A Word About Inadequate Kitchens and Tools

Tiny Apartment Kitchen

Do you live in an apartment? Do you have an old house with a little, old, dingy kitchen? Is all the kitchen equipment you have handed down from you mother-in-law? Is it too crowded? or is it devoid of tools, even a can opener? Do you dream of a beautiful, well-lit, well-equipped kitchen? If the decorating magazines are any indication, most of us do, myself included.

Still, most of the cooking done in the world happens in little, cramped, dimly-lit kitchens with simple tools. Meals get made, things get done anyway.

Do you need more space?

No matter how small your kitchen you have room to feed yourself and everyone else who lives with you. If you have a range, a sink and a refrigerator you are good to go. It may require some juggling and certainly handling the dishes will require diligent clean-as-you-go efforts, but we’ll manage.

My kitchen is tiny. Tiny by modern standards. If you have a tiny kitchen too, I feel your pain ;-). But my Grandmother’s kitchen was about half the size of mine, and she did twice the cooking in it! It helps to gain perspective to remember that. The picture above looks something like her kitchen, though she didn’t have so many cabinets.

My home was built in 1950. My husband and I are renovating it. When we got the house little had been done to the kitchen. It still had the original homemade cabinets in it! And, you guessed it, it looked a lot like the picture above. (Not actual before pic’s unfortunately, we didn’t take any) We used it like this for about 4 years while tackling larger tasks like rewiring the whole house and putting on a new roof. We have since redone the kitchen using Ikea cabinets since after all, we’re on a budget. But we didn’t enlarge the kitchen. So I’m working in the same space as the 50′s housewife of this home did, about 8′ x 10′.

Do I think a larger kitchen would be helpful in creating a real-food-all-the-time kitchen? Not really. In fact I think it would be more of a hindrance. That extra space would soon fill up with lots of stuff. Stuff that wouldn’t really help make good meals, but would need to be cleaned, sorted and cared for anyway. Having a small kitchen really forces you to consider what tools are helpful and which ones just get in the way.

That said, we still need room for the tools that are truly helpful. For instance, having lived without a dishwasher for a few years I can say, truly from the bottom of my heart, that I am grateful everyday for my dishwasher. If I didn’t have space for one I would have to find it, somewhere, somehow. But still, I made meals and cleaned up day in and day out without one. So it wasn’t essential, but very very nice to have.

So what tools are essential?

I started my kitchen life with little more than a few castoffs from my Mom’s kitchen. Probably most of us start that way. They were cast off for a reason. Warped pans with scraped up teflon. A can opener that sort of worked. Aluminum pans that everything stuck too. Bowls too tiny to mix in. All of this is very discouraging to the new cook. So, there is a basic level of tools every kitchen needs to make healthy food. Fortunately, it isn’t too expensive to get those basics.

In my opinion every kitchen needs:

  • a cast iron fry pan
  • a cast iron dutch oven
  • a stainless steel pot
  • a couple of mixing bowls
  • a spatula
  • a sharp knife
  • a can opener
  • a few storage bowls with lids
  • an enameled or stainless baking pan

These are the basics and shouldn’t cost much. The cast iron is likely to be the most expensive part. All of these items can be perfectly fine in inexpensive versions.

Once you have these, are you completely set? Well, yes and no. You can probably still improve the quality of each of these. And there are still quite a number of things big and small that are very, very handy to have.

I’ll digress for a minute and tell you a story. I play guitar. When I was a kid I badly wanted a guitar to learn with. So my folks did what parents mostly do, they ran down to the music store and bought me a beginner guitar for Christmas. I was thrilled! I immediately dug into the little method book that came with it. But try as I might I couldn’t hold the strings down well. There were lots of buzzes and hums. I started to think I could never learn to play, it seemed hopeless. One day in a moment of resurgent enthusiasm I took the guitar to a repair shop thinking that it seemed to be different from when it was new. The repairman looked at me in amazement and said “You’ve been trying to play this guitar? This guitar is unplayable. Look, see how the neck is bowed? It’s impossible to press down the strings”. Well, the clouds parted and the sun shone again! It wasn’t me, it was a problem with my equipment! To make a long story short, I ditched that guitar and got a new quality guitar as soon as I could. Then, mercy me, I was able to learn to play the guitar!

