I’ve got a super simple concept that’s going to make your cooking SO much easier: it’s the kitchen zone system.
First off, I want to say that it doesn’t matter if you have a tiny kitchen — or what we call in my house a “one-butt kitchen” (because there’s only room for one pair of buns). Kitchen zones make cooking SO much easier because it’s the first step of kitchen organization, and organization leads to easier execution.
What are kitchen zones?
Each kitchen generally has four kitchen zones. In smaller kitchens these zones often overlap, and that’s totally fine. Here’s a quick PDF checklist that will explain the kitchen zones and show you how to organize them.
- The cooking zone -> stove, oven
- The food storage zone -> pantry, cabinets, fridge, freezer
- The food prep zone -> the counter
- The washing zone -> the sink and dishwasher
Below you’ll find an outline of each of the kitchen zones and what needs to be in them. If it’s not listed, you probably don’t need it out, so consider putting it away in a cupboard or drawer!
KITCHEN ZONE 1: The cooking zone
The cooking zone is pretty self explanatory — it’s where the hot things are. 🔥 This area needs to be kept VERY tidy, because it’s easy for some items to catch fire, like towels, recipes, or ingredients that are just laying around.
What do you need in Kitchen Zone 1? It’s pretty simple. Here’s a list of the items you want to keep in the cooking zone:
- A crock or drawer with a few handy tools. This includes a spatula, a flipper (or flat spatula), a slotted spoon, a wooden spoon or paddle, ladle, and your most important kitchen tool: tongs.
- Pot holders/oven mitts. SUPER IMPORTANT. You always want to have these handy so that you’re not left digging for them while something is burning. In my tiny kitchen, we have little magnetic hooks that attach to the fridge, so potholders are easily in reach.
- Core seasoning ingredients. These are all the seasonings you use most commonly, and often at a moment’s notice. In most Western kitchens, this includes salt and pepper, along with
What NOT to keep in Kitchen Zone 1: Cooking oils, oils are SUPER sensitive to heat and will go rancid very quickly if left near the heat of your oven or stove. Yes, this means ALL cooking oils. They need to be stowed in a cool, dark place, away from all light and heat.
Some people hang their pots and pans over the cooking zone, using a metal rack or other hanging device. This is a great way to make use of less space, or to keep your pots and pans handy. It’s important to note, though, that hanging pots and pans get very dusty. This means they need to be rinsed and wiped before use.
KITCHEN ZONE 2: The food storage zone
To be honest, sometimes the food storage zone is all over the place. Your fridge may be on one side of the room with your pantry is down the hall. That’s fine. The whole point of maintaining Kitchen Zone 2 is keeping things in order. What does that mean?
- Dry ingredients stacked and labeled. And, ideally, dated with a Sharpie.
- Spices organized and dated.
- Bottles of oils, vinegars, etc. stored in a cool, dark area. All oils labeled with a date of purchase.
- Boxed and bagged foods organized by type (pastas, grains, beans, etc.) — rectangular plastic baskets from the $1 store work great for bags and other awkward packages.
- Fridge organized and all science experiments throws out.
- Freezer gone through every three months. PRO-TIP: Keep a list of everything in your freezer, and refer to it when planning your meals for the week. Cross off what you’ve used.
Another Kitchen Zone 2 PRO-TIP: Label everything that goes into your freezer, including a date!
I have two cheap-o tools that I can’t live without in this zone: 1-INCH BLUE PAINTERS TAPE + a black Sharpie. You can get both at your local hardware store for under $5 together. Blue painters tape is a secret from restaurant kitchens, because it sticks to containers but also comes off easily.
(Note: blue painters tape won’t stick to wet things, so if you pull something out of the freezer and try to label it, it won’t work. The condensation on the surface won’t let the tape stick. So label things BEFORE they go into the fridge or freezer.)
KITCHEN ZONE 3: The food prep zone
Kitchen Zone 3 is your chopping and mixing area, so hygiene and tidiness are the priority here. Food will come in direct contact with the counter, so you need to make sure this area is wiped down with disinfectant before and after cooking, especially after preparing animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood.
