Our DIY Kitchen Renovation

Yea, I know, today’s post is not about food (and it’s pretty long, too). It is, however, about the most important room in my house where all of my plant-based eats are prepared: the kitchen. I gave you a tour of my kitchen early in the life of this blog so that you could get an idea of the food that I purchase and keep on hand to maintain a plant-based lifestyle, so you’ve seen a little bit of it already.

I wanted to share my kitchen renovation with you for a number of reasons. First of all—and most importantly—I’m happier preparing food in a workspace that I can enjoy. Looks aren’t everything, but I grew tired of staring at the 1980’s builder grade Formica splashed all over my kitchen. I found myself depressed at the thought of preparing food on countertops that were clean, but stained and scratched from years and years of use (and surely, abuse…we bought our home foreclosed and in rough shape over five years ago). When Travis was super busy completing his MBA, it was just me in the kitchen…a place I started to resent because it didn’t feel as fresh as the food I was prepping in it.

Secondly, I think that it’s valuable to see how I make the most out of a small space. My sister, Petra—author of 100 Tacks and currently living in Tokyo, Japan—has a series on her blog called Small Kitchen Missions. Her work in a space a third of the size of my kitchen has inspired me to make the most of what I consider a very small American kitchen, at least for someone that chops, blends, and cooks as much as I do. Travis and I always joke that we have the perfect kitchen for people who live on takeout, not people that like to prepare their own food. The sad truth behind the laughs is that a lot of people in a small space probably do get frustrated and resort to too many ready-to-eat meals that are either expensive, unhealthy, or both. Part of why I write this blog is to help people change that.

Lastly, speaking of expensive eating, I wanted to show you just how inexpensive a perfectly workable, presentable kitchen renovation can be, thus motivating you to do more food preparation at home. As I’ve mentioned before, plant-based living is not cheap when you’re striving for organic, non-GMO, fresh, and non-processed foods. You know how I live by Bountiful Baskets and am otherwise as thrifty as possible, so the place where all of the consumption magic happens needed to align with how I spend my money.

So, what exactly did we do to spruce up our dated space (pictured below)? When we first moved into our home in 2010, we removed all of the cabinets, sanded, and stained them. We were able to remove/cover years of wear and tear and ended up with a refreshed, darker, richer color than what came with the house. Are they my dream cabinets? No, but they look so much better than they did when we moved in. After completing that tiring, but inexpensive project, I wanted to keep going on the rest of the kitchen (we didn’t have kids yet, ha!), but the budget at the time—I was a seventh grade teacher and Travis was a college student—just didn’t allow it.

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Flash forward five years and we found ourselves expecting Baby #2. I cannot explain what the popular term “nesting” is from a biological perspective, but I am TOTALLY in the mode. I have a seemingly endless list of DIY projects to complete before the baby arrives and have been cleaning even the tiniest crevices of my home to ensure the best possible environment for he/she to come home to. I decided—okay, so my husband had a little input—that now was the time to finally finish the kitchen we started renovating five years ago…and we did it for just $300!

A friend and neighbor of mine did concrete countertops in her kitchen a while back and I was seriously impressed with both the appearance and the cost. She said that she poured, spread, sanded, stained, and sealed the concrete right on top of her existing Formica and completely transformed the look of her kitchen. I did some research online about how to complete the project and found this helpful article, which I followed step-by-step. I even bought the same materials to increase my chances of achieving an outcome similar to what I saw in the pictures.

One Saturday, Travis and I sent Nolan over to Mimi and Papa’s for the day and got to work. We cleared out the kitchen, scoured the existing countertops and backsplash (to allow for better adhesion), removed all of the switches and outlets, and laid and sanded three layers of concrete all in about a ten-hour period that included food breaks and showers, too. The next day, we sent Nolan back to his grandparents’ and spent another eight hours or so applying three layers of concrete stain, two layers of seal, and one layer of waterproof wax, and hanging an entirely new backsplash.

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We found a great backsplash that is a combination of glass tiles and natural stone for $3.99/square foot and used almost thirty-eight square feet for our space. Travis learned how to cut, affix, grout, and seal tile from YouTube videos years ago when he renovated his parents’ shower. Neither of us has any background in construction; we just like to save money and get our hands dirty now and again.

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The following day we grouted the tile, a process that took almost two hours, including all of the wiping that needed to occur. The next couple of days, whenever we had a few minutes to spare here and there, we chipped away at any dried grout that we missed in the wiping process and then sealed the backsplash. Sealing took about ten minutes and we let it dry overnight, just to be on the safe side.

The last step, which took another couple of hours, was installing new, crisp, clean, white outlets and switches. Travis finished this in time for the baby’s diaper party (future post) and the look we were going for was finally realized: a noticeable, inexpensive upgrade that complimented our travertine floors. If you’re not familiar, travertine is an expensive natural stone. It was in the house when we moved in and every kitchen decision we’ve made has centered on those gorgeous tiles.

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When we went to place all of our usual countertop clutter back into the kitchen, we reduced we had and found new homes for some of the items—like cookbooks—that really didn’t need to be sitting on the countertop 24/7. Our small space got a little bit bigger, motivated by a long-awaited facelift. We didn’t want to cover up everything we worked so hard to create, so in the process of aesthetically improving our kitchen, we also obtained a slightly larger one.  🙂

What do we leave on the countertops? Two appliances that we don’t have any other space for: the toaster oven (which honestly isn’t used often) and the extremely heavy KitchenAid stand mixer. We also have a knife block, three jars of baking goods (e.g. flour, etc.), a paper towel holder, a typically empty cookie jar (sad, but good for the body, folks!), a couple of bottles of infused oils for cooking, salad dressings, etc., a wire vessel in which we collect wine corks (woo!), and a large basket for produce that need not be refrigerated. This might sound like a lot or a little, depending on your kitchen, what you do in it, and how big it is, but this is the best we could do with limited cabinet space.

In a nutshell, we now have a kitchen that feels bigger and is more enjoyable to work in, all for a little sweat equity and about $300 (countertop materials, backsplash, and electrical upgrades). If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can find amazing deals and learn a lot, too. Someday, I’ll have a professional chef’s gourmet kitchen with luscious countertops and high-end appliances. For now, living simply is providing us everything we could want or need. Good luck with your next DIY project!

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What’s in YOUR Kitchen?

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Welcome back! As plant-based living may be new for you – or perhaps you just need new ideas – I thought it would be helpful to give you a tour of my kitchen so that you can see the types of produce I buy and some of the nonperishables that I regularly keep on hand.

The photo that you see at the top of this post is a shot of my countertop, which is often overflowing with produce that does not require refrigeration. I maintain a plentiful stock of bananas, as I use them in many of my recipes and they are among my son, Nolan’s, favorite fruits for snacking. This time of year, I also have an array of citrus, much of which I obtain from neighbors for free. Citrus fruits are ripe for the picking during Arizona’s winter.

You’ll also see in this photo that I have fresh vanilla beans on hand to use in various recipes and to make homemade extract. The basic formula for an extract is the flavor agent plus vodka and involves a long soaking period (another post, another day). Moral of the story? If you have the opportunity to make your own extracts, you’ll find that they are purer and higher in quality than many of the store-bought, imitation varieties. I digress…

Next, we move into my fridge, where you can spy everything from a batch of homemade veggie stock (located under Basic Formulas), to black-eyed peas that have been soaked and are ready for further cooking, a bowl of triple berry togurt (located under Breakfast Formulas), and of course, more produce. We always have a ton of it and get the biggest bang for our buck with a local food co-op called Bountiful Baskets. Through this organization, weekly, we have the opportunity to pay a flat rate of $25 to obtain approximately $50 worth of organic produce. The offerings are seasonal and often local and the contents of the basket are always a surprise. Check out the bountifulbaskets.org or conduct a web search to see if your state offers a similar program.

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On to my spice cabinet, which is my husband, Travis’s, pride and joy in our kitchen! Although the spices and herbs sometimes get misplaced during quick cooking, my hubby generally has them organized by ethnic application (e.g. Italian, Mexican, etc.) or other similarities. For example, mace is located on the exterior of the nutmeg shell; although different spices, they are part of the same fruit and often used together in cooking/baking, so they are grouped together. Yea, I know – our cabinet organization is a bit over-the-top, but with over 60 spices and herbs to choose from, it does well to have them arranged in a way that allows for easy selection.

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When we travel we stock up on herbs and spices that are native to the area and end up saving a ton, as those in jars in the supermarket can be pricey. We are still using, for instance, cinnamon sticks that we purchased during our honeymoon on the British Virgin Island, Tortola, in July of 2011, and turmeric that we bought the following summer when touring a spice farm in Zanzibar, an island off of the coast of Tanzania in East Africa.

Finally, here’s a look into my pantry. First, you can see a variety of oils, vinegars, and sweeteners. It is amazing what these products can do in the way of flavor, even in very small amounts. On the two shelves below those you’ll find staples like beans (dried and canned, no sodium added), seeds, and grains. While I always have quinoa and oats, for example, regardless of price, more expensive items like nuts, dried fruits, and dark chocolate I purchase and stock up on when they are on sale. The flexibility of my formulas and my willingness to experiment with new combinations allow me to create a delicious bite out of whatever I obtain. The very top shelf (not pictured) includes standard baking supplies like cornstarch and baking powder.

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If your kitchen needs a plant-based makeover, consider starting with one or two target areas and make changes slowly, especially if you’re trying to get a meat-and-potatoes spouse or some picky little ones on board. When Travis and I decided to start eating more healthily, the first item we did away with was cow’s milk, which we replaced with almond. Travis, who was a diehard whole milk drinker for years, now swears by almond and I, being lactose intolerant, couldn’t have found a better milk match. Nolan is even more adventurous, drinking coconut and oat milks on a regular basis. If those do not appeal to you, you could try soy, flax, rice, grain, cashew, sunflower, etc. There are lots of options that don’t include added sugar, hormones, or cholesterol and are often higher in calcium than the dairy variety. Plus, you can easily make your own plant milk (we’ll cover that another day, too)!

I hope that a private tour of my humble cooking headquarters has given you some ideas and inspiration so that you are prepared to tackle my formulas (and plant-based living in general) head on. Happy shopping and stocking!