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How I Transformed Our Kitchen on a Shoestring Budget - Part 1

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Last Modified: February 20, 2020
Published: February 20, 2020

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Once upon a time there was a girl who truly loved to cook.

Indeed, feeding people brought her great delight! But alas, not once in nearly 50 years of preparing meals did she ever have a kitchen she could love. GB grew weary of waiting for her fairy godmother to show up so she and her handsome prince rolled up their sleeves, dropped to their knees and got to work. (You see, the prince loved to eat the girl's food and he wanted to make sure she would never tire of making it!)

Has anyone noticed I disappeared for a spell?

I sure hope so! I've missed you! Over the last five months we've spent hours on our knees renovating our dark, dreary, inefficient and terribly dated kitchen on the cheap. It's taken lots of hard, dirty work and much more creativity than cash. We're finally done and plan to live happily ever after in our "new" kitchen.

We bought our home eight years ago. It's a sturdy, venerable 65-year-old ranch with good bones, honey colored woodwork and lots of built-ins. It sits on a deep lot sloping back to woods and a lazy little creek. Big trees. It felt like home from the first day. But even as we moved in, I vowed the huge wood stove and dark blue kitchen carpet (ick!) would be removed immediately because both were hideous. Two months later, I lost my corporate job. Poof.

Funny what you can live with when you don't have a choice.

Food is my love language. Feeding people brings me joy but my kitchen did not. For eight long years in our new home, I cheerfully (for the most part) continued to crank out huge amounts of food and share my love of cooking but every single day I longed for better lighting, more storage, a nice deep sink, a floor I could wash, and more counter space.

The kitchen did have a cozy, warm look but lots of logistical issues.

The ironing-board-shaped peninsula offered skimpy work space and added to the cramped quarters in the eat-in kitchen area. Have you ever in your life seen such a silly counter? It even came equipped with three useless little display shelves apparently added for "knicknacks"!!

(Hint: Do notice the interesting panel on the back of the " ironing board." You'll see why later.)

The wood stove was never used and the tile hearth compounded the bad traffic flow and caused stumbles, cursing, and stubbed toes. The oven and stove seemed to cower in a dungeon between the brick wall and a cupboard so tall and awkward the microwave was only usable to adults over 5 foot 8. There was absolutely no light above the cook top. I had to carry my skillet to the single lonesome ceiling light to see if the hamburger was still pink.

The kitchen has a fairly roomy footprint of 13' by 18' but with all those obstacles, dark floor, and big black wood stove it felt claustrophobic. The closet door just beyond the wood stove opened right into the doorway. There was lots of unused or poorly used space. For eight years I plotted and schemed how to make it better.


We chose to honor the kitchen's mid-century vibe and keep elements of the original design like this built in display cupboard which I cherish. Papa and I love antiques and vintage stuff and what's more, a sleek white modern kitchen would not have fit in with the rest of the features we love in our home.

This is a story about how we did it our way on a small budget. We used every scrap, re-purposed, made do, and worked with what we had. We CHOSE to keep the cabinets and the pocket doors because they told our story and one about this house, every quirky bit of it. We CHOSE to keep the humble kitchen table my parents bought when they came to America in 1950 because it felt right.

And, I can't thank our contractor Larry and his sidekick Leland enough. Probably the best decision we made was to hire them to do what we could not. They were neat, prompt and put up with, heck, they even embraced all my crazy ideas. I owe them a debt of gratitude. No finer team to be found.

The result is a bright space that makes our eyes and our hearts happy every single day. It's a place where our family and friends feel comfortable. A girlfriend gave me the ultimate compliment. "Your home feels like a favorite sweater." I can live on those sweet words for weeks. Our "after" may look like someone else's "before" but it's been a labor of love and the end result is it feels like home, only better.

Step one. Get rid of the big black wood stove that ate up almost 25 square feet!

Goodbye wood stove! I won't miss you for a second!! Together Papa and I wrangled the weighty beast out to the front porch and wrapped it in plastic for storage. Adios traffic problem!

Let there be light!

Today there's a Solatube skylight where the chimney once was. From dawn to dusk, natural light bathes the once dark space. Love it!!

Oh my gosh!! We could actually walk in a straight line from one end of the kitchen to the other!!

Then, we chipped out the brown ceramic hearth with hammer and chisel. No more tripping!!

Next, we ripped out the nasty kitchen carpet leaving a sticky mess. We lived on it for three weeks while waiting for the floor installer. Yuck!! Then we applied a putty-like filler material in the low spots to even out the surface.

Goodbye peninsula but uh oh, we lost a lot of storage space!

No turning back now! By the way, that's vermiculite insulation. I know what you were thinking.

