6 ways to pimp your tiny rental kitchen

Guest post by Annabel Vita

Our kitchen is teensy. I can pretty much touch both walls at once, in both directions. It has no lower cabinets, and all the upper cabinets are too narrow for large plates. I can only properly reach two cabinets without a stepladder and each of the cabinets is just one big box, with no shelves. There’s only a modicum of countertop. There physically isn’t anywhere I can figure out to put a bin.

I love to cook and bake, so it was important to me that even though the kitchen was small, it worked well and held everything I need at arm’s reach without chaos in every cupboard.
We’re renters, so while I could write a million posts about things I’d do in this kitchen if I owned it (pot rack, wall mounted lid racks, more sensibly proportioned cabinets, extra shelving… etc.), here are some ideas that anyone can do — whether you own your house or not.

1. Never underestimate the power of extra shelves

mini shelves for plates and bowls
All of our cabinets are these stupid massive boxes with no interior shelves. Finding some extra little shelves to pop inside gave us a little bit of extra vertical storage space.

Spice cupboard before and after
Mounting a spice rack on the inside of a very narrow cupboard gave us easy access to three tiers of spices. In a tiny kitchen, every little helps.

2. Do what makes the most sense, whether it’s what people normally do or not

mugs in a drawer
Mugs live in cupboards or on shelves, right? No! With so few easily accessible shelves, we’ve ended up with mugs in a drawer. Keeping mugs in our cupboards led to a whole load of wasted vertical space. Keeping them in the drawer makes the most sense, for us. Look at your kitchen as if you were an alien. Where would an alien put the toaster?

3. Think outside the room!

Our bedroom closet has a secret -- it's actually a kitchen cupboard.
Our bedroom closet has a secret — it’s actually a kitchen cupboard.

The advantage of small-space living is that things can be the opposite side of the house to the kitchen but still be easily within reach.

The kitchen is one of the smallest rooms in the flat so it makes sense to use the other rooms to store kitchen items. Right now we keep this stack of lesser-used items in our bedroom cupboard.

4. Get stuff off the counter

As you can see, I’m ok with appliances and some other stuff on the countertop. (Sure, it would look clearer without but I don’t see any other choice here.) But! I do agree with keeping as much small, cluttery stuff off the counters as possible.

I picked up four of those hooks from Ikea (they’re actually from the Pax wardrobe range, but you can use over-the-cabinet hooks) and use them to corral onions, garlic, and kitchen roll. The onions etc. are in that small wire basket, and the kitchen roll is strung up using some black grosgrain ribbon. Oh, and gotta love a magnetic knife rack (that was here when we moved in, but I’m sure our landlord wouldn’t mind if we asked to install one ourselves.

5. Remember the back of the door!

I bought this over-the-door organizer to whip the kitchen into shape. A bold labelling system (just printer paper stapled to the pockets) makes everything easy to find. It’s not pretty but I love it because it’s really working well so far (and it freed up a load of drawer space).

6. Remember why you have this tiny kitchen

I pretty much adore my kitchen these days. Now that I’ve got everything organised, I love that all I need is right within reach. And because it’s so tiny, it feels crammed with things I love. But when its Lilliputian proportions get me down, I try to remember why I have such a teensy kitchen. I do this by stepping into our gorgeous living room, which is the reason we chose the flat despite the tiny kitchen. I think about how I’m paying half the rent I paid in our old place. And how much happier I am to be able to do my new, less well-paying job. I look out the window at our neighbourhood we love, but where we wouldn’t be able to rent anything bigger.

Think about why you’re living where you are now. Maybe you’re living somewhere tiny because you’re saving up for something big. Maybe you’re living the urban dream. Maybe you have a tiny kitchen but a great view. All homes come with a compromise, and sometimes you just need to remind yourself why this particular compromise was the right one for you.

What are your favourite tips for living in a small kitchen?

Comments on 6 ways to pimp your tiny rental kitchen

  1. Wonderful tips! Especially the one about remembering the compromises you made. I have to say the tiny kitchen thing does get me down, seeing as how my oven is BEHIND my fridge. When new people see it the reaction is always ‘Where’s the stove? Oh. Weird.’. Then I explain it’s probably why we got the house in an awesome location for very very cheap.

