Americans have a skewed sense of size. They will use adjectives like “tiny” to describe living spaces and kitchen appliances that would be considered “huge” or at least “normal” in the rest of the world. I have long since learned to expect to see the trend towards glorifying large size and wasted space in American mainstream interior magazines. What surprises and worries me more is to see American environmental activists embracing the idea that their perfectly normal or even large living spaces should be called “tiny.” In my opinion, environmentally conscious people should refuse to accept and embrace American mainstream ideas about what ought to be considered “normal” in terms of size and also in terms of lifestyle choices. After all, size is relative, and we can choose our own vocabulary and benchmarks for what constitutes “large” or “small.”
In a blog post titled “A Tour of My Tiny Kitchen” a person who maintains a website called “zerowastechef” called this a tiny kitchen.
She also wrote “my oven is teeny tiny” about this oven.
In other countries that would not be a tiny oven. This is how my own stove/oven looks like. And, no, I do not consider it “tiny” or even “small.”
Where I live, two burner stoves are called “small.” Four burner stoves are called “normal.” Anything more than four burners is very rare, because few people can simultaneously use more than four burners while cooking. My stove has three burners, nowadays those are rarely made. Below the stove, the upper compartment has some storage space and the lover compartment is the oven. My stove is several decades old, it was made back in USSR. Technology for gas burning stoves has advanced very little during the last few decades, and I don’t throw out stuff as long as it is still functional and modern versions do not offer significant improvements in terms of performance.
When I used Google image search for “small kitchen” in my native language, here are some images I got.
Alternatively, you can also take a look at kitchens found on boats. And keep in mind that people who live on boats often can go grocery shopping less than once per month, which means they cannot rely on ready-made convenience foods, especially given their small fridges and limited storage space.
And then there’s the tiny house movement with homes that look like this from the outside:
And their kitchens:
Images are from here.
If you happen to be a student in Germany (as I have been), the chances are that your rented home could have a kitchen that looks approximately like this:
You get a kitchen sink, two electric burners, a bit of counter space, a small fridge underneath, and some shelf space. Now go and enjoy your culinary adventures!
In case my American readers imagine that living with such kitchens must be terrible, that’s not the case. And, no, Europeans don’t eat worse food due to having smaller kitchens. As a student, I lived in Germany in a rented space with a rather small kitchen (like in the last photo), and I did just fine. And yes, I cooked all my meals, and I didn’t eat junk food.
Obviously, a very small kitchen limits what foods you can cook. But instead of bemoaning the stuff you don’t have, it is more productive to make the most of what you do have. For example, if you don’t have an oven, there still remain literally thousands of tasty and healthy recipes that can be cooked with only a stove. On top of that, humans have also invented a “stovetop oven” for those who really want to bake some muffins without a real oven.
Creativity with limited resources is something I always appreciate. There are chefs who make delicious meals from various food scraps that the average person throws out. There are hikers who know how to make delicious dishes in the middle of nowhere with only the stuff they can carry in their backpacks. There are people who live on boats with small kitchens, limited storage space, limited fuel supply, and no fridges. (By the way, if you must conserve fuel, look into thermal cookers, those are pretty cool. You can even cook food in a regular food thermos. I do this for foods like soy beans, which would otherwise require simmering on stove top for at least three hours.) I admire this kind of creativity and skills, and always look forward to learning new tricks for saving space, costs, and fuel. I also appreciate tasty recipes that are simple to make and require minimal cooking equipment.
Of course, living in a smaller space requires different habits, and somebody used to lots of space would require some time to adjust if they moved to a smaller home. But small homes or smaller kitchens are not inherently uncomfortable. Here are some ideas how to make sure your smaller living space feels great for you.
Learn to love multi-purpose items.
Limited spaces make you appreciate multi-purpose items. For example, I don’t own a tea kettle, neither electrical nor a stovetop one. When I want a cup of tea, I boil water in a small saucepan. I use the same saucepan also for heating milk (for a cocoa drink; ingredients: warm milk, cocoa powder, sugar). I use it also for making a single serving of rice, buckwheat, pasta, lentils, rolled oats, millet, etc. Boiling water in a saucepan doesn’t require more time or effort than boiling it in a dedicated single-purpose container that can be used only for boiling water.
I buy stuff only when it is essential or at least very useful and can actually justify the money investment and storage space. For example, can I make a toast in a pan on the stovetop? Yes, hence I don’t need a toaster. Can I reheat my leftovers on the stovetop? Yes, hence I don’t need a microwave.
Be mindful of your habits and own only what you need.
Don’t try to live in some imaginary generic space that should suit everybody. Instead customize your space to suit your needs. Of course, home owners who don’t plan to sell their home or apartment within the next decade have much more room for customization than people who rent their homes, but most people still can do at least something about their living and cooking spaces.
