A Smooth-Running Kitchen: Helpful Hints to Get Organized

A smooth-running kitchen is vital in most households. The kitchen in most homes is a busy place. It is the place we cook and bake. We sit at the table to visit with a friend. Homework is conducted, and in some cases, it is where we pay bills.

With that much going on, it helps to have everything organized. We need to be able to move with ease, know where everything is, and have things on hand when we need them.

a galley kitchen
photo credit: Curtis Adams/Pexels

What we do not need is to open a cabinet and have things falling out, a refrigerator filled with science projects, or discover at the last minute a vital ingredient isn’t there.

 Having a smooth-running kitchen sounds wonderful, but how to you get one? Try a few of these helpful hints.

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The Kitchen Triangle

Developed by Lillian Moller Gilbreath in the 1920s, the Kitchen Triangle was once said to be the best way to design and have a smooth-running kitchen. The basis of this shape uses the stove, sink, and refrigerator as the three points on the triangle.

Each side of the triangle should be no less than 4’, and no more than 9’ in length.  The premise behind this is that you would have to move no more or less than this distance to reach the refrigerator for supplies, the stove for cooking and the sink for cleaning.

It has often been debated whether or not this triangle still works as a smooth-running kitchen. In the 20s, kitchens were smaller and there were no microwaves or other modern-day appliances.

The other drawback to the Kitchen Triangle is the island many of us have in the center of the room as a prep station. The kitchen triangle of the 20s recommended having nothing in the center of the triangle. However, counterspace is often limited so an island may be necessary in a smooth-running kitchen.

I love the aspect of the Kitchen Triangle for a smooth-running kitchen. I have monitored my movements and found that, with a modicum of adjustment, the flow works well. Along each side of my triangle runs cabinets, pantry, and storage for pots and pans. I am within arm’s length of everything I need.

plasticware lids in a crate for a smooth-running kitchen

Pots, Pans and Plastic in a Smooth-running Kitchen

Long before I consider my pantry and refrigerator, I need my pots, plans, and plastic where I can find them at a moment’s notice. For us, we use a tremendous amount of cast iron when cooking.

Cast iron is heavy, and I don’t want to be lugging it across the kitchen any more than I have to. So, for a smooth-running kitchen, the smart thing was to place it next to the stove.

When we first moved to the farm, I found an enamelware tabletop in the barn. It was in relatively good shape; it was just missing a base. A woodworking friend offered to build one for us. We wanted one that was higher than a normal table so we could use it as an island.

Below the table he built a shelf, which we used to store our cast iron. Several years later, my cousins Steve and Rose built us a bigger island. We moved the enamelware island beside the stove to make room for the newer one.

And it is perfect for us. We can set spoon rests, hot pots, and spices we are using on the top, and reach down to grab a cast iron pot or skillet as needed.  

pot lids stored in a plastic crate

As for the ‘regular’ pots, we store them in a bottom cabinet that is close to the sink and pantry. When we cook, the pot goes on the island, we prep the food, then move it to the stove. The cabinets and sink are behind the island, with the pantry to the side, so we have to take minimal steps to reach what we need.

When it comes time to clean up, pots go on the center island to be emptied. The refrigerator is just a step or two from the island, and the cabinets where we keep the plastic is in a lower cabinet behind us.

Our plasticware is stacked together – round ones in one stack, square and rectangle in others. The proper size and shape are easy to find.

But when it comes to all those lids for pots and plastic ware, it can be like waiting for a volcano to erupt! I got so tired of searching through the jumble just trying to find the lid that fit.

All it took was a visit to the Dollar Store and purchasing two plastic crates. I placed one in the cabinet with the pots, and one in the cabinet for the plastic ware.  Then I placed all the lids in them. Now, when I need a lid, I just pull the crate out, find the matching lid, and keep moving!

a blue cabinet used for extra storage in a kitchen

Cabinets and Pantries in a Smooth-Running Kitchen

There is nothing worse than having things fall out on you when opening a cabinet door, or having a pantry so jumbled you can’t find what you need.

There are two solutions to this. First, find ways to keep things organized. Second, keep inventories.

a selection of stacked canned goods


The first thing to consider when organizing your cabinets is placement. Glasses and dishes should be located as close to the sink (and dishwasher if you have one) as possible. This makes it easy to grab a glass and fill it with water, and then place it in the sink or dishwasher to be cleaned.

The cabinet for the dishes should also be as close to the table as possible. This makes it easy to set the table for meals.

If you don’t have a pantry, your cabinets may be filled with food and spices.  To the best of your ability and number of cabinets, keep like items together.

