Deleting the junk drawer


Enough talk, let’s get something done! The kitchen junk drawer is where all our unanswered questions go to die. In this post, we’re going to clear it out, step by step.

Step 1: Empty

Empty the contents of the drawer onto your kitchen bench, dining table, or floor if necessary. Clear out everything. If this involves taking the drawer out and tipping it upside down, go ahead. While it’s good and empty, give the drawer a quick clean. Get rid of any dust, mop up any spills, and wipe down the inside.

Step 2: Sort

Junk drawer

Now we get to the hard bit. Do you pick off the easy items (obvious rubbish, items like toys and socks that clearly don’t belong here) first, then work your way up to the trickier ones? Do you sort everything into categories, then divide and conquer in each category? Or do you pick up one item at a time, evaluating whether you need or want to keep it, and if so, where?

My answer is: Yep.

Ooh, that was annoying, wasn’t it? You wanted a definitive answer, a sure-fire methodology. But the answer is always: it depends. If there’s a lot of actual rubbish in there, it might be worth removing it first. Sometimes there are a lot of items of a certain type, like coins or pens, and it’s faster and easier to pick them out and put them aside. And often the junk drawer in particular is such a jumble of unrelated things that you need to do some categorising before you do anything: first, to break the work down into smaller chunks, and second, because grouping like things together is a really good way to see that you have way too many of them.

So if you see rubbish, or items to recycle, or obvious intruders that never should have made it to the kitchen, go ahead and remove them. Don’t put stray items away in other rooms; keep your focus on this project. If it helps you to group things into half a dozen loose categories, perhaps by the room they belong in, or their function (toys, stationery, tools), do that. Group quickly and don’t agonise.

How you get through all the items is really not that important, as long as you eventually look at every item, and I mean every single one, and make the following decisions:

  • Do you need it at all?
  • No, really? Looking at it objectively, is it too busted, too obscure, too infrequently used to deserve space in your life?
  • If you do need or want it, does it belong in the kitchen? If the answer to this is No, then put into the appropriate pile and forget about it for now.
  • If it’s an appropriately kitcheny* thing, does it already have a defined place to live? Put it there.
  • If it’s a kitchen item with no home, is a miscellaneous or junk drawer the best place for it? Why does it end up here?

* An item only belongs in the kitchen if it is used for preparing, serving, consuming, or storing food and drink. That’s it. I don’t care right now if you want to keep USB cables in the kitchen pile, because that’s where you charge your phone, or if the dog’s nail clippers have always lived in this drawer, or you just can’t think where else batteries would go. They are not food-related. They do not belong with kitchen stuff.

Step 3: Store

Your kitchen pile should be pretty small by now. Anything that has a home should, by now, have been returned to it. All that’s left is the weird stuff. Birthday candles, ziplock bags, wine charms. Think again about what kitchen activities they naturally belong with. Baking, cooking, prep, assembling (making toast, or whipping up cocktails), serving, storage? Once you’ve identified each item’s main purpose, find a home for it that’s close to the other items you use for this activity. Store plastic bags with food wrap and tinfoil, for example. Move the birthday candles into the box where you keep your icing set and cupcake moulds. Don’t just throw them in, though. At the least, pop them in a ziplock bag (you’ll find them with the food wrap) first. The goal is not to just redistribute the junk drawer jumble, but to impose order on its contents, wherever they come to rest.

You might be worrying at this point that you will end up with an empty drawer. It’s probably freaking you out. Don’t panic. You’ll find a use for this drawer. You can promote the contents of the next drawer down, or spread them across both drawers to reduce the crowding. It could be the perfect spot for your placemats and napkins, or become a dedicated drawer for your coffee cups, so they are closer to the espresso machine (true story).

Step 4: Re-home

Now for the non-kitchen piles. How did all this stuff make it into the kitchen? Was it just passing through, and got shoved in the drawer during a quick and dirty tidy up? Or is this its de facto home, because you never decided on one? Stuff only accumulates for two reasons: because it has no home, or it does, but we don’t bother to put it back there.

First, return all the items you can to their rightful places. Stationery back to your desk, toys back in the children’s rooms, tools in the garage. They will try to weasel their way back into the junk drawer, but we have a plan to deal with that.

Then move on to the sad and dispossessed items. It’s time to answer the eternal question: Where do batteries live? My preference is the laundry cupboard, as a nicely utilitarian space that is accessible enough for infrequent use. The same goes for first aid: it turns out I’ve never had a headache so awful that I couldn’t take ten extra steps to get painkillers from the laundry instead of the kitchen.

You might be bound and determined that certain things belong in the kitchen and cannot be moved. Before you dig your heels in, give it a trial for a month or two. Move the first aid box, the tools, the technology, and the pet accessories to other rooms: laundry, garage, bathroom, wherever makes sense for that category. You might discover that you prefer to use your most precious culinary real estate for food-related things only, and it’s no drama to go elsewhere for the other stuff. If the trial really doesn’t work for a specific category, because you frequently use it in the kitchen, bring it back—but in an organised fashion. Re-christen the junk drawer the Super Useful Drawer, gather some low-sided boxes or trays, and create a separate zone for each category. Use rubber bands, ziplock bags, or little plastic jars to keep small bits and pieces under control. And above all, be clear about what belongs in the drawer, and why.

Step 5: Maintain

For the next few weeks, keep a small box on the bench above the former junk drawer. It should be no larger than a shoe box, and preferably much smaller. Every time you’re tempted to put something in the drawer, drop it in the box instead. When it’s full, or at the end of each week, empty the box and return items to their homes.

Step 6: Prevent

If you find the same kinds of items turning up in the temporary box, think about why you don’t bother to return them. Is it too far to go? Do you use these items in the kitchen all the time? Does an exception need to be made?

By exception, I don’t mean starting a new junk drawer from the ruins of the old one. I mean finding a balance between the necessary discipline of returning things to their homes, and the convenience of keeping things where they are actually used. If, for example, you often need scissors in the kitchen for food preparation, then it makes sense to keep a pair in the kitchen instead of with the other office accessories. This doesn’t authorise you to keep scissors in every room now, or to declare open season for nail polish, screwdrivers, and Lego to start cluttering up your kitchen. It just means that this one pair of scissors has become a kitchen tool. Everything else is still just visiting.

 

By following these steps, you can clear out the junk drawer and keep it from ever coming back. It will seem weird at first to not have a catch-all spot, but after a while, the joy of not-junk will take hold. Who said we have to have a junk drawer anyway?