This Pro Organizer’s “Zoning” Method Will Make the Most of Your Kitchen Space

updated Aug 7, 2023
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Credit: Minette Hand

The kitchen is one of the most sacred spaces in my home. To decompress from a long work day or the latest stresses life has thrown at me, nothing soothes me more than putting on a podcast, selecting a new recipe, taking out all the ingredients and gadgets I’ll need, and zoning out while I put together a meal for my family. The only thing that can disrupt this zen, however, is when I cannot find a single thing I need. There’s a lot of stopping and restarting because I was sure my spatulas were in this container, my serving trays were in that particular drawer — and where did all the olive oil go?! I was sure the pantry was stocked.

In my hunt for a better organization method, I learned  about an ingenious system from pro organizer  Nicole Gabai — founder of B. Organized and author of The Art of Organizing — and I knew her “zoning” method was a must for my kitchen. I just had to talk to her about how to make it work especially well in my kitchen (and yours!).

What is the Zoning Method?

“Using zones in the kitchen helps prevent clutter and allows the kitchen to function efficiently,” Gabai explains. “It can also help promote a minimalist atmosphere, forcing us to ask ourselves if we really need those three vegetable peelers. The answer is ‘probably not.’” Gabai says that many people often make the mistake of assigning equal importance to all objects in a room, which isn’t as functional as it could be. But with zoning, you prioritize the objects you use most often, putting them in the most convenient place — that’s Zone 1. Objects you use less often are for placement in Zone 2 or 3. You can add a Zone 4 for items that are important enough to keep but you don’t need to access often. And create a Zone 5, only if absolutely necessary, as it will consist of items that will rarely be seen again (as they’ll be placed in storage).

But Gabai says to truly change your (organizational) life for the long-term, you need an effective system that’s flexible enough to grow and adapt with you, but easy enough to maintain day-to-day and even year after year. Zoning is particularly effective in the kitchen because it’s one of the home’s busiest rooms. 

If the zoning method is speaking to your disorganized (or wannabe more organized) heart, here’s Gabai’s best techniques for zoning the most used and important areas of your kitchen.

For Your Drawers

You’ll want to organize your drawers in zones so the items are as close as possible to the place where you use them. Best of all, using zones removes the need for a junk drawer, which Gabai says is essentially a “wasted” drawer. “If it’s ‘junk,’ why are you keeping it in such a valuable space? That ‘junk’ most likely belongs in another zone, perhaps even the garage,” says Gabai. “That’s not to say we don’t all need a kitchen essentials drawer, because we do. This would include pens, notepaper, scissors, maybe even a pair of reader glasses, tape measure, stapler, and ruler.” And that “kitchen essentials” drawer needs drawer organizers to prevent you from digging through to find what you need. “I recommend purchasing individual drawer organizers in wood, bamboo, or white. Clear drawer inserts are not as effective because they can make the drawer look just as disorganized as it did without the inserts,” she says.

Gabai also says to prioritize all your kitchen gadgets and utensils in one drawer, assigning all these items a level of priority through zoning. “What you use most frequently must be evaluated and stored closest to your cooking space. Less frequently used serving pieces — such as an overabundance of flatware, large serving platters, and beverage pitchers can be moved to a Zone 2 or a Zone 3 area,” she explains. 

For Your Cabinets

With cabinets, you want the most essential items as close as possible to the place where you use them. For example, keep your everyday dishes in a cabinet close to where you cook and serve, while an extra set of dishes can go downstairs or in a cabinet in another room. 

“Within a cabinet, use zones to place the most-used items at eye level, with the less frequently used Zone 2 things higher up or lowest to the ground,” says Gabai. “To maintain zones within a cabinet, you can use shelf extenders to maximize the usable space inside the cabinets to see everything and easily access it.” 

The goal with any space is to make better use of the height so you’re not wasting valuable vertical space. In deep cabinets, you can store Zone 2 items farther back, as those are the less frequently used items such as large deep pots that are used for soups, chili, or even your crock pot.

For Your Fridge

Your most frequently used items should be the most accessible. For example, if you use milk and juice often, those should be front and center. The most-used condiments should also be easy to find and access — such as inside the fridge door. “Much like with cabinets, we want to make use of vertical space,” says Gabai. “A lazy Susan is an efficient way to prevent things from getting lost in the back of the fridge and is great for storing jams, condiments, and less-used items like bottled olives or spicy mustard.” 

Another helpful fridge organizing tool that Gabai recommends is deep, clear plastic drawer bins. “These are great to pull forward from the fridge so items aren’t lost forever in the back. They’re ideal for fruit like oranges and apples, or any other items that might otherwise get pushed further and further back never to be seen again,” she says. 

For the Pantry

If you have room in your kitchen, use the pantry to store Zone 1 items — what you use daily, depending on how much room your kitchen has, and keep those frequently used items at eye level. According to Gabai, the ideal pantry setup is to have large (but not deep) pull-out shelves so that you can group “like items” together on individual shelves.

If pull-out shelves aren’t an option, another solution is to add deep drawer bins, which act like drawers on your shelf. “Then, assign each ‘section’ — such as the drawer, container, or shelf — where you’ll store things,” Gabai explains. “For example, you can have a ‘sweets’ section, a ‘savory’ section, canned goods, rice and pasta, bottled sauces, onions, potatoes and any other Zone 2 items.” Additionally, because some pantries have extra vertical space above the top shelf, Gabai suggests adding shelves to take advantage of the height. The items stored higher up would be lighter items like paper towels or insulated lunch tote bags.

For the Kitchen Islands

The island is one place you want to keep as uncluttered as possible, as it’s usually the focal point of the kitchen. Gabai says a great hack is to use a small tray to corral and collect odds and ends, such as mail, phone chargers, reading glasses, eyeglasses, or keys. “This at least makes the area neater and more put together,” says Gabai. “It’s also a great place to showcase a vase of flowers, a bowl of fruit, or other decorative displays.”

For the Countertops

Zones are a great way to prevent counters from becoming cluttered or losing out on valuable workspace. “When it comes to storing larger, awkward kitchen items like your food processor or slow cooker, one solution is a rolling cart with shelves that can be pushed into a corner when not in use,” says Gabai. “Collecting all these large items in one place rather than having them placed randomly all over the kitchen counters is much neater.”

But when planning the zones for your counters, it’s important to put frequently used items in Zone 1, closest to where you will use them. “The coffee maker, for example, would go on the countertop as Zone 1, but all the pods for coffee can be neatly stored in a drawer nearby in Zone 2,” suggests Gabai. “The special cleaning tools for the coffee maker can go in your Zone 3 area, perhaps in the pantry.” Ask yourself which kitchen items you actually use, and put the rest in a less prominent holding area for the one or two times a year you might need them. 

Are you ready to put the zoning organizational method to the test? Let us know how it works for you in the comments below!