Quality Kitchen Equipment

A few favorites I've collected ...

Good equipment is very important to success in any endeavor. I’m concerned that no one be discouraged in learning to cook by bad equipment. Notice I said good, not expensive, and not the very best. When I was learning to play the guitar, I didn’t wait till I could afford a $2,000 dollar Martin. I did a little research and found out the minimum I’d have to spend to get a quality basic guitar. Same is true of kitchen tools. A little research goes a long way toward reducing costs. Lots of good equipment is on the expensive side, but by no means all. There are cheaper ways to aquire some of it. Some good quality tools are priced very affordably. Some can generally only be found at full price. Some things can be used for multiple purposes, reducing the number of things you’ll need to buy.

So while it’s very important, is it essential? No, not completely. But it is so helpful to good results that it’s close. I recommend getting the best quality tools you can afford. Really good equipment will be with you for a lifetime. Many of the tools in my kitchen are ones I’ve had for 25 years. I have slowly but surely built up a kitchen with many quality tools. But it didn’t happen overnight. Whenever a chance to get something cheap came up I took it. I learned the best places to look. I bought used Le Creuset and All-Clad from eBay and Craigslist. With each upgrade I generally learned exactly why professional chefs prefer quality items, and what features make a tool stand out.

Does this mean I didn’t make any headway in the meantime? No, I used what I had. But cooking became more of a joy as my tools improved.

To everyone working on having a great kitchen …

Try to make a little progress every month. Plan out what you’d like to do next, but keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities. And remember, most likely whatever you’d like to have, Grandma probably didn’t have it. And that was perfectly okay.

Vintage Cast Iron Pans

"If you're tired of checking thrift shops and garage sales for vintage cast iron there are plenty to be had on eBay. This is where I found my vintage chicken fryer."

The Granny Plan

A review from Dawn at SmallFootprintFamily.com
"Your Granny Plan ebook is revolutionizing my kitchen. I’ve always been so daunted, overwhelmed and depressed about cooking. Now it’s becoming so easy: buttered vegetables, protein… simple, delicious, easy. I really needed that! … Your book is like the Rosetta Stone of the fridge for me."

Learn More on The Granny Plan page →

This post is part of Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist, Fat Tuesday at Real Food Forager, Traditional Tuesdays at Cooking Traditional Food , Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, Simple Thursday at Gnowfglins, Butter Believer’s Sunday School and Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday.

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lives just outside of Austin with her husband of 20 years Barry, youngest son Jake, three cats and about a dozen chickens. She has another older son and a beautiful daughter-in-law who live in Austin. While not a Grandma yet, with two grown kids she remains hopeful. Kathy wants a world where everyone has fresh wholesome food and feels that cookin' like a granny woman is the surest way to get there.


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Granny LOVES a great discussion! A thoughtful, in-depth look from all angles benefits us all. If you disagree let us know! But please remember you're in Granny's house and be respectful of that. If you wouldn't say it in your Grandma's hearing please don't say it here! No name-calling or foul language. Those comments that don't respect Granny's home will be deleted.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Meghan @ Whole Natural Life April 3, 2012 at 11:01 am

We’re moving to get a bigger kitchen! We have a little galley kitchen right now and we’re moving to a slightly larger, more triangle-shaped kitchen. I’d love a big kitchen (or even your 8′x10′ kitchen, which sounds big to me!) but those types of homes are much too expensive here for us.

You’re right, though – it’s possible to cook from scratch even in tiny kitchens. I’ve been doing it for the last two years. :) It will be nice having a bit more space, though. My husband and I like to be in the kitchen at the same time and the cramped galley kitchen makes it very difficult to do so.

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Kathy April 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Meghan, that’s so exciting! I know what you mean about crowding. Mine is fine for one, but with two we are dancing and if all four of us are in there, well it’s standing room only. Does my kitchen sound big? Most kitchens here in Texas are about twice this size. Maybe it’s true what they say that “everything’s bigger in Texas” ;-)

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Meghan @ Whole Natural Life April 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Objectively, no, it doesn’t sound big, but I think it would feel big to me, being used to smaller. :)

It’s funny but, based on my recent apartment search, it doesn’t seem like nice kitchens are on many people’s wishlists. (Well, at least where I live.) I looked at a lot of apartments and while certain features were clearly correlated with higher rents, the niceness of the kitchen seemed sort of random. Some very expensive places still had kitchens that were basically closets. I would guess that a lot of people don’t cook much anymore so it’s not a big priority for them.