  2. These are great and well implemented ideas for saving space. One idea is to try keeping things in other rooms. If you’re using up counter space for your coffeepot and grinder and teakettle, but you have some extra room in your living room, set up a small hot beverage station there. Keep the liquor on display on a shelf in the living room or entry way. If you live around neighbors that you are friendly with, try the idea of swapping items instead of buying everything you need. You may not need a waffle iron all the time, and neighbor may be willing to let you borrow it for the infrequent brunch or waffle dinner. Maybe you don’t bake bread often enough to buy bread pans, but neighbor has the space for some and is cool with you borrowing. Maybe neighbor likes the occasional shake or smoothie, but you drink them all the time and thus own a blender. Neighbor can come over for a smoothie and conversation and supply ingredients. You get where I’m going with this.

    • Oh yes, we totally have the wine rack in the living room (it’s not like we drink it in the teeny kitchen anyway!). Sharing stuff with neighbours would be great – sadly ours seem to move every month or two, boo!

    • Yes, we expanded our kitchen storage by buying a gorgeous liquor cabinet for the dining room.

      Also, for those who have the floor space: kitchen carts! Our cart (I think from IKEA) really adds both storage and workspace.

      • I had a teensy kitchen 2 years ago which had zero counter space and not a ton of cabinet space. We bought an Ikea wooden cart on wheels and it doubled our surface and storage space.

        I am in love with the Mug Drawer!

        We had ours hanging on hooks screwed in under the cabinets, and ladles and such on a hook rack over the range, next to a spice rack shelf.

        • Years ago, in an apartment with a tiny kitchen, I did something similar – my enormo-microwave (bought because in my previous partment, my plates wouldn’t fit into the tiny built-in one!) went on a Container Store cart placed outside the entrance to the kitchen, which gave me counter space in the kitchen and two more shelves of storage space.

          When I moved to the next apartment, which had a built-in microwave, the cart because a TV cart after I discovered that I could remove the butcher-block top and nestle my (pre-flatscreen!) TV right down into the uprights. Top went back on and held a DVR, the shelf on the bottom held a DVD player, worked out perfectly!

          • I love repurposing furniture. I turned a piece of a giant L-shaped desk into a pantry cabinet. It needs an organization overhaul though because it’s overflowing with stuff!

  3. I have the same problem with large-ish cupboards with no shelves, so I shall share how I handle it. I got some bins that can stack on top of each other, and I put things I’m likely to use together in the same bin, so I can usually just pull out one at a time. So, sugar, flour, baking soda, cupcake liners, etc, are all together, because I usually need those things all together. Another bin has oatmeal, teabags, honey…. You get the idea.

    • I do this as well. It means you can use all the vertical space in the cupboard. The square containers also snuggle up against each other so there is no wasted space along the shelf that lumpy bags of flour/lentils would otherwise occupy.

  4. we are in the process of moving from a very small apartment with a wonderful kitchen to a significantly larger apartment with a measly galley kitchen. it is not remotely adequate — with a single-basing sink, clean drying dishes have to live on one slip of counter and dirty ones pile up on the other, and then where are you supposed to prep food?!? the galley had a dining pad at the end, so we claimed that for working space (the living room is more than big enough to support a dining table). we moved the fridge from next to the stove around the corner into the dining pad, scavenged some extra base cabinets for extra storage and counter space (and even put our mondo microwave in one, to keep it off the counter) and now we have an amazing kitchen. still small, but amazing. =)

  5. I have an awesomely small kitchen too. Not as bad as yours but I have had to creative with storage. I have some pots and pans in my walk-in closet in the bedroom and some in the coat closet by the front entrance. I store saran wrap and the like in a hanging shelf in the laundry closet. Tea cups and plates in a drawer along with my kitchen-aid attachments. My biggest prob has been storing spices. I just haven’t found a sol’n that works for me yet=(

    • How about those magnetic strips or boards that can hold spice jars? Those could be wall-mounted (or inside a cupboard door) in an impermanent way.

      • Actually, just getting those magnetic spice tins, and using them on your refrigerator or on any metal around your stove/oven works well too. Then you don’t need to mount anything.

      • Yes! Sticking them on the fridge would be a great way to get them away from that flavor-zapping temperature roller coaster that is the area over the stove. It will make your spices taste like spices for much longer.

    • I store my spices in an Indian spice box. It is a round lidded box with little containers inside to hold your spice assortment. I have a few of these boxes and they stack up together nicely. When I only had one it would sit in a drawer. I fill it up at the Indian grocer that sells spices in bulk, so I can buy as much or as little as I need to fill the box. No plethora of little glass jars or paper boxes that take over my shelves! A friend keeps all her spices in a free-standing two-tier revolving rack that sits on her bench next to the stove.

