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  • Neyir Urminsky

The ADHD Kitchen - Why Layout matters

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Kitchens are as varied as the families that use them & the layout for an ADHD family is paramount. I firmly believe there is no such thing as one ‘perfect design’ and that there is so much scope for individuality in this well used space. Having said that, a well designed kitchen is a balance between engineering and artistry with a little fairy dust thrown in.

A family kitchen with open hutch
Our current hacked together kitchen

For a neurodiverse family who struggle with Executive Function, a well designed kitchen is not a luxury, it is absolutely paramount. It does not have to be fancy or have the most expensive finishes but the layout has to work for the needs of that family. With ADHD emotional regulation can often be a daily, hour by hour balancing act and the routines needed to provide 3 meals a day or nourishment in general already place a load on the likely overburdened executive function, add in a space that makes tasks more difficult and requires more mental capacity and the emotional fallout can be measurable.

Mealtimes, particularly during the week are often happening at already heightened emotional times, the breakfast/lunch preparation period coincides with getting ready and getting out the door which is already rife with executive function challenges.

A family kitchen white cabinets and open hutch
The white cabinets and counters are the kitchen we inherited

The dinner hour is full of multiple transitions, family members coming home at different times and in different states of emotional regulation. Homework and studying that needs to be done, meals that need to be prepped, cooked, eaten, leftovers dealt with and then the kitchen reset. Not to mention the many after school activities and practices and often the need for caregivers to try to sneak in more work before bed. If the layout of the kitchen is dysfunctional the added stress within the family dynamic can have daily consequences.

In the next few weeks I am going to look at kitchen design and function with an ADHD friendly lens as we tweak out own kitchen. Starting us off is the basic kitchen layout and function. A book that I loved looking through for diverse kitchen design and lots of ideas for small tweaks is Uncommon Kitchens by Sophie Donelson.

My husband and I both love to cook. Now with our family of 7, we cook nearly all of our meals from scratch (to be completely transparent, generally 2 dinners a week we use a meal kit for my sanity!). In our years together we have lived in 3 different countries, including 2 different provinces of Canada and we are currently sharing our 11th kitchen. Added to that I regularly cooked in 2 different kitchens growing up. Suffice it to say we have a fairly clear idea of what works for us in a cooking space.

White messy kitchen with stainless stove
A great shot of the problem area!

As I have discussed before when we moved into our current house we knew we would be modifying the kitchen. We have a long term plan to do a full renovation, opening up the wall into the dinning room (currently the playroom) and closing off a door to what used to be the deck (link). We expected that by now we would be undertaking that renovation but for a number of factors the timing has not worked out. Despite that, our current kitchen layout has become increasingly unworkable. While we have done a fair amount of tweaking since we first moved it we have finally reached an impasse. The two biggest issues are that we have kids keep getting bigger (pretty sure that is not unique to our family!) and we are simply running out of room with our current layout. With one kiddo well over 6 feet and the other three projected to be similarly sized, moving our eating area for 7 out of the kitchen was simply a space planning decision.

The second, equally important issue is that our current setup is essentially dysfunctional. Because of the proximity of the dishwasher, sink and stove it is very difficult for anyone over the age of 7 to be in the kitchen if an adult is cooking. As I mentioned before we have tried so many different layouts but at the end of the day there was no arrangement that was going to correct for the bottleneck that is inbuilt into our current layout. Given that I am often cooking dinner while trying to oversee homework of multiple children while arranging after practice pick ups like so many other caregivers not being able to share meal prep/clean up or work on homework with kiddos in the kitchen was exhausting at a time of day when I am often already emotionally spent.

Framed art in a casual eating area
Seating for 7 and perpetually crooked art!

When it comes to kitchen planning the golden rule for over 50 years has been the work triangle. The idea that your sink, stove and refrigerator should not be more than 8/9 feet apart. I am not sure if in my ADHD I simply missed that there was also a minimum distance or if it is something that is not talked about as often but in researching this post I came upon an article that was explicit about the kitchen work triangle, it was an epiphany! There apparently should be no less than 4 feet between the sink, stove or refrigerator. Well being very, very generous we have about 2 ½ feet from the stove to the sink! No wonder it is so difficult to work in our kitchen with anyone else present. What we often see happening within our family, is at best the kitchen layout leads to us emotionally triggering already hungry and tired family members (I’m talking about the weeknight dinner hour here) and at the worst someone being burned or hurt. If the dishwasher beside the sink happens to be open, because someone is say unloading the dishwasher to put away their lunch dishes or set the table then the cook in front of the stove can be literally caught and tripped if they step back at the wrong moment. The possibilities to trigger one another are endless. Not to mention when we actually eat in the kitchen the fridge is inaccessible as is the dishwasher.

Kitchen layout floorplan
The current and best layout with a 'great' work triangle

Thinking again of layouts that will benefit ADHDers, respecting the work triangle is so important. Having other family members be able to help with cleaning, table setting, putting away and general meal prep in spaces that respect the work triangle will make for a much happier and less emotionally triggering experience. In the original layout of this kitchen the fridge and table were reversed meaning that just to set the table people were constantly crossing the work triangle as cooking was happening. Frustrating for everyone!

The other aha moment I had was listening to the now sadly absent Farmhouse Vernacular Podcast. The creator, Paige, is an efficiency engineer and she talks about all the zones that you find in your kitchen. The idea of zoning wasn’t entirely new to me but somehow I hadn’t thought about it in terms of our current kitchen. Well, currently the food prep, cooking, cleaning and serving zone are in the about 3 square feet between the stove and sink. No wonder the kitchen was so dysfunctional!

Do a deep dive into zoning kitchens and you will find an abundance of information. In the end the one that makes the most sense for our family and is closest to the way I have instinctively laid out the new space is from this Aussie Houzz article (nb bench=countertop).

For my family and the way we use our kitchen these are the zones;

Food Prep Zone

Cooking Zone

Cleaning Zone

Storage Zone

Serving/snack Zone

Kitchen layout floor plan
The new layout

In the new layout food prep will mostly happen along the butcher block under the windows (that little white rectangle will be covered in the butcher block too). Cooking is now on the opposite wall where the stove is being moved and will now have ample counter space on either side, another lacking element in the previous layout. Cleaning remains in the sink area and there will be snacks to the left of the sink with glasses stored in the cabinet where the stove used to be. Food storage (which used to be done in front of the stove because that was where the Tupperware was stored) will now mostly happen on the island/table in the middle of the room but standing on the side furthest from the windows. The other amazing thing about this layout is that the kids can come in, put their lunch things in the dishwasher, grab a snack and a drink and even sit at a stool at the island table all while staying out of the work triangle!!! Also they will be able to help prepare and clean up meals so much more easily, at least that is what I am telling myself!!!

Living room with gallery wall
A hint of what's to come

The last takeaway element about this kitchen refresh/mini reno is that we are making decisions with the longer term renovation in mind. The end game for the stove has always been where it will now be located and the new cabinets that are going in were planned taking into account the eventual cased opening between the kitchen and dining room. I firmly believe it is often possible to do renovations in stages. As ADHDers we are always needing to evaluate our ADHD tax, when financially feasible it is almost always worth it to do some smaller upgrades to allow you to function better in a space whether or not you have eventual plans for a larger renovation.

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