"Design decisions can affect relationships and can affect the whole atmosphere in your house," says Gabrielle Stanley Blair, author of Design Mom and the blog of the same name.

1. Consider the layout of the kitchen


Pati Jinich
: One of the surprises for me from your book was that you once tore down a wall yourself in your kitchen.

Gabrielle Stanley Blair
Gabrielle Stanley Blair (Photo: Kristen Loken)

Gabrielle Stanley Blair: It happened late at night with a flurry of hammers and sledgehammers with my husband.

The kitchen was kind of isolated from the dining area and the living room by a three-quarter wall. I didn't think much of it when we moved in. It was like, "Great, there's a lot of storage in this kitchen. Terrific." But after a couple of weeks, I realized we were no longer prepping meals as a family or even cleaning them up as a family because the kitchen was so isolating.

One night I said, "I've had enough." We started tearing down the wall. Immediately there was a difference.

We threw up a temporary folding table as we decided if we were going to do a kitchen island or what we would do instead of that wall. But immediately there was a difference in how much we were interacting, how we were working together, how much conversation we were having on a daily basis. That was a big deal and such a reminder that design decisions can affect relationships and can affect the whole atmosphere in your house.

2. You might not need a microwave

microwave
(Photo: Rostislav_Sedlacek / iStock / Thinkstock)

PJ: I am not a fan of microwaves. I was so happy to see that you tell people that they should really assess whether they need a microwave or not. How do you think they should assess that?

GSB: For me, this whole thinking started when we moved to France. This was several years ago. We moved into a house that was a furnished house, and there was no microwave. That was the first time since I was maybe 5 years old that I lived in a place without a microwave. It definitely threw me off at first because I had certain habits that were tied to the microwave. Namely, I would warm up baby food; we had a baby at the time.

It took me a couple of weeks to realize people used to have to warm up food before microwaves existed. There are ways to do this that I didn't grow up with but that exist. It took me a minute to get into a new rhythm, but once I did, I really loved it. I realized that I was less likely to buy quick, microwavable food -- something like frozen burritos or frozen corn dogs, that kind of stuff that you throw into the microwave -- since I didn't have one. I was more likely to turn to better food alternatives.

When we moved into the house here and there wasn't a microwave, that was totally fine with us. It was again this chance to say, "This is a great way to keep better eating habits." Although I confess we did end up buying a very small microwave at my kids' request. It's on a little shelf in the pantry out of the way, hopefully not taking up too much space.

3. Or a big fridge


PJ
: You advocate small refrigerators, but you have a big family -- you have six kids. What does that mean for shopping and preparing meals?

GSB: I would say my fridge is average size. It's definitely not what people expect when they hear we have six kids. They assume we're going to have something oversized.

But what I've found -- and this may be true for others, too -- is that when I had a big fridge and I was buying food in bulk, like a huge jar of pickles, a big container of ketchup or whatever it might be, it would get about half used. By that time the bottle was looking really grimy and gross, so we'd end up opening a new bottle that looked fresher and cleaner. Then you'd have half-filled bottles in the fridge. The fridge would look full when you opened the door, but really there wasn't much in there that was actually usable and good.

We finally figured out that if I buy a small jar of ketchup, mustard, pickles or whatever it might be, that we use the whole thing up, so there's actually less waste. It doesn't take up much space, and we're much more likely to buy our food that we're going to eat that day. I realize that isn't convenient for everyone in every town, but again, for us it's made it so that we eat healthier meals.

4. Choose your kitchen table carefully

The table is key to making a kitchen work
Excerpt from Design Mom: The table is key to making a kitchen work (Photo: Photograph by Eliza J. Photography and Sarah Hebenstreit)

Excerpt from Design Mom: For our family, the table has always been key in making our kitchen work. In the smallest homes we’ve lived in, the kitchen table is where eating, crafting, and heart-to-heart talks happened. Even in homes where we’ve had the luxury of more space for a project area, the kitchen table is still the most active surface in the house. So choosing a table that we love and that works for our family is at the very top of our list of kitchen needs. [Read the full excerpt here.] 

5. Keep common items and snacks accessible for kids


PJ
: What do you want your kitchen to feel like to your family?

GSB: I want my kids to feel really welcome there. I want them to understand that this is their home as much as it is mine, and that they are welcome to the kitchen.

I try to keep what they would need, the most common items they would need, at their level. Right now I have the youngest kids in mind. My older ones are teenagers, and they can reach whatever they want. But for the younger kids, the plates, the cups, the silverware, the bowls -- those are all below counter-level in either drawers or lower shelves. When they're reaching to get a snack for themselves, they can get it. But also when they're emptying the dishwasher, setting the table, whatever it might be, they have access to those dishes.

The same thing goes for snacks. If we keep the snacks that we want them to go to accessible at their eye-level, it makes a big difference. I've even gone so far as to, when I'm setting up the kitchen, deciding where things will go, get down to their level. Crouch down, get on your knees -- whatever it takes to see the world from their height and figure out what would make sense for them.

Patricia Jinich

Pati Jinich is a cooking teacher, food writer and chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. She hosts the public television series Pati’s Mexican Table broadcasted nationwide and released her first cookbook, also titled Pati’s Mexican Table, in March 2013.