How to design a kitchen that works for you and your family

In 2016, we renovated the kitchen in our Northern Virginia townhouse.

In 2017, I entered a residential eating disorder treatment program, after 25 years of a life ruled largely by anorexia, bulimia and overexercising.

Six years into my recovery, I’m realizing my kitchen was designed by — and for — someone who didn’t really want to do much with food other than avoid or binge it. Now, I’m challenging myself to try new foods and recipes, eat more fresh food and reduce food waste. And I’m realizing that many things I need to meet those goals are out of reach (the smoothie maker that would enable healthier snacks), out of sight (the chickpeas tucked behind crackers) or simply so unorganized that they hamstring my best efforts.

I need to get my kitchen on my side and make it a partner in my recovering relationship with food. My eating disorder sets a particular obstacle course, but there are plenty of other hurdles large and small that keep people from achieving their kitchen goals. It could be limited time, limited space, limited skills. Or it could be that the space doesn’t have enough organization, light, space, tools or personality.

I spoke with a dietitian, a therapist and several interior designers to get advice on how to make my kitchen work for my family. A key takeaway: You need to be honest about what you want in your kitchen — and what keeps you out of it.

“What we see is a lot of design focus: kitchens that are spotless and don’t look lived in. That’s not helpful, or realistic. It has to work for you,” says Jessica Sprengle, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. “Think of your kitchen as your command center. You’re the pilot, and you need to know where all the buttons are, what you’re steering and where you’re steering it.”

Look for emotional obstacles

“With clients, I typically start by asking, ‘What about your kitchen leads you to avoid it?’” says Christyna Johnson, a Dallas-based dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating.

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“Is it an emotional thing? Is it a physical thing? If you can’t change the physical landscape of your kitchen, how can you at least make it more functional and more inviting?” she adds. “The goal is to use this space — and if that means turning up your favorite song or hanging a fun print, do it.”

Interior designer Marie Cloud starts by asking clients to describe how they feel and operate in the kitchen, rather than how they want it to look. The Charlotte-based founder of Indigo Pruitt Design Studio uses a feelings-wheel pillow, with concentric circles of primary, secondary and tertiary emotions, to help people find the words.

Once they recognize those emotions, she uses principles of design to remove, or at least mitigate, the negative ones and find ways to increase and enhance the positive ones. For someone who feels intimidated, like me, Cloud would rely on color theory, color psychology and Mother Nature to shift the vibe. “Let’s definitely make sure we have the right colors in there to help promote calmness and balance,” she says.

Storing grains and beans in glass jars (like the Kardashians stack Oreos, but with lentils) adds both organization and soothing earth tones, says D.C. interior designer Shawna Underwood. “It’s a trend that especially appeals to kitchens with open shelving,” she says.

Lighting is also critical in setting a mood, softening edges and regulating emotions. Bright overhead lighting is often the standard in kitchens — and for good reason, as you’re dealing with sharp objects and hot food. For many, though, that can make an already intimidating space feel cold and sterile.

The solution, experts say, is to include layers of lighting — overhead, under cabinets, on cabinets and on counters — that can be turned on or off depending on what you’re doing. Cloud offers clients at least a dozen bulbs to choose from, so they can find a combination that provides warmth in some areas and specificity in others. Simply washing the windows and opening or changing the curtains to bring in more natural light can help, too.

Sprengle, who is neurodivergent like many of her clients, considers overhead lighting “the kiss of death” and is thankful for the Philips Hue LED smart lighting strips her husband installed under the cabinets. Using his phone, they can change the colors, settings and brightness.

Or Jamie Gold, a designer in San Diego and the author of “Wellness by Design,” replaced harsh recessed can lights in her kitchen with softer pendants.

For a while, I went full Nancy Meyers and put a lamp on the once-dark kitchen counter, a trend that took off a few years ago. Now that I’m cooking more, the toaster oven occupies that spot, giving off a warm glow when in use.

… and physical obstacles

Ambiance won’t help if you’re physically hampered. To identify hurdles of the more three-dimensional variety, Cloud puts her clients through the motions. She asks for a refreshment so she can watch how they operate in the space. She also has them reenact a busy time of day, asking for a detailed play-by-play. “Are you bumping around that counter every time, fumbling trying to find the same mug that you use every morning that’s never in the same place?” Cloud asks. “When you find your flow, don’t fight it. Support it with design and organization.”

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Good flow to maximize efficiency is a core principle of kitchen design’s long-standing “triangle rule,” the idea that the sink, refrigerator and stove should be in triangular proximity. Evolving family dynamics and kitchen design trends, though, have made the kitchen home to more people, more furniture (islands and bars) and more activities (socializing, homework). These days, the triangle doesn’t work for everyone. Gold instead focuses on creating work zones dictated by categories: preparation, cooking, consumption and cleaning.

Ideally, she says, you have things “within reach” to ease operations and prevent frustration. “Get your cardio somewhere else. I like to move, but you don’t want to be wasting time or handling glassware in a hurry.”

Take stock and get organized

Once you’ve addressed the big-picture obstacles, designer Anna Gibson, owner of AKG Design Studio in Reston, Va., recommends auditing your kitchen’s contents: Empty, clean and reorganize the fridge and cabinets. Establish new rules and systems as you move items back in. “Make sure you have the healthy food and the snacks within reach — and maybe those things you don’t want to eat as often in the bottom or back of the pantry,” Gibson says. “It pays off. Keeping it clean and organized is going to make it more inviting.”

And before you splurge on a bunch of gadgets and appliances, identify tools that will help you meet your goals, and figure out where they should go, based on how — and how often — you will use them. Multipurpose appliances, such as a food processor and an air fryer, work well in small spaces and for people, including those with disabilities, who prioritize ease of access.

At first, I cringed when sources mentioned the idea of “out of sight, out of mind,” because I equate hiding food with shame. But they mean that putting key items, such as a water bottle, front and center can help promote healthy habits.

“When I talk to clients, I ask, ‘How can you use visual cues to your advantage?’ Like, if you see a blender, you’ll remember, ‘Okay, I need to make my smoothie,’” says Sprengle, who sees clients in New Jersey and Texas.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consider what you like about your kitchen — and yourself — so the space looks and feels like a reflection of your life.

“Ask what would make this a more interesting experience for you — where you’re like, ‘I’m in the kitchen. I’ve got my fun apron on. I’m listening to my music and I’m dancing around, and I enjoy that process,’” Johnson says. “For me, that makes cooking less draining and puts me in a more neutral mind space.”

Lean into what excites and comforts you, experts say. If that means adding seating so you’re not alone, hanging a beloved art print, using heirloom plates or bringing in an anti-fatigue mat, do it.

“I don’t think we treat our kitchens like we treat a lot of our other rooms, where there is a priority to make it specific to you,” Sprengle says.

The one thing to leave behind: others’ expectations. “Look, if you don’t like to cook or even do dishes, don’t waste your money on pots, pans and fun bowls,” Johnson says. “Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish. If it’s putting a frozen dinner in the oven, that’s great. You’re fed and didn’t have to spend time or energy prepping or cleaning. It’s your kitchen; let it work for you.”

Amanda Long is a writer and massage therapist living in Falls Church, Va.