Of course, most people aren’t real foodies. :)

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Michaela April 3, 2012 at 11:43 am

We have a small kitchen too. We rent at the mo. This house was also built in the 50′s, and in the 60′s an addition was built. The now dining room used to be the living/everything room. I’m thankful for the dining room, as it’s HUGE so we’ve put small (cheap pressed wood) cabinets in there for overflow. Since it’s where we eat, all of our plates & glassware are in the cabinets, along with some small appliances & food. Our 2nd freezer is in the laundry/utility room. I’ve definitely had bigger, but I’ve also had smaller. You’re so very right. You have to make do with what you have & make the best of it.

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Kathy April 3, 2012 at 1:15 pm

My kitchen opens to the dining room too so when we redid the kitchen I hung a couple of cabinets in it. It looks kinda like a buffet. Our freezer is in the entryway which is weird, but it works.

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Melissa @ Dyno-mom April 4, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Kathy, this was an awesome post! Some newlyweds stopped by my house a few days ago and the husband commented on what a well equipped kitchen I had. I wish he could have seen how we started. I made bread in a break bucket (the type with a crank) for years and years. Start with good bones and build from there! I shared this on my blog FB by the way.

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Kathy April 4, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Thank you Melissa! I had young adults in mind when writing it. I vividly remember sitting in the kitchen of a friend 15 years my senior when I was about about 25 staring awestruck at all the things she had. When I got back to my apartment I was a little depressed. Whenever I looked thru a cookbook it seemed like I was missing everything I needed. I hope this post is encouraging to those in that situation.

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Heidi April 5, 2012 at 7:09 am

I have a decent sized but oddly shaped kitchen but over the 28 years we have lived here I have concluded that if I have enough counter space and table space I am OK. I use the laundry room and our son’s ( who is grown and gone) bedroom for a pantry for the big items. One day long ago I realized in some parts of the world whole families live in houses the size of my kitchen. I have been grateful ever since.

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Jen April 6, 2012 at 9:44 am

I concur!Whenever I start to think I need something, I think about what my husbands mother had to work with in the Philippines — a sharp knife and good pots! I am working on spending my money on quality food and I need the good knife set. But other than that, I have more than enough to work with. Thanks for the reminder!

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rebecca April 7, 2012 at 9:16 am

I have lived and am living in houses with small kitchens, but somehow we turn out lots of canned and frozen goods and cook from scratch most of the time. When I’m considering a new tool for the kitchen , I really have to think long and hard about how much I will use it and where I will put it.

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Delphine April 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

This post is great. What you say is so, so true. I have the tiniest kitchen in the world. It’s the setup of the picture, minus the room to move. There are things hanging from the walls and because I’m an NTer, there are jars everywhere! I have to say it does bug me sometimes but I think the key is to clean-while-you- and possibly to downsize to the tools you use all the time. Thanks for this post!

http://antiquariancooks.wordpress.com/

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Kathy April 17, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Delphine, I’m sorry for the late posting on this one … it got stuck in my spam filter :-(

My mother always told me to never put anything over the stove, no matter how tempted I was to do it! Well, I now have a shelf over my range and I hear her voice every time I reach to get something off of it. Gotta use every inch!

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Tina Marie @ Living Simply April 26, 2012 at 8:02 am

I too have a tiny kitchen. We are a family of six with another one on the way. Due to major gluten intolerances we maintain a grain free kitchen and as a result cook every meal from scratch. Sometimes, I admit a bit more space would be great, but we make do. I downsized the amount of gadgets and just kept the essentials. Most of our pantry items are kept in a pantry in the basement, like at my grandmother’s. My husband built the kiddos a bench out of Ikea cupboards where we store onions, cookie cutters and other things that are only used on special occasions. He also put up some open shelving for platters, cups, french press, tea pot and the sort. I don’t really know what I would do with a larger kitchen. A small kitchen can be made effecient, easy to clean and maintain. Thank you for posting because I sometimes feel a little odd that I love my little tiny kitchen so much.