Cabinets were rebuilt and doors and drawers were reused in new places. I told the guys that not one board, handle, or screw should be pitched until we were done. Turned out we dug in the bone pile a lot!!

And we found even more storage!

Who knew how much we could fit inside this skinny little closet!

Once we made it into a barn door to save space...

And added shelves!! Yay!! All my big awkward stuff is handy now!

That tall cupboard that hid the stove and oven?

Divide and conquer! Bonus! I got back some of the counter space I lost!!

And created a more usable spot for the microwave!

And through it all, we ate very well, thank you! The kitchen only closed for two days while the new sink was installed. Even though we weren't totally finished, we were fully functional a few days before Christmas, just in the nick of time so the family could gather and feast!

So for this time, that's all I'll share.

But I hope you'll stay tuned as I show you what we added and the products we used along with all the "after" photos very soon! I'll reveal how we re-purposed an ugly duckling old built in buffet from the 1920's. We used a beat up old wainscot door and orphaned table leaves to transform it into my "wow" feature, a granite topped rolling island that has become my kitchen workhorse.

And, I'm back! Look for lots of great family-friendly recipes that are easy on the budget and the cook! See you soon!

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10 comments on “How I Transformed Our Kitchen on a Shoestring Budget - Part 1”

    1. More to come and doing a little something every day to get my programs out there!! Thank you!! Appreciate you every day my friend. I loved Women Rowing North. Right now I'm smiling and crying my way through The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers and waiting for The Green Journey- my library is bringing it in for me! WRN has given me fodder for another program twist on my encouraging messages.

  1. OMG!! Don't tell your husband or my wife, but I think I'm in LOVE!! I found your site while searching for a German Potato Salad recipe and have spent the last several hours looking at your recipes and stories. I've already lost count of how many of your dishes I've downloaded to my recipe file.
    We must be from the same era seeing your comments about growing up in America's Heartland (I'm from a small town close to Davenport, Iowa). Mom worked, dad worked, and both of my grandmas cooked the most wonderful foods that I'm still trying hard to replicate.
    I'm a semi-retired mechanical engineer and have had the opportunity to travel all over this wonderful country of ours and eat in some of the finest restaurants it has to offer. None ever compared to home cooking flavored with the love that my grandmas, mom, and all of my aunts had to offer. Thank you so much for not being one of the glitzy, latest diet, hottest presentation, etc., etc., "foodie" sites so prevalent on the web today. Real ingredients, real flavor, real cookin"!! I'm just getting back into cooking (which I used to do out of necessity) and am thoroughly enjoying it. BTW: Instant Pots are GREAT.
    Two little quick stories:
    First - I HAD to have the "Nuts & Bolts" (Chex Mix) recipe as I think its probably the original (2 POUNDS of Butter??). I must have been 3 or 4 years old the first time my mom made it. Dad thought she had lost her mind bringing home all that "cattle feed" (he was a North Dakota meat & 'taters guy) and those God-awful spices (he never could pronounce Worcestershire). Turned out to be his absolute favorite snack food.
    Second - In about '97 or '98 I had the distinct honor of not only meeting but, sharing time during my meal, with Yano Caniglia at the late (what a shame!!) Mr. C's Steakhouse in North Omaha. Without a doubt the most memorable meal I ever had while on the road. Between the most fantastic New York Strip I ever had (made Ruth's Chris and Don Shula's seem like a Ponderosa or Bonanza), Deep-Fried Ravioli (that Yano treated me to), conversation about all of the local restaurateurs in my area that he knew, and his intermittent breaking into Perry Como, Vic Damone, Frank Sinatra, or whoever else was playing in the background, I have often regretted not being able to share that experience with my wife and kids.
    Sorry, I didn't mean to get so long winded but I don't the social media thing and still wanted to tell you how much your site has impressed me! PLEASE keep doing and sharing what you're doing.
    Maybe I'll sneak a couple of my favorites to you!

    1. Oh my goodness Don you have no idea how much I needed some affirmation today!! Thank you!! I struggle a bit about NOT being a more polished food blogger and NOT having the $100,000 kitchens they have. We live in a modest home and my kitchen is not fancy in the least. But like Popeye, I yam what I yam, a simple cook who loves to feed her people. I have always loved to cook and started when I could see over the stove.

      I'm a first-generation American, my parents immigrated from Denmark and Iceland to Audubon, Iowa. My husband's family settled in eastern Iowa, St. Donatus when they came here from Luxembourg.

      We don't go out to eat much because the best food is at home but it's sad to see the old steakhouses shuttered. Mister C's was our favorite when we were newlyweds in Omaha. Yano used to make balloon animