Our kitchens have long been the heart of our home. This past year, many of them also became its brain center, with improvised home offices and classrooms, all while we were using these essential spaces to hold more groceries for fewer supermarket trips, and cook and eat more meals. It’s been a stressful time all around, hasn’t it? How are you holding up? How is your kitchen handling its stress test?

Hopefully, our kitchens can get back to being our home’s fueling stations full-time again soon. Fueling our bodies with healthy food and drink is the kitchen’s most important role, and optimizing it is the best thing we can do for our well-being. One of the ways to achieve that is with zoning the space. (FYI, you don’t need to remodel to make this happen either!)

Kitchen Work Triangle

If you’ve ever planned or remodeled a kitchen, you probably came across a concept called the work triangle. The triangle’s three points are the refrigerator (food preservation), range or cooktop (cooking) and sink (prep and cleanup) – and moving between these essential functions was intended to be easy and convenient.

The kitchen work triangle was created in the 1940s to maximize efficiency in the typical one-cook, L-shaped or galley kitchen. Those were the days before the popularity of islands and secondary sinks, when parties ended up in the kitchen, but didn’t start there. (Our parents or grandparents entertained in their formal dining rooms or sunken living rooms, not in the cramped rooms in the back of the house that most of them had.)

Homes back then were typically between 900 and 1200 square feet overall. There are kitchens in large homes today that are about that size on their own. (I’ve designed a few of them!)

Evolution of the Zone

In the go-go years of post-World War II America, homes started to get larger and technology expanded from the space race to kitchen spaces. New appliances like dishwashers and microwave ovens arrived to make Mom’s life easier – and it was mostly mothers doing all of the cooking and cleanup back then.

Moms who loved to cook probably tuned into Julia Child’s popular 1960s TV show and saw the talented chef prepare fabulous French food on her kitchen island. It’s likely that many a magazine cover story with Child’s kitchen showed up in initial remodeling conversations with prospective designers, (much like Design Milk, Pinterest and Houzz pictures show up in designer conversations today).

Islands Transform the Triangle

Islands didn’t make the kitchen work triangle obsolete but well-equipped versions have created more points of use. Second sinks and refrigerator drawers have become additional features that expand space planning opportunities. Those three basic work areas of food preservation, cooking and cleanup still exist, but they have gotten better-equipped and larger.

Island can create kitchen work zones on their own with performance elements that make them more useful and convenient. Let’s look at each of the three essentials, and the opportunity to create specialized zones for your health and hobbies.

Your food preservation zone is centered around the refrigerator. Photo: Courtesy of Bosch home appliances

Food Preservation Zone

Your main refrigerator is the heart of your food preservation zone. It’s where you store most of your produce, along with meat and dairy foods, and leftovers to reheat. Most freestanding refrigerators combine fresh and frozen food sections. Some also have purified water dispensing.

A food preservation zone should also include non-refrigerated food storage. If you’ve ever been in a poorly-designed kitchen with the pantry at one end and the refrigerator at the other, you know the inconvenience of grocery unloading and meal preparation. (That describes my former Tampa house!) Put the refrigerated and non-refrigerated food storage centers close to each other if you can!

Your food preservation zone may also have wine refrigeration and storage space for the food containers and wine accessories.

modern kitchen closeup of wooden cabinets, white tile backsplash and stainless steel hood

Your cooking zone includes your cooking surface and vent hood. Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020, © J. Gold) Photo: Courtesy of Bosch home appliances

Cooking Zone

Your cooking zone will encompass your cooking appliances (range and microwave or ventilation hood, cooktop and ovens), but also the pots, pans, utensils and small appliances (e.g., stand mixer and food processor) that you use for cooking. It may also have storage space close by for spices and potholders.

modern kitchen with stainless steel sink and white countertops with plants

Your prep and cleanup zone is centered on your kitchen sink. Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020, © J. Gold) Photo: Courtesy of BLANCO

Prep and Cleanup Zone

Your cleanup zone includes your sink and faucet, soap dispenser, dishwasher, disposal, recycling, composting and trash bins. It also includes storage for your dishes, glasses, cleaning supplies and cutting boards. It’s handy to have all of those close to the dishwasher for quicker cleanup and unloading. It’s also handy if your serving set storage is located near your seating area for more convenient table setting and clearing.

kitchen view with wine bar

Wine centers are popular specialty zones. Photo: Peter Rymwid, courtesy of Thyme & Place Design

Specialty Zones

A larger kitchen gives you the luxury of creating specialty zones. Many include coffee centers, with a countertop or built-in coffee maker, coffee grinder, refrigerated space for creamers and storage for sweeteners and serving pieces.

Another popular specialty zone is the wine bar. In this setup, wine refrigeration moves out of the preservation zone into its own area, accompanied by storage for wine glasses, openers, stoppers and even specialty wine dispensers.

Baking saw an increase in popularity during the pandemic and having a designated baking zone can include a mixer lift, convection-steam oven, stone countertop and storage space for rolling pins, baking trays and non-refrigerated ingredients.

Those devoted to juicing can create a juicing zone with a refrigerator drawer for produce, juicer on its own pull-out shelf, cutting boards and prep sink. This concept of zoning can also be applied to those who love smoothies or salads with specialized appliances and storage for those.

kitchen cabinet with lazy susan out holding pots and pans

Organizers can help you zone your kitchen and optimize your storage. Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020, © J. Gold) Photo: Courtesy of Kesseböhmer/Kitchen Design by Dee Maher

Final Thoughts

Even if you’re not planning a kitchen remodel, you can still improve the functionality of your space by optimizing your storage next to the appliance or fixture where it’s most convenient for you – e.g., utensils moving into the cabinet closest to the cooktop with organizers – plus adding task lights above your work surfaces, laying down an anti-fatigue mat where you spend the most time standing on hard floors, and generally decluttering and refreshing your kitchen.

It won’t make you a Julia Child, but it can make it easier for you to make healthier meals for yourself, your partner and your own child!

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is a Mayo Clinic Certified Wellness Coach, wellness design consultant and the author of three books on design and remodeling. The latest, Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness and Happiness, (Tiller Press) published September 2020. You can catch Jamie’s WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS on Clubhouse the first and third week of the month at 1 PM Pacific/4 PM Eastern and her new videos on her recently-launched YouTube channel.

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