18 Subtle Organizing Mistakes That Make Your Kitchen Look Sloppy

These common setups are a recipe for disaster. Cook up a better system for a clean, productive kitchen.

You group by item, not by need

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You might keep your masher and microplane grater by the stove with other long-handled items cooking spatulas, but that’s not the most convenient setup. “There are three things that happen in the kitchen: prep, cook, and serve,” says Laura Cattano, professional organizer and founder of Organizational Design. “The best thing is to zone out your kitchen by those categories.” You might keep your spatulas by the stove, but your potato masher belongs near your countertop and big bowls. Take it a step further by asking exactly when you use each item. For instance, there’s no reason your mugs need to be by your water glasses, but putting next to the coffee maker will save you from running all over your kitchen in the morning, says Cattano. Here's how to set up your kitchen so you eat healthier.

You think only the counter is convenient

To keep from digging through stuffed cabinets, you might leave items like sugar and oils on the counter. But as long as your cupboards are clear, it doesn’t take much effort to open the door—and you’ll see payoffs with how clear your counter looks. “It doesn’t have to be on the countertop to be easily reachable,” says Jodie Watson, founder and president of Supreme Organization. “If you purge out the cabinets in your kitchen, you can keep sugar in the cabinet. You open the door and there it is.”

You leave big appliances out

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Feel free to leave appliances you use daily, like a coffee maker or toaster, on the counter. But anything you aren’t using every day should be stored in a cabinet to make more room on the counter. “Nobody likes to have to put the appliance away, but balance that against the precious countertop space,” says Maeve Richmond, founder and coach of organizing company Maeve’s Method. “There’s the convenience of having it out, but it’s more convenient to be able to chop more vegetables or have a cleaner space.”

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You don’t adjust your shelves

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Don’t let your shelf height define how you use your space. People tend to put cereal on a top shelf because that’s the one with the most space, but it’d be easier to reach on a lower shelf, says Watson. On the other hand, too much space for canned goods and you’ll probably start stacking items into an ugly, unstable pile. If your shelves aren’t already adjustable, buy shelf dividers to split one shelf into two, says Richmond. “Re-spacing the shelves takes away the messiness because things aren’t stacked,” says Richmond. Here's an absolutely genius way to organize your pantry.

You’re digging through bottom cabinets

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“Who wants to crawl on the floor like a monkey looking in the back of a cabinet?” says Cattano. If you’re lucky enough to be redesigning your kitchen, opt for drawers at the leg level so you can reach the back easily. Otherwise, you can buy drawers to easily install into a cabinet so you can pull it out and see everything inside, rather than sticking your whole head in the cabinet.

Your fridge looks like a collage

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If you leave messages or coupons on your fridge as reminders, they won’t serve any purpose if they’re lost in a sea of photos you’ve had up for years. “People stick things over things and it becomes a crazy montage of stuff that’s overwhelming and doesn’t look that nice or serve a good purpose,” says Watson. She recommends limiting fridge space to a couple nice pictures, inspirational quotes, a grocery list, or emergency phone numbers. Record any other reminders in your phone, and stash coupons in the car so you have them when you need them.

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You leave your cooking utensils out

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A container next to the stove might seem like a convenient home for your spatulas and serving spoons, but don’t pack all your unattractive utensils into one container. “Not every single cooking utensil needs to be right by the stove,” says Cattano. “Keep out the nice-looking pieces so it’s not overstuffed.” Leave out the ones you use most often, but hide the rest in a drawer. Here's the trick to clean smelly wooden spoons.

Your junk drawer is, well, junk

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“Junk drawers need to be intentional,” says Richmond. “They’re intended to be for quickly grabbing things we need access to, but if something is not used for a while, it literally becomes junk.” Once or twice a year, go through it and take out anything you don’t use regularly. Leave smaller items in little boxes or ceramic dishes to keep it organized, she suggests.

You’re holding on to your past

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Maybe you loved the idea of a juicer but only ever eat toast for breakfast. Or you used to be into baking but now you’ve put your focus into healthy meals. “The first step to organizing is not thinking about the stuff, it’s thinking about your life and how you want to live,” says Cattano. “If it’s not adding to your life, it’s directly taking away from it because it’s taking space away from something else.” If you rarely use an item, it might be time to let go and get rid of the clutter.

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You hang your purse on your chair

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“The kitchen is still one of the first places we go when we enter a home,” says Richmond. “All the stuff of life that comes in the door accumulates in the kitchen.” To keep your meal space from becoming a catchall for your purse, wallet, and gym bag, Richmond recommends setting up a “drop zone” by your door to set those things as you’re walking in. You might make it a permanent home for your wallet and keys, and a temporary place to drop your workout gear while you’re putting away groceries.

You leave mail on the table

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Taking just five minutes to go through your mail daily or every other day will keep that pile of papers under control so you don’t lose documents in the shuffle when you actually do need them. “The mail just keeps coming,” says Watson. “Keep trimming it down so you’re not losing items in the mix.” Instead of leaving it by your eating space, designate an area that has a basket for papers, and hang a bulletin board to write messages and reminders, she says.

Each shelf is left to its own devices

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Knowing which shelf items belong on is a good start, but take it a step further to stop tossing the food back in without a second thought. Richmond recommends using trays to separate shelves out even more. “Those are helpful because they show a visual blocking of space,” she says. “It makes it easier to go in and get what you need.” She likes acrylic ones because they’re easy to wash, but she says they come in all kinds of colors and materials to match your taste.

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You have more tools than you need

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When you find your kitchen drawers overflowing, take stock of which items you actually use, and if any do the same job. If you rarely dig out your melon cutter or zester, it might be time to let go. “A knife does all of those things,” says Watson. “It’s about being intentional, knowing that if I can do this with something that won’t take up space, is it something I need to have?” With fewer tools, you’ll cut the clutter and stay more organized. Here are clever substitutes for everyday kitchen gadgets.

Your spice rack is a mess

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If you find yourself picking up every single spice container on your hunt for the one you want, a lazy Susan could keep you from shuffling everything around. “They’re a no-brainer because then you reach with one finger in front of your cabinet, swirling,” says Cattano. Alternatively, she recommends categorizing your spices and putting them in individual bins—say, one for spicy peppers and another for herbs.

Your groceries don’t fit in your pantry

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If you find yourself leaving food out simply because you don’t have room in a cupboard, it might be time to start cutting down. “We want to save money, and it’s good to buy in bulk, but if you don’t have the space for it, changing the way you shop might be more helpful,” says Watson. She recommends first going through your pantry to take stock of what you already have. Then head to the store less often so you have a chance to use up what you have before refilling your cabinet.

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You pile up bagged goods

iStock/Don Bayley

Packets of rice and grains, and pouches of kids’ juices get turn into an unsightly pile. “Those are tiny and annoying—but great in a bin,” says Cattano. “You can fit more in the cabinet, and when you’re looking for one thing, you just pull down one bin to find it.”

You keep salt and pepper on the table

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If you often bring out the salt and pepper when you’re serving food, they might deserve a permanent place on your table. But people often leave them out of habit instead of necessity, says Richmond. “Most people tend to cook with salt and seasonings to their likings, so it’s an old trend,” she says. “If you’re not actively using shakers for daily use for seasoning, tuck those away.”

Your oil is going bad

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Exposure to light can make cooking oils go rancid. If you like having them on the counter, put them in opaque containers and stylize them so they don’t just look like clutter. “Put a tray under them so it looks intentional,” says Cattano.


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