  6. For my tiny apartment kitchen, I downsized. Cut down the size of appliances and the number of them. I had a small fridge, about 1.5 meters high, and it was just the right height to store things on top such as my toaster oven. I had a small desk with my two burner gas stove on top, and in the desk drawer, I’d put the cutlery. The laundry sink was also in the kitchen, whenever it wasn’t in use, i had a piece of wood on top that would serve as extra counterspace. Wire racks attached to the walls and lots of under cabinet hooks to hang ladles, spoons and other utensils were very helpful.

    • Yes! Put something like a large cutting board over your sink for temporary counter space. My parents do this on their live-in boat, where you don’t have to do anything but pivot to reach every single corner.

  7. Although our kitchen is small ish, I’d say about the size of the one pictured but without a door, our main problme is the fact that the landlord provided us with cutlery, plates, everything. Because we chose to use our own stuff, we ended up storing that stuff under the sink, wrapped up, with the other items pushed to the back corner of the deeper cupboard.

    Equally it may help if you can take the door off it’s hinges and say tuck it behind a wardrobe, which is what my mum has done! Sometimes freeing up the space behind the door is all it takes

    • True! Unfortunately (fortunately?) we have a twitchy fire alarm straight outside the kitchen so it’s useful to be able to shut the door.
      When we had a similar situation with to you (landlord provided all the kitchen stuff but we already had our own) we had it in boxes under the bed.

  8. I have a tiny galley-style kitchen too, with very minimal cabinet space. I keep all of my cups, mugs, and dishes … in the dishwasher. It sounds silly to handwash and then use the fancy machine for storage, but I live alone and it would take me ages to dirty enough dishes to run a full load!
    I keep most of my dry ingredients in sealed glass storage jars on a freestanding small bookshelf, and I happened to find this little rainbow storage number on the curb, which is perfect for storing utensils, plastic wrap/aluminum foil, measuring cups, etc.

    • If I had a dishwasher I think that’s what I’d do too.

      I do keep all our oven trays on the bottom of the oven because they don’t fit anywhere else.

      I often sit things in the microwave (turned off) to defrost too. It keeps it out the way and stops stray bugs getting to it.

  9. My kitchen is not as small as yours, but it’s a fairly simple galley and space is of course at a premium. I just have to say that your over-the-door idea may be EXACTLY what we need to store our reusable containers, which has been the biggest storage challenge we’ve faced so far. So thank you!

  10. I’ve learned to never assume that the landlord will say no to improvements. I have found, especially living in slightly older apartment buildings (50-90 years old) that landlords were cool with me making minor functional improvements to the living space. I never painted walls, but we recently affixed a magnetic knife strip to the wall and screwed in a pot rack to the underside of an upper cabinet. Both of them made huge differences in our kitchen-space use and were welcomed by the landlord. I also have stuck Ikea’s plastic bag dispenser (Rationell Variera) to the wall or inside a cabinet several times and gotten the go-ahead for those as well. It never hurts to ask!!

  11. Oh, also, my kitchen isn’t as small as the one pictured, but it doesn’t have a great wealth of counter space, but, it does have a large roomy cabinet with three big shelves over the washer/dryer. We put our microwave in there (ample room on top and back for ventilation). We only plug it in when we need to use it. I thought it would be weird, but it’s totally normal now and it gets a bulky, ugly old microwave off of the counters.

  12. Reading through the comments to get some ideas, as my kitchen is also tiny!

    I found some shelf baskets (similar to this) and have put one under each of our cabinets. Now there’s one to keep the cat treats and medications, one for the coffee filters, etc. It frees up a LOT of counter space when you can get these things all picked up, and putting them in a space that would otherwise be wasted works really well!

  13. If you swapped the fridge and cooker with the sink and washing machine our kitchen would look exactly like yours. And I kept meaning to write an article exactly like this on how we deal with it!

    I think the only thing I’ve got to add is that prioritising space really helped. I gave it about 2 months in our new place then I gathered up all the kitchen stuff and sorted it into 4 groups:
    1) Stuff we use every day/almost daily,
    2) Stuff we used often
    3) Stuff we almost never use
    4) Stuff we never use but want to keep

    (There were also a few things that found themselves in a 5th “Why do we even have this?” catergory and they went to the charity shop.)

    Then I assigned places to everything based on how often we use things. Group 1 being the easiest to reach, including some things that just live out on the side because they’re always being used, washed and then used again straight away. Group 2 things were mostly stacked under group 1 things, or kept in draws in the hall just outside the kitchen. Group 3 things are in the back of top cupboards or in other rooms. Group 4 went into storage in the cellar.

    It really does make a big difference, firstly having a place for everything and secondly making sure the stuff you use most often is the most easily accessible. It also encourages you to look at what you actually want and need in the kitchen. This was when I was finally honest that I was probably not going to be using my tiny bread tin to make tiny, novelty loaves on a regular basis.