The food prep zone also needs to be kept free of excess stuff. This means everything put away and nothing just laying around. If it’s dirty, it goes in the sink or dishwasher to be washed. (See Zone 4, below.) Excess dirty dishes and tools laying around your food prep area will seriously stress you out, cause you to spill things, and even cause you to cut yourself. This happens because you’re distracted and trying to work in a cluttered space where your movement is hindered.
Keeping this space clear will not only keep you safer, it will reduce A LOT of cooking stress. Clutter = clumsiness, confusion, and mistakes. Who wants more of those??
You also don’t want lots of equipment or tools stored on the counter, because they’ll get splattered with foods as you work. And if you don’t wipe everything down constantly, it will become a breeding ground for bacteria. It’s easier to just store equipment in a cabinet or closet, plus a clear counter looks nice. :)
That said, there are a few key things you may want to keep in a crock on your counter so that they’re handy:
- Rubber spatula for scraping
- A large spoon for scooping
- Hot pads for setting down hot pots and pans
- Tongs for grabbing uncooperative little bits
- Also nearby: paper towels, washcloth, hand towel, and disinfectant spray
Some folks keep their kitchen knives in a block on the counter, while other put then in a drawer. (If you put yours in a drawer, consider getting knife guards.) In my kitchen, I have a magnetic strip on the wall that I get for $6 at Ikea. My knives are handy while not taking up any space on the counter. Win!
KITCHEN ZONE 4: The washing zone
Aaaah, everyone’s least favorite zone, the washing zone. This zone includes your sink, dishwasher, and dish drainer (if you have one). This one is pretty simple, yet it still gets away from people. There’s one cardinal rule in Kitchen Zone 4:
DO NOT PUT SOMETHING DOWN AND WALK AWAY.
I know, you’re busy and it’s sooooo tempting to drop that pot and go back to cooking. But what happens when your pasta is done, and you need a place to drain the water? You walk over to your sink and see it piled high with dishes… so what do you do? You have to put the pot down and do something with the dishes, which takes 3-6 minutes. In that time, your pasta has gotten soggy as it’s overcooked in its hot water. Fail.
Do yourself and your sense of sanity a favor and clean as you go. Lay down a No Dish Left Behind policy and wash every single item as it goes into your sink, or rinse it off and slip it into the dishwasher. This one tip can stop 50% of cooking stress. Pinky swear.
This goes 1000xxxx more for knives. For the love of all that is holy, do not set a knife in the sink and walk away — and never plunge a knife into a bowl of water or pile of dirty dishes. This is one of the easiest ways to cut yourself, sticking your hand where you’re not looking and lopping off part of your finger.
In restaurant kitchens, the saying goes “No sharks in the pool.” Save yourself a trip the the ER and just wash your knives as soon as you’re done, and immediately drying it and putting it away. Leaving your knife to dry in the dish drainer is just as bad as leaving it in the sink. Also, there’s a special place in Hell for people who stick knives in the dish drainer, pointy-end up. Don’t be that guy/guys/preferred personal pronoun here.
What goes in the washing zone? Not much. In fact, most of these things can be stored under the sink:
- Sponges, brushes, and scrubbers
- Hand towel and dish towel
- Dish soap
- Disinfectant spray
- Dish drainer, if you’ve got one
An important note on hygiene: your sink can be the most bacteria-heavy place in your kitchen. Take a tip from pro chefs and wipe down your entire sink area (including the faucet, back-splash, and 6” around the sink) with disinfectant spray once you’re done cooking. If you’re handling meat or eggs in the sink, wipe it down directly afterwards.
Think of it this way: You set that chicken down, pick it back up, and say to yourself, “I’ll wipe it down in a few minutes.” In that few minutes, your kid comes along and sets their drinking glass in the sink, changes their mind, then fills it with soda before taking a sip.
I don’t think I need to explain to you why this would be bad.
PHEW! Let’s get you organized.
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