For instance, canned goods would go on one shelf, boxed goods on another. When it comes to the bags – such as beans and pasta – consider storing them in jars with well-fitting lids.

For spices, it may help to get some of the tiered plastic shelves designed for spices. This way you can see at a glance what you have. Keep herbs and spices for cooking together (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc.), and baking types on a different shelf (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc.). Even if some of your spices are used for both, they will still be easy to access.

Flour, sugar, and cornmeal can also be stored in jars or canisters. Before you put flour and meal in your pantry, be sure to put the bag in the freezer for at least 48 to 72 hours. This helps to kill any mealy worms that may be hiding.

I store my flour and cornmeal in the freezer. To help prevent freezer burn, I place the bag in a 2-gallon zip top bag, remove as much air as possible, and place it in the freezer.

pasta and beans stored in glass jars


If you are fortunate to have a pantry, you can follow the same organization as for cabinets. It does help to keep larger items, such as shortening, oils, vinegars, etc. on the bottom shelf, and the less frequently used items on the top.

In my pantry, our top shelf is used to store the wraps we use – parchment and waxed paper, foil, zip-top bags, etc.

Here’s a tip: At my parent’s house, they used an upper cabinet for their wraps. However, my mom was five-feet tall, and the cabinet was deep. Inevitably, the boxes would slide to the back, and she would have to get a chair to stand on in order to reach them.

My dad built a ‘wall’ for her. It was made out of 1/2” plyboard and cut to fit the width of the cabinet. He secured it just far enough back to keep all the boxes where my mom could easily reach them. Dad understood what it meant to have a smooth-running kitchen!

a pantry inventory worksheet

Kitchen Inventory Lists work well in a Smooth-Running Kitchen

To keep a smooth-running kitchen and stay organized, the best thing you can have are inventory lists. Keeping inventory lists help you know exactly what you have, and when you are running low.

When you sit down to do your meal planning for the week, you can view the list of what is available. If there is something you want to make, but don’t have the ingredients, it is a simple matter of adding it to the grocery list.

The flip side of that is, if you don’t have what you need, but also don’t have time to do the grocery shopping, then you will quickly be able to move that meal to the next week, and focus your meal planning on the ingredients you do have.

There are four lists you need in a smooth-running kitchen:

  • The Pantry/Cabinet List – designed for any items you store in your pantry or cabinets. It should have a place for dry goods, canned goods, spices, and any other food-related items. Don’t forget to add a section for cleaning supplies!
  • The Refrigerator List – designed for any items that need to be kept refrigerated – condiments, butter, milk, etc.
  • The Freezer List – this list includes meats, vegetables and other items that are frozen. But your list should also include a space for casseroles and other prepared meals. For me, I have a section for flour, cornmeal and some spices that don’t get used very often – such as the spice mixes we create for sausages.
  • The Grocery List – this list is often kept on the refrigerator, or at least where you can find it easily. As you find you are running low on an item that is frequently used, add it to the list. When you are planning your meals for the week and find you do not have something you need, add it to the list. And when a member of your family requests something special, tell them to add it to the list!

the cover of the art of homemaking manual

Keeping the Lists in a Smooth-Running Kitchen

Keeping up with all these lists can seem intimidating. To keep a smooth-running kitchen and prevent you from being overwhelmed, or losing the list, try keeping a Homemaking Notebook.

This notebook can sit close by on a shelf, in a cabinet, or on the counter. In it you will have all the information you need to keep up with lists, instructions, and even homemade cleaning supply ‘recipes’.

Use tabs to divide each section. The first two tabs should be ‘Lists’ and ‘Meal Plans’. This way, all you need to do is flip to the front of the notebook to quickly see not only what supplies you have, but what you will be cooking for dinner tonight.

Don’t have a notebook? The Art of Homemaking just might be your answer. In it you will find worksheets for inventory lists, meal plans, cleaning schedules, recipes and more – just in the kitchen section. You will also find information and worksheets on other aspects of homemaking, such as Hospitality, Sewing and Decorating Tips, worksheets for Records Maintenance, a Garden section, and much more!

The best part is it is adaptable to your own needs. Just organize the sections in the order that works best for you. And if you subscribe to my newsletter, there are even more freebies that can easily be added to the Manual. By using the hints in this post and the manual, you can have that smooth-running kitchen you love!

Julie Murphree is a blogger, newspaper columnist, and speaker on all things ‘Living a Simple Life on the Farm’. She is the author of \\\'The Farm Wife – Living a Simple Life on the Farm. She and her husband have 60 acres in NW Louisiana where they actively work on living as sustainable as possible.

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