What items people need depends on what kinds of foods they cook regularly and how many people they have in their family. For example, owning a toaster would make sense for a person who eats toasts very often, or a food processor would make sense for a large family. Alternatively, if you use your microwave all the time but never use more than two burners on your stove, then you do need a microwave and don’t need a gigantic stove with six burners. But if you only use a microwave once per month, then you probably don’t need it. Still, I cannot believe that most people with oversized kitchens actually need them. It’s also ironical that Americans are the nation with the largest kitchens while simultaneously eating more ready-made junk food than anyone else.
Use the smallest item that can get a job done comfortably.
Don’t buy the biggest appliance and the most complicated gadget available for sale “just in case.” Evaluate your needs realistically and buy only what you need, because a larger appliance or tool will cost more, take up more space, require more electricity to operate. For example, if you frequently make dishes for a single person that require a small amount of grated cheese, a hand grater is sufficient. Invest in a food processor only if you seriously need it.
Larger isn’t always better. Let’s say you need to grate some food. One option: pull out your heavy food processor from its cupboard, assemble it, grate your food, take it apart, wash it, dry it, put it back in the cupboard. Alternative: take your small hand grater from the drawer, grate your food, rinse the hand grater under your water tap, put it back once it is dry. The latter feels like less hassle and takes less time unless you need to process a large amount of food.
For example, I have an immersion blender, because I use it often enough, and it does save time compared to puréeing food by hand. I picked an immersion blender, because it is lighter, takes less storage space, requires less assembly, and is easier to clean compared to regular blenders. Also, an immersion blender with a whisk attachment means that I do not need a hand mixer (a dedicated hand mixer would be better for a person who makes lots of whipped cream, but I don’t do that, thus a whisk attachment for a blender is good enough for me; as for making whipped cream by hand, that actually feels sort of tedious for me).
By the way, I didn’t even know what a salad spinner is until I found a zero waste blogger writing about how to live without one. Why Americans even want to devote storage space to such items is beyond me. Alternatives: (1) eat wet salad (that’s what I do); (2) put your wet salad on the kitchen table and wait a few hours until water evaporates; (3) put your wet salad in a cotton bag and whirl it in the air.
Other cultural differences
Speaking of oversized, American fridges are ridiculously huge. Those double door monstrosities are uncommon in my part of the world.
I do understand that living with a European-sized kitchen or fridge in the USA could be harder than in Europe. How a single person can live and cook is influenced by what foods nearby grocery stores offer for sale. For example, where I live milk is sold in one liter bottles (one gallon is 3.785 liters). My uncle once traveled to USA for a business trip, and there he and his colleagues bought a single milk package and shared it among several people, because, as my uncle complained, “a single person cannot possibly drink as much milk as Americans sell in a single package.”
Also, in the USA, eggs are stored in the refrigerator, while many European countries do not refrigerate their eggs. If you don’t wash eggs before selling them, then refrigeration is unnecessary. But once you wash and refrigerate eggs (as Americans do), you must keep them refrigerated also at home.
So yes, how food gets sold in your neighborhood can influence how much shelf space or fridge space a person needs. Still, if you google for “fridge tour,” in most images you will see that people store in their fridges foods that do not need to be refrigerated in the first place (for example, most vegetables and fruits can be stored in room temperature). If I see a photo with a monstrously huge fridge, which is filled mostly with items that can be stored in room temperature, I won’t believe that the owner of said fridge actually needs this monstrosity. Refrigeration costs money and energy, thus personally I would never refrigerate some food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Learning how to properly store different foods is much better than just dumping everything in the fridge, because you have no other idea what to do with your herbs, tomatoes, apples, or onions instead.
People establish ideas about what constitutes “normal” by looking at their neighbors. Americans have managed to encapsulate themselves in a “supersize” bubble by only looking at how other people in their country live and failing to pay attention to the fact that things are different in other continents. Not only people falsely imagine that they need oversized living spaces, they also perceive them as status symbols. That’s a pity.
What’s even more annoying is how nowadays thanks to movies, Internet, interior design magazines, etc. American ideas about what lifestyles are “normal” are seeping across the rest of the globe. That’s a bad trend, and people who care about the environment shouldn’t allow marketing professionals to instill into us the idea that using (and buying) lots of stuff is somehow normal.
Note: For those of you unfamiliar with European architecture—we don’t have laundry rooms here. Whenever our bathrooms turn out to be too small to squeeze a washing machine inside them (common in older houses), we stash our washing machines under the kitchen sink. (My own washing machine is also under the kitchen sink.) Clothes dryers are not common where I live. We use clothes lines instead. We hang our clothes to dry in our yards or balconies. Or we do this:
Or we just hang our clothes to dry indoors. I don’t use clothespins on a laundry line, because I can save space by putting my wet clothes on regular wooden hangers on a short “drying pole” in a corner of my room, which is my handmade and simpler alternative for a clotheshorse.