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Why kitchen work zones are the way to plan your kitchen-

I’m sure you’ve heard of the kitchen triangle layout. It was the sink – fridge – stove kitchen layout that everyone had to have. With each side being 4 to 9 feet. Fine if you’re June Cleaver working alone in the kitchen, separate from the rest of the family as they waited for you to prepare, serve, and clean up after their meals. Take a look at the work zone layout and see how this update can improve how you use your kitchen.

Nowadays a kitchen has to accommodate many people moving around at the same time. There may be multiple folks at work preparing food, getting a snack after school and doing homework, a drink after work☺️, or socializing. The work triangle may not fit this lifestyle. And with work from home and online school, there’s probably more activity in your kitchen than before.

Work zones are the way to plan a kitchen by thinking more like a professional kitchen layout. Kitchens have become larger and more spread out often opening into other rooms. Specific zones are set up for specific tasks and making it easier to accomplish those tasks.

So what are the zones?

The zones can be broken down into –

  • Food storage- pantry, cabinets, refrigerators, and under-counter beverage fridges.
  • Food Prep- oven, cooktop, range, microwave, and worksurfaces for prep.
  • Cleanup- sink, dishwasher, trash, and recycling
  • Additional zones can include-
    • dish, small appliance, and pots and pan areas, though I like to put them in one of the above zones for easy access if I can
    • eating at a table, island, or bar
    • kid area for homework or just to keep an eye on little ones
    • social buffers usually an island, table, or pass through to keep guests close, but out of the way
    • dry or wet bar
    • coffee area

Let’s look at the kitchen zones more closely-

Food storage zone

This can be broken up into more than one area. You could have a pantry closet, say, or, a butler’s pantry😍. You may also want to have an area easily accessible for kids and include a beverage fridge and microwave. If I can I like to group pantry cabinets with the fridge for a couple of reasons-

  1. It keeps dry goods near the fridge so it’s easier to unload groceries, take stock of what you have, and makes a better flow when gathering ingredients for a meal.
  2. It finishes off the side of the fridge and gives a completed, built-in look.

Food storage can also be in both wall cabinets or base cabinets. Keeping it near the refrigerator is still the best way to keep the workflow streamlined. Whether it’s a full-height cabinet or base and wall, use roll-out shelves and other organizers to make your life easier. You’re less likely to waste or buy too much if you can pull out a unit and wee everything- and get at everything. Sure, you may lose some storage space, but it is more than made up for by accessibility.

Thomasville panty with door storage and wire pull-out shelves
Thomasville pantry with door storage and pull out shelves

Food prep zone

The food prep work zone encompasses range, cooktop, oven, microwave, pots and pans storage, small appliance storage, knives, utensils, spices and oils, and anything else that goes into the preparation of food. It also includes the countertop where all the true prep work goes on.

Keeping like items together streamlines workflow and cuts down on purchasing stuff you already had but was out of sight/out of mind. This is true for every area of your kitchen and house.

In a perfect world, cooking utensils, pots and pans, cutting boards, spices, oils, and condiments would be within a step or two of the stove. Drawers and pull-outs ease accessibility here too. Drawers make it easier to see and access stuff than pull out shelves. And pull out shelves are easier than stationary shelves. Who wants to get down on your hands and knees to get in the back of a cabinet to get something? Especially if you have to pull all the rest of the stuff to get at that one item!

I try to design with pull-out cabinets for frequently used utensils on one side of the cooker and either a spice pull out or tray/cutting board pull out on the other. (For right handed folks the utensils on the right and lefties on left work best.)

KraftMaid utensil pull out cabinet
KraftMaid utensil pull out with knife blocks

As to wall cabinets- directly above the cooktop you should have some sort of vent whether its an under cabinet microwave hood, under cabinet hood, or decorative hood (either stand alone or with decorative cabinetry). If you have one of the first two try to not to store stuff you may need while cooking. You don’t want to reach over a lit burner or hot pot to get at something. You can have pull outs for items where the door pulls forward to reveal attached shelves or storage like on the door of the pantry pictured above.