    • Oh and also, as an addition to your point about doing what makes sense instead of whats normal remember that you don’t have to keep sets of things together.

      I was really struggling to find somewhere to keep our 4 saucepans until it occured to me that we only really use the 2 smallest, which fit in the cupboard and the 2 big ones can go in the bigger hall cupboard.

    • Yes! Our things that we only use occasionally or refuse to get rid of live in a cabinet in the garage! However my mixer and food processor live ON the counter!

  14. I used to have a TINY kitchen (strip, with the breakfast bar separating it from the living room.
    I made my kitchen bigger by using a shelving unit to hold all my dry foods in pretty glass jars (all IKEA) so that freed up a lot of cupboard space.
    I decided that I barely ever sat at the breakfast bar so I added another shelving unit underneath it to house all my pots and pans.
    My crazy but it worked for me storage solution was to buy an extra dish drainer and use it to store all my plates on. It sat out on this stupidly thin piece of worksurface next to the sink that would never have been of use for anything else, but because the plates were in a dishdrainer rather than just stacked there it made it SO much easier to access them.

  15. My biggest tip for living with a small kitchen (not that I always follow it …) is ALWAYS keep up on the dirty dishes. I have about 4 sq feet of counterspace and when the dishes pile up, there’s nowhere to prep dinner.

  16. You have a washing machine in your kitchen? I AM SO JEALOUS.

    At this point I’m pretty sure I would kill for a washing machine in my apartment. Or even an in-building washing machine. I would gladly sacrifice my lovely cantaloupe colored kitchen and half the uselessly large living room for a washing machine.

    • It seems to be pretty standard to have a washing machine included with rentals here (rarely a dryer though) – the trade off is the also standard teeny tiny under counter fridge with exen tinier mini ice box inside instead of a fridge!

      • our last apartment had a full size washer and dryer in the kitchen. it was weird but awesome! soooooo much better than going to a laundromat or using community coin-op machines. my friend just moved out of a condo that had a closet in the back of the kitchen with a washer and dryer, totally badass!

    • Yes! My kingdom for a washing machine! We own, but would have to pretty much remodel the entire kitchen to be able to fit a washing machine in, since it was built in the 70s and modern cabinets are a good 10cm deeper now – any additions would stick out like a sore thumb.

      • I…. have never heard of putting a washing machine in the kitchen. How does anyone even have the room? I suppose if you had that instead of where a dishwasher would normally go…
        Anyway, I don’t know how deep your cabinets are, but Whirlpool makes a front-loading washing machine that is 24″ deep: http://www.whirlpool.com/-%5BWFC7500VW%5D-1001633/WFC7500VW/. It’s not cheap, of course, but Whirlpool washers are probably the nicest (my husband used to work for Whirlpool and he was always super impressed with their large appliances, especially washing machines and dishwashers). And, for those of you who can’t easily fit a dishwasher into your kitchen, Whirlpool sells a portable one (gives you extra counter space too!), although again it’s expensive., and I’m honestly not sure how it works. http://www.whirlpool.com/-%5BDP1040XTXB%5D-1001247/DP1040XTXB/

        • Our washer and dryer is our kitchen. It’s not that uncommon, actually. It makes a lot of sense, since the room is already plumbed and wired for major appliances.

        • We actually have a portable washing machine, which is super handy. Our building’s from the 70s, so they didn’t plumb in for washing machines, and this is the compromise to keep the older half of the complex up to date with the never half. It meant we got cheaper rent, too. The machine is between a stackable wash machine and a full-sized, so decently sized, and it just rolls over to the sink, hooks up to the spigot, and off we go. I actually really like it!

  17. Thanks for the tips! I will be very shortly getting married and moving from student housing with a moderately large (albeit shared with lots of people) kitchen into a fairly small apartment — although the kitchen-to-be is still larger than yours! We’re going to use the second bedroom (conveniently located directly across the hall from the kitchen) for a chest freezer and probably extra kitchen storage, as well as a place to keep our bikes. Also, totally keeping the tip about borrowing in mind — we’re going to be living right above friends of ours, and I think a lot of sharing will happen — cookbooks, small appliances, other random stuff… 🙂

  18. My microwave currently lives on a shelf in my pantry. Sure it’s a little odd but it took up half my counter space, the dishrack took the other half and I had no place for my coffee maker. Dishrack and coffee maker get used daily, microwave gets used weekly- it was a no brainer.

  19. We have a washer and dryer in the kitchen too. The best part is that dirty dishtowels just go straight into the washer (and sit there, dirty until someone does a load. So easy!

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