open with one hand. They’re also dishwasher safe (only on the top rack though) for deep cleaning when you switch the container’s ingredients.
Stacking items like plates or bowls is an easy way to fit more in a shelf or cabinet but as things pile up, the harder it is to access the items at the bottom. These risers make it easier to take advantage of the full vertical space of taller cabinets, without creating a precarious tower of dishes. You can also use these in a makeshift pantry, with heavy goods like cans on the bottom shelf and lighter boxes of dry goods or spices on top.
I’ve been eyeing this gorgeous colored glass set from Our Place that we wrote about in Negroni Starter Pack, which nest on top of one another for a very satisfying stack. I’m obsessed with the summery sunset color, but the set also comes in a muted green and clear glass.
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly stacking glass set, these rounded glasses are made with sturdy Duralex to resist thermal shock and chipping. They’re also dishwasher, fridge, and microwave safe.
These plastic baskets come in a variety of shapes and sizes in the same pattern, so you can mix and match to your needs. My partner and I use them to store our massive spice and hot sauce collection on higher shelves so we can capitalize on harder to reach spaces. We find that it’s easier to browse and access everything. For even more organization, you can clip on some labels further divide items by flavor profile or how often they’re used. You can also use these to organize loose items like onions or fruits.
Storing flat items like baking sheets or cutting boards on their side will make it easier to slide out and replace items. This rack has dividers to ensure nothing topples over and is adjustable to fit your cabinet or pantry space. They’re also great for pot lids, if you need to stack or hang your pots and pans.
This simple over-the-door hanger doesn’t require any tools for installation and can hold smaller bits like foil and parchment paper rolls, or several flat items like cutting boards. Another benefit of this holder is that you won’t need to dig through everything to find your most used items.
These clear containers from Yamazaki Home can be used for dry ingredients like rice, flour, or sugar. The lid easily pops open with one hand and has its own measuring spoon that can dispense up to 5 ml of your ingredients at a time, saving you from having to wash a tiny spoon every time you need some seasoning.