So far it’s been all about cabinets, but work surfaces are just as- maybe more- important. For both safety and usability countertops on either side of the cooktop/range are necessary. In some areas building code requires a minimum. Imagine having a range next to a high traffic area. A pan handle sticking out is a n accident waiting to happen. In my ancient kitchen the range is right up against a wall that I tiled. There were marks where hot handles rested against that and burned the wood molding. Scary! Another issue for my setup is many stove manufacturers require a minimum distance to a wall or it invalidates the warranty.

You really want to have space to do your prep and have your ingredients handy with enough room to work efficiently and not cramped.

Cleanup zone

The cleanup work zone is your sink area. It usually includes sink, trash, and dishwasher. You can include a garbage disposal, a cabinet just for trash and recyclables, tilt down apron at the sink for sponges, a cabinet for cleaning supplies, paper towel and dishtowels, etc.

I like to design with a two bin trash cabinet on one side of the sink and the dishwasher on the other. If possible the dishwasher is on the user’s dominant hand side. So you can scrape, rinse, put in dishwasher. I like a two bin with one for trash and one for glass/can recycling.

Trash can also go into the sink cabinet, but I prefer the other method if the kitchen is large enough.

Sink cabinets tend to be a drop spot for cleaning supplies and not very organized. You can improve them with pull-outs, or, my dream, a sink base with drawers. The drawers are u-shaped to accommodate plumbing and make it easy to find things.

sink cabinet with u-shaped drawers to accommodate plumbing
KraftMaid sink base cabinet with drawers

Everyday dishes and eating utensils should be close to the cleanup area so you don’t have to go too far to put them away. If you use a dishwasher, think of where you’ll stand to empty it and if you’ll have to keep walking around it. That’ll lead to many bumped shins. I know from experience!

Other types of work zones

An island or table can be a work zone. It can be used as extra prep space and may include the main or secondary sink. If the island has seating it can be used in place of a table, a homework space, a barrier to keep guest close but out of the work area, or, esp. these days, a home office. Take a look here for info on kitchen islands.

Speaking of homework and home office, a work zone with a desk in the kitchen hasn’t been as popular over the last few years. Probably due to tech advances with less paper and ever-shrinking computers. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a comeback with distance learning and WFH. A comfortable area with USB ports in outlets could make for a simple work zone.

In our house, we’ve set up an area we call the Barista station. It’s in our mudroom to keep it out of the way of activity ion the small galley kitchen. It has the coffee and tea stuff, a fridge drawer we got second hand, and a wine fridge. You could set up an area like this in your kitchen off it’s large enough. You could also do a wet or dry bar or an area with a microwave and beverage fridge for snacks.

How to make work zones in an existing kitchen

It’s easy enough to layout in zones when you’re starting from scratch, but what about if you aren’t going to gut the kitchen? Small city kitchen or large, simple galley or u-shaped with island, you’ve probably already got your zones up and running. If you have a dishwasher it’s probably near your sink. Your trash is nearby or under the sink as are your cleaning supplies. You may have your cooking utensils in a container on the countertop or in a drawer near the stove. Do you store pots and pans in the oven? I do!

The first thing to do is figure out what works and what doesn’t and why. Maybe something that works can be adapted to fix something that doesn’t. Know why it does or doesn’t work will give you a framework to improve or a reason its can’t be changed.

Next step is the hardest- purge! Maybe it’s not the hardest for you, but most of the stuff in my kitchen isn’t mine. I live with people who love to cook and want every ingredient, spice, condiment, and gizmo. We have spice racks and spice drawers. Pots and pans in three spots (including the oven).

Once you can really see what you have, you can think about wether its current home makes the most sense for how you and your family use the kitchen. It’s all about you!

Kitchen work zones-what are they, how to set them up, and why think zones not triangles.

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