Basics and Options in the Kitchen Work Zone

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Whether you design kitchens in areas, centers, zones or stations, central to the plan is the space given to preparation.

No longer easily defined, the prep center has grown and multiplied due to an increase in the number of cooks, appliances and types of activities, as well as our interest in the kitchen.

A recent conversation with Julia Beamish, one of my co-authors on the new NKBA Kitchen Planning Book, inspired this month’s look at the evolution of this critical element – the prep zone

Starting with the basics, the NKBA guidelines recommend at least one work surface at least 36" wide and 24" deep. The depth suggested in this area is greater than the recommended minimum counter depth of 16" because the cook would assemble ingredients in the back portion of the work surface and actually mix, measure and prep in the front section. Based on a general average of at least 24" in each direction, or 48" total side reach, the 36" width makes a good minimum, and it might easily grow if space allows.

Traditional Prep Centers

Beginning with a look at the traditional kitchen, where there was only one of most things, the prep center included work surfaces and storage near the sink, usually between the sink and the cooktop and sometimes between the sink and the refrigerator. A minimum space of 36" wide by 24" deep would provide room for assembling ingredients at the back of the counter, and space for the actual mixing and measuring in the front section. Since there was only one cook, operating alone in the kitchen most of the time, this seemed to work, and in fact works well in many kitchens today. In this “one of most things” kitchen, the sink served double duty to the prep area and the clean-up center. When possible, in better designs, the two would not overlap.

In this traditional kitchen, storage would include the bowls, equipment and utensils used to prepare food. This is still true today, but the diversity and the options are greater. It would also include a waste container or disposer or both, and sometimes staples and food items used frequently. Proximity to the refrigerator would help with keeping food close by. Small appliances used in prep, like a toaster or food processor, might be stored in this area.

Efficiency in organization and storage might create a great one-cook kitchen where the cook could reach most everything within one or two steps. Good lighting, although important, was not always planned, and although a view for the cook would be pleasant, it was mainly limited to a window over the sink.

Today’s Prep Zone

What has changed? Actually, I should say ‘what has not changed?’ We still prepare meals in the kitchen, be it indoors or out. We still need plenty of work surfaces in close proximity to the sink and, if we can, to the food we’ll be preparing and the stuff we’ll use to do so. But that’s where the similarities stop in many of today’s kitchens. With more cooks, more appliances and equipment, more variety in the activities and the sizes, shapes and abilities of the cooks, we now have larger and greater numbers of prep zones in our kitchens.

For starters, there are often multiple work centers, and particularly multiple prep spaces. What does it take to create a second prep zone? Some storage, particularly for utensils and equipment, is nice, but if you can add a prep sink and work surface, you have enough for a start. The second sink also frees up one sink and zone for clean up and leaves one free for prep, cutting down on two cooks overlapping.

Islands in today’s kitchens often make excellent primary or secondary prep zones, with a sink, generous work surface and the chance to face a view or to socialize. An island also provides an easy opportunity to change counter materials based on the activity planned for the space, and to vary heights to accommodate cooks of various sizes. It can even offer knee space for the team member who prefers to sit. Often the island itself will guide or control the work flow, so multiple cooks do not cross paths.

While the traditional kitchen included equipment for canning and other specialized preparation, our habits have changed, some toward prepared foods and others toward fresh, “from scratch cooking.” As for appliances, microwaves are often included in the prep zone, used for defrosting, reheating and melting, and placed at a variety of heights, including undercounter in the island. The wonderful assortment of undercounter refrigeration provides storage for food items at the point of use and makes another perfect addition. Options include trash compactors, more appealing to the packaged-food cook, disposers, instant hot and filtered and chilled water, and all of the small appliances used in prep – and we haven’t begun to consider the cooking appliances. Based on specific activities to be performed in a given prep zone, a steamer, an induction element or a warming drawer might also be part of the plan. If the secondary prep zone also serves as the beverage zone, add hot and cold beverage appliances, wine storage and ice makers.

With all of the appliance options, storage is at a premium, and we have incredible accessories to help make best use of every bit. When extra depth is available in the work surface, the Europeans have given us caddies that recess into the rear space for storage of small items, knives and utensils. Backsplash storage systems offer additional storage. As storage gets pushed into the pantries, a rolling cart is a way to gather ingredients from the walk-in pantry and bring them to the prep zone. When multiple prep centers exist, the storage plan will need to include duplicates of certain items, according to planned activities.

What else? As the number of people in the kitchen – cooking or otherwise – has grown, the clear floor spaces for passage and work flow need to grow as well. Good lighting solutions have also become more complex as our ceilings have risen, especially for island prep spaces. Proper lighting for the prep zone must include lighting directed on the work surface, and thanks to the many pendant fixtures, we have a lot to choose from. Properly placed and when necessary, cleverly concealed outlets are also critical to an area where so many small appliances will be used. Flexibility must be planned into the space, sometimes referred to as expansion and contraction, allowing the kitchen and the prep zone to function for one cook at one time, and for many at another time.

Saving the most important for last, our client will be our best guide in terms of what to plan where, how each space will be used, and what each prep zone must include. Fresh food from scratch or frozen dinners? One cook or many, tall or short, and who does what? Multiple equal cooks, or one for salads and one for the grill? Entertaining?

We have a responsibility to guide them in terms of options based on what is available and what is appropriate in a given space, and then to change roles and listen to them as they define what their space priorities are.

These are just a few of the considerations going into the planning of today’s prep zone. Maybe our needs in this area have not changed so much after all, but our options and preferences for meeting those needs have expanded.

To read past columns on Planning & Design by Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, and send us your comments about this article and others, visit Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web at