I’ve moved more than 20 times since college. My favorite part of every new place I live is setting up the kitchen.
But when Rich and I bought a 23-foot Airstream last year - his fourth, but my first - I was mildly terrified about how I would fit everything into what seemed to me to be a very tiny kitchen space. In fact, during our first shakedown trip in the trailer last year, I remember lamenting to Rich over and over: “this kitchen is really small!”
After nine months of trial and error, and over the course of a dozen trips and other extended time on the road, I have completely changed my tune. In fact, because of the way I’ve optimized the space, we now have unused space in our 23 foot Globetrotter kitchen.
Here are the three guiding principles I used to get here:
Principle #1: Think in terms of cubic space.
In your home kitchen, you’ve likely got lots of drawers, cabinets – perhaps a pantry or an island. Loads of space that you can stash stuff in without thinking about how organized it is. (As evidence, take a look at the drawer or cabinet where you store your plastic containers. Enough said.) So, if you’re like me, you put/stack things on a shelf or cabinet bottom and that does you just fine.
But that won’t do in an Airstream. Not only are spaces smaller and of course there are fewer of them – they are rounded and sloping, not squared off like a cupboard or cabinet. That means you need to think differently about all the shapes and sizes of items you store in them. You have to think about the entire cubic space you've got in each storage space – from top to bottom, side to side, and front to back. Plus, you must consider how anything you put in that space will bounce around during towing.
Principle #2: You can't fit a square peg into a round hole.
In other words, you can't optimize rounded, uneven height spaces by using square-edged, hard plastic containers. Hard plastic storage "systems” and containers won’t get you there because most are designed for square-cornered spaces.
In order to fully utilize an Airstream's kitchen space, opt for containers that can morph their shape into downward sloping cabinets and narrow shelves, fit into nooks and crannies, be smashed without cracking or breaking, and act as insulation between kitchen items during towing.
Principle #3: Walls and overhangs = storage space, too.
And yes, it's possible to design them to look attractive, not cluttered.
With those guiding principles in mind, here are 10 tips for optimizing the space in your Airstream kitchen.
NOTE: Product links are provided simply to give you ideas. They are not affiliate links.
1. Use rope and cloth storage baskets to organize the overhead cabinets.
You’ll be amazed at the amount of overhead cabinet space you gain.
In my initial attempts to organize, I used rigid plastic storage containers and plate/pan storage racks. But nothing allowed me to neatly stack things to the height of the cabinet and I ended up with a lot of unused space.
Then I watched a video that suggested soft-sided baskets as a way to organize cabinets, and that was my a-ha moment. Now our cabinets contain baskets of multiple shapes and sizes for storing plates, bowls, dishtowels, dish rags, coffee and Bialetti coffee pot, tea kettle and tea stuff, and more. Each has handles so I can grab and pull out the basket, get the items I need, and put it back.
The baskets also keep items from jiggling and scratching in the cabinets while towing, because by default they are made of soft material. That allowed me to happily throw out all of the little squares of non-skid shelf liner I’d been using to separate pots, pans, and plates.
You can fit a lot of stuff into soft baskets. Handles make it easy to pull them out and put them back.
2. Get your silverware out of the drawer and into an overhead cabinet.
Initially we used the wooden flatware drawer organizer that came with our Airstream. But the darn thing took up nearly an entire drawer and left only an inch or so on the sides for other kitchen items. This flummoxed me until I remembered how I used to transport flatware to the back yard for parties: a silverware caddy.
You can free up an entire drawer by ditching the silverware organizer created for a home kitchen drawer, with a handled, plastic silverware caddy. Ours stores all flatware, corkscrew, small serving tongs, napkins, and a few other small gadgets. To avoid a stabbing incident or errant knife careening down from above, I refrain from storing sharp knives of any kind in the caddy. (Forks are a use-at-your-own-risk situation.)
Clear plastic makes everything visible for easy grabbing. The caddy’s handle makes it easy to pull it down and set the table.
Cloth baskets and fabric cubes are a great way to optimize cubic space in overhead cabinets. I've still got room to stack more on top.
3. Invest in a set of nesting/stackable pots and pans.
The value of stackable stuff is that you can fit a whole set of pots and pans in a small space. You also won’t need the shelf liners/towels/whatever you are using to separate the pots and pans to keep them from scratching during towing – the stacking feature creates a space between them so they don’t rub.
There several good brands out there, but I picked the 10-piece Farberware Neat Nest set for these reasons: it includes the types of pans I used most often (though we don’t travel with the large soup pot), it’s non-stick (I’m all about easy clean-up), the $99 price and quality met our budget and needs, and it came in a blue that complemented our Airstream’s gray, London Fog interior design.
I suggest choosing a set that doesn’t require you to remove the handles for storage, which can save you time and avoid the potential for loose handles when cooking.
