Beyond the kitchen triangle: saving work in the kitchen with some simple hacks
Lately I’ve been obsessed with kitchen efficiency. Not green efficiency, but efficiency in terms of work. I would prefer to spend my time enjoying food, not preparing it or cleaning up. Why does my mother-in-law’s kitchen seem like such a breeze to work in while my own kitchen felt so awkward? And how can I save work without spending $20K-$100K on a major renovation?
I embarked on my own amateur analysis of kitchen flow and modded my kitchen to match. My work began with this kitchen work flow diagram:
I’m not much of a graphic artist, but it succinctly shows why it can be so hard to do work efficiently in the kitchen: so many things need to be connected.
The two basic things you need to do in a kitchen (what you want to do there is a different story) are prepare food and clean dishes, and those activities both require you and your workspace have access to at least 7 different resources. They are: cooking devices like the stove or coffeemaker, food in cabinets, food in the fridge, frequent use items such as salt, dishes and utensils, the sink, and the trash/recycling.
Note this diagram immediately suggests several things. There are so many resources you want to be adjacent that it’s definitely going to be a challenge to arrange them. Just arranging the sink, stove, and fridge into a “kitchen triangle,” as promoted by many vendors, is too simplistic, because it ignores items like the trash which are in frequent use. But to the extent these things can be arranged nearby one another, and a usable workspace maintained, tighter arrangements should be better, because less motion will be required. I’ve heard many good cooks say they don’t mind or even prefer small kitchens.
IDENTIFYING PROBLEM AREAS
The diagram also suggests a way to quantify kitchen labor: the total number of motions required to reach all 7 resources. If everything is perfectly connected, and I access all 7 resources once, it will total 7 motions. A “motion” here basically means a step with the foot, a grab with the hand, or both.
Before my modification, my kitchen was a poor performer, coming in at about 15 motions required to reach all the different resources. The serious trouble spots came from:
– the location of the refrigerator, which was far away and whose door oriented the wrong way (2-3 motions per access)
– the placement of the trash/recycling under the sink and behind cabinet doors, which required a complex dance of 4-5 motions per access (step back, swing open door, deposit item in bin, close door, step forward) to recycle one item.
– the location of the dishes and pans in 2-3 different places: a hand-wash dish rack on the counter with the most frequently used plates, cups, etc; a cabinet somewhere else for dishes that would not fit in that rack but we still needed often, and a rack above the range for pots and pans.
The modded kitchen doesn’t look too special, but it’s considerably more efficient. I’ve gotten the work metric down from 15 to about 8.5 motions, without any architectural changes. That is, I’ve nearly halved the work of cooking or cleaning. Here’s an annotated view:
After moving the fridge to just off the left side of the picture, I had a traditional kitchen triangle with the sink in the middle and a workspace on either side of the sink: the right-hand one toward the range, and left-hand one toward the fridge. The right-hand workspace is smaller, but I got a cutting board that fits exactly on the sink and expands it nicely. The left-hand one has the coffee-making supplies and can be used for anything that doesn’t require the range.
After creating the triangle, I addressed the major kitchen chore: dishwashing. A full-size dishwashing machine is efficient in terms of energy and water, but will not fit in my kitchen without a major renovation. Also, dishwashing in a machine can represent a lot of wasted motion because dishes have to go from the sink to the dishwasher and then from the dishwasher to the storage cabinet.
In terms of labor it should make more sense to simply store the dishes where they air dry, in a hand dish rack. It’s the way my grandma did it, on one of those huge old farmhouse drainboard sinks, and she knew something about working in the kitchen.
I followed that example, and replaced my drop-in sink with a new “Boholmen” sink from Ikea ($99 because it was in the dented area) that has 2 basins and a large drainboard. I put a drying rack on the drainboard, and directly above the drainboard mounted a porous shelf ($15, Ikea). Now I have a usable set of dishes and pots and pans all in one place, all above a drainboard. They will be stored where they air dry.
The aesthetic problem with this no-cabinet drying-and-storing strategy is that it can look messy. I addressed that by getting all the materials in stainless steel, not plastic. I also restricted the number of dishes and pans we have around for daily use to roughly the quantity that will fit on the racks. There are 3 people in our house, so we don’t need 20 mugs or 10 plates to pile up unwashed. (Guest dishes are ready in a special box just in case a collection of dwarves shows up.)
Finally I addressed that problematic trash. I had a cabinet opening near the sink, and near both workspaces, that had no door. So inside it I mounted a pull-out shelf unit with two cans ($33 total, Ikea), one for garbage and the other recycling. When I’m cooking or cleaning I just pull it out with my toe and leave it there. I can toss things in with only a single motion. I can’t tell you how much easier this is already.
Yes, the trash is visible through the cabinet opening, but this isn’t a kitchen that is made to show off or to socialize in. It wouldn’t be pretty even if it was covered in gold leaf. I’ll settle for some pretty good functionality.