http://livingsimplysothatothersmaysimplylive.blogspot.ca/2012/03/top-to-bottom-left-to-right-part-1.html (a link to my kitchen post)

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tux May 9, 2012 at 8:59 pm

are you measuring the floor measurements or the wall to wall measurements for your kitchen? For ours, the floor is 11.5×4.5, but the wall-to-wall is 12×8. It’s reasonably small. My mom’s kitchen (where I grew up) is at least 4 times the size of my kitchen, possibly even more. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be moving any time soon, so I’ve been trying to upgrade what I can. Recently upgraded the stove/oven, and going to start looking at dishwashers soon….

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Kathy May 9, 2012 at 10:02 pm

It’s wall to wall so it’s little :-) I just bought a toaster oven which thanks to Gnowfglin’s great refrigerator sourdough and the Texas heat I didn’t think I could live without this summer. I’ve become addicted to the sourdough, and right quick too ;-). Anyway, had trouble working out a decent spot for it. Not sure if I like it where it’s at but I think it’ll have to do for now.

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jpatti May 22, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Besides CraigsList and eBay, also hit yard sales and auctions.

I recently realized I had TOO MUCH cast iron and gave a bunch away to two young women I know. I just kept 2 skillets, a griddle, a covered dutch oven and a chicken fryer. I gave away more than twice that much. Why? Cause I can’t NOT buy a $2 cast-iron skillet, and it’s come up again and again for me at yard sales and auctions. Gorgeous, old seasoned cast iron…

I’ve also bought a lot of speckled enamel cookware at auctions and yard sales. And Visionware, but I wound up giving that away cause I just didn’t use it much.

Also my mason jars, which I’ve given away HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of them, and still have hundreds here, I never paid more than $2-3 for a big box… at auctions and yard sales.

A LOT of the younger generation doesn’t cook, so when they inherit this stuff, it’s JUNK to them. It’s like panning for gold to me!

I got my Vitamix off of CraigsList, the old metal model after the company made the new one. Cost me $100. But I wanted one for SOOOO long. It was new, it was from a dealer who had a bunch of the old models. So a HUGE savings.

Oh, and FREECYCLE!

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Gudrun B December 4, 2012 at 3:29 pm

the small kitchen dilemma haunts me too :)
when i was a one person house hold it worked just fine! with kids added to the game :a different story! they want to help, they should help, but the cramped kitchen can become frustrating…. when we remodeled our present house (yup 1950′s) there was no room to enlarge, so we made the best of what we had (3 doorways in one small kitchen does not make for ample counter space options) Now that the kids are grown it is only a problem when we all gather here for Thanksgiving etc…. otherwise i often think a stove with 4 burners is a waste; i could do fine with 2 burners and a skillet, have some extra space for a crock pot…… except when making cheese or baking a lot and where to put the sprouting jars…. a small kitchen is doable :)
now when i watch these home shows where people demand HUGE kitchens (yet they do not seem to really cook much?) and huge bedrooms (what in the world do you do in a bedroom???) i think a huge kitchen-dining-living room combination would be just great :)

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Joni August 5, 2013 at 7:40 am

That looks about like my kitchen as far as appliances and counter space (although my sink at least is twice that big) but I have no cupboards! The tiny stove has been my least favorite – I can barely fit two pots/pans on it at the same time, let alone my canner, and the oven only has one rack. We’ve gotten pretty creative with one dish meals to make up for it. My mother’s kitchen is probably four times the size of mine, so it’s hard to be grateful for what I have sometimes (especially when I’m scrubbing hot spilled jam off the carpeted floor because I was trying to make room on my postage stamp counter while holding the jar…), but I try. I appreciate your tips and encouragement in this post :-).

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Karen August 10, 2013 at 5:50 pm

One of the best, inexpensive ways that I upgraded my kitchen tools was to become a Pampered Chef consultant. I was only a consultant for 2 years, but during those couple years I was able to acquire many high-quality items for reduced or even free, such as lead-free stoneware, kitchen utensils, knives, mixing bowls, etc. Also, a favorite passtime of mine is to frequent thrift stores looking for good multifunctional pieces such as Visions cookware, Pyrex, and Corningware.

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