4. Get as many other stackable and collapsable kitchen products as you can.
Early in my Airstream days, I had the opportunity to learn from a wise group of women from the Greater Los Angeles Airstream Club (our WBCCI chapter). Until then, I didn’t know a collapsable tea kettle or a collapsable bucket existed! Now I get it. If your goal is maximizing space, look for anything that can fit into small spaces or be smooshed under the dinette or a small pantry cupboard.
5. For food storage, use silicone storage bags instead of plastic containers.
Initially, I stocked the Airstream with some plastic containers for leftovers and other food. But they took up nearly the entire under-microwave storage compartment when they were not in use.
Without trying to be too dramatic, the switch to food-grade, silicone storage bags has changed my Airstream kitchen life.
Now I can pack the refrigerator to the max with leftover foods and liquids. The silicone bags are leak proof and can be slipped behind bottles on a refrigerator shelf or inserted between the yogurt, eggs, and cantaloupe. When not in use, the bags store flat in a drawer; no more plastic container Jenga in the cabinet. A bonus: the entire under-microwave cabinet has been repurposed to store grains, small packaged foods, spices and other small items instead.
You can pack a lot of food into the fridge using silicone bags.
Liquids, fruits, veggies – anything is possible in food grade silicone.
The only drawback I’ve experienced with these bags so far (at least with the Gorilla Grip brand) is that curry and tomato-based foods do stain them. But if optimal organization and storage is your goal, you really can’t beat silicone bags. There are many brands out there, and I’ve tried several. Search Amazon or Google and take your pick – they are all pretty inexpensive.
By the way … don’t be afraid to pack your refrigerator or your pantry really tightly. It’s astounding how much food fits into both of them if you think in terms of cubic space and view them like a jigsaw puzzle. In the pantry, for example, I tape together two cans on top of each other, and pack the taller shelves. Tight packing is also better for towing, as there’s less space for things to toss about.
6. Organize food using cloth storage cubes that fit into smaller spaces.
As described above, we use these to store food and spices. Again, lots of options to choose from. But something I like about the DIOMELL set I purchased is that each one has a zipper on the bottom that, when unzipped, allows you to store them flat. When not in use, we store them at the bottom of cabinets and drawers.
7. Turn your walls into storage space.
Even if you have a small amount of usable kitchen wall space (which is the issue in our 23 foot trailer), you can do a lot to optimize it for storage and utility. Here are three ways I’ve done this -
Magnetic knife strip - I love the one in my home kitchen and bought the same one for the Airstream. Yes, installing it does require drilling into the wall. But it’s worth it for the utility and convenience while cooking. I store the knives in plastic covers and place them in a drawer during travel, but some Airstreamers travel with them on the magnetic strip.
Stainless steel, adhesive back, paper towel holder - A roll of paper towels takes up a lot of space. I keep it up and to the left of the sink on this towel holder. The Suntech brand has adhesive to hang it so no drilling required. I bought the same model for our office and for my dad. It’s well designed, of good quality, and has not fallen off yet! Make sure you put the paper towels away for travel, or use a clip to keep them from unraveling onto the floor during towing. (Ask me how I know this…)
Stainless steel, adhesive hooks - I love these and have used them throughout the Airstream. One is used for a dish towel, another for a dish rag – and I’ve hung cutting boards inside the cabinet above our pantry on a hook as well. There are tons of choices but I picked these hooks for their clean, modern design.
Make your walls work for you by hanging frequently used things.
8. Keep cooking utensils in a caddy and put it in the overhead compartment for towing.
The cabinet height allows you to store tall utensils. I put the caddy of utensils up there when we’re towing, then put them out on the counter for daily use when we’re camped. It’s very convenient for cooking and has a small footprint on the countertop.
Although everyone’s decor and design choices are different, to get an idea of how this looks, here’s the utensil set and caddy I bought (I use the smaller of the two caddies in the Airstream and the large one in our kitchen at home).
Use the height of cabinets by storing tall things like utensils.
9. Use small containers to organize drawers.
Leaving a kitchen drawer as one open space is the best way to create a pile of undifferentiated clutter. Instead, create a range of smaller spaces, of varied sizes, using plastic organizers – as you would in a desk drawer. Doing so gives you areas that function like a quick-reach utility drawer (for things like tape, screwdriver, lighter, matches, etc.), knife storage, a tall measuring cup, and more.
An organizer system keeps large drawers from getting cluttered.
There are many options and colors to choose from at Amazon or Target. I choose a dark gray set of Kootek Desk Organizers because it matched our decor and had the shapes I was looking for. I’ve also used these to organize our nightstand drawer.
10. Use a label maker to create labels for cubes and baskets.
Save yourself the hassle of pulling out a cube and basket every time you’re looking for something. Label each one and you’ll get it right every time. This is the cabinet that used to house empty plastic containers – look how much is in there now.
Plus, labels keep you diligent about putting things back in the right place when you’re done with them, and let’s face it: labeling stuff is just plain fun.
We're not obsessive, but we do like to keep things tidy with labels.