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Get a more organized kitchen in 10 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour

Illustration for THYO story about how to organize your kitchen (The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
6 min

Clutter has a way of coalescing in a kitchen — mostly because we love using the space.

“It’s an area where we tend to congregate and socialize,” says Jennifer Truesdale, a certified professional organizer. “Many times, it’s the drop zone for everything coming into the house.”

Cathy Bock, a certified professional organizer, says the large number of counters in kitchens also attract clutter.

“A lot of people, they just can’t keep flat surfaces clear,” she says, noting the increase in working from kitchen counters and tables during the pandemic has caused those areas to become clutter magnets.

Hailey Johnson, also a professional organizer, has her own theory: We find half of what we do in kitchens enjoyable and the other half, not so much.

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“It’s so easy to mess up your kitchen, because cooking and eating food is very, very fun, but cleaning up from cooking, eating, all of that, is not fun,” says Johnson, who’s based in Austin. “I will go crazy about the type of food that I’m making, use a bunch of pots and pans and many bowls, not really thinking about it, and then by the end, I have this beautiful meal and eat, and then I have like 20 dishes in the sink.”

What experts like Truesdale, Bock and Johnson say is not to allow clutter to overwhelm the kitchen. The best antidote is to clean and organize with intentionality and in increments. Here’s what they recommend you do based on the time you have:

If you have 10 minutes: Clear the clutter — and take on at least a part of the dishes.

Pick items off the floor: Get rid of anything on the kitchen floor, such as shoes, bags, pet toys or papers, and give it a quick sweep or vacuum. “It will make the kitchen look more inviting to walk into,” Truesdale says. She notes that people with furry pets or kitchens with high-volume traffic may need a daily sweep of their floors.

Clear counter clutter: Take all the accumulated paper and magazines on the counters and gather them into a bag or box that can be sorted when you have more time, Truesdale says.

Do something — anything — about the dishes: Take at least one step toward cleaning the dishes. If there are dishes in the sink you haven’t washed, rinse them. If you’ve rinsed them but left them in the sink, stick them in the dishwasher, Bock says. And if you let the dishwasher run overnight, put those dishes away. Johnson suggests stashing dishwashing gloves by the sink both as a reminder and a way to avoid dirtying your hands. “I find that if I don’t have gloves, the idea of having to wash my hands after getting them all yucky stops me from doing it,” says Johnson, owner of Organizing Imperfection. “Putting dishes in the dishwasher, I know, is the least fun thing. Realistically, it’s a very, very, very quick task.”

Plan future tasks: Keep a whiteboard in the kitchen for jotting down tasks to complete during the week. “I’m a big believer in doing a brain dump,” Bock says.

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If you have 30 minutes: Do (more) dishes, focus on the fridge and check out the pantry

Do all the dishes, then disinfect: If you have 30 minutes to clean, don’t just take on one aspect of the dishes. Instead, clean the whole stack. Thirty minutes should be enough time to wash and dry the dishes you’ve left piled up in the sink, Johnson says, then finish by disinfecting and wiping down the counters, too.

Start with a single pantry shelf (and move on from there): Facing the prospect of organizing the entire pantry can seem immense, so start with one shelf. In addition to grouping like with like, Bock suggests picking out the items that will expire first and moving them to the front. And whether you keep your spices in the pantry or the cabinet, she says a stepped spice rack will save you from spending time turning labels and picking through containers to figure out whether there are parsley or basil flakes inside.

Focus on the fridge: Go through your fridge and throw out items that have gone bad. If they’re about to expire, flag them with a label or marker and plan to use them soon. To prevent the guilt and frustration that comes with tossing produce, Johnson suggests putting condiments in the vegetable drawer, then arranging fruits and vegetables in the fridge door, so they can be seen — and subsequently used. “Food that you’re trying to eat more of,” she says, “you want to put that somewhere where you can see it.”

Is soaking dishes worthwhile? Yes. Sometimes.

If you have 60 minutes: Pick a zone, focus on the fridge, rid yourself of duplicates and get appliances clean.

Choose a zone: With an entire hour, focus on making at least one area of the kitchen shine. “With any organizing, it’s better to concentrate on one area, because then you can get it completed, and then you’ll see the results, which will inspire you to work on the next area,” Bock says.

Truesdale suggests dividing your kitchen into zones, such as food service, food prep, food storage, cooking and cleaning. “The key to an organized kitchen is not going to always be an Instagram-worthy, picture-perfect kitchen, but one where everything has dedicated placement, and you can find what you are looking for in seconds versus minutes or hours,” she says. People who do well with visual cues, she says, should consider clear containers, labels, color coding and alphabetizing.

Take inventory of kitchen tools: Sort through your tools and donate duplicates you don’t need. “Once we get all the like things together, you may find you have 20 spatulas because they were hidden all over,” Bock says. “If you get rid of the excess stuff you never use, then it gives you more room to store things. And if you have less in your cabinets, it’s easier to find what you have.” She also suggests allocating one drawer for baking tools and another for everyday cooking items. And if you have something you rarely use, such as plates for the holidays, store them in cabinets that are harder to reach.

Clean your appliances, stove and microwave: An organized kitchen isn’t worth much if it’s grimy. Assess the pots, pans and appliances you’ve used the most and do a deep soak and clean. An hour should also give you the time to remove the coils from the stovetop and wipe off the grime underneath before disinfecting the area, Johnson says. Wipe through the fridge to get any extraneous drips and spills. Do the same with the oven. And don’t neglect the microwave. “I always feel like if I got to the microwave,” Johnson says, “I really cleaned the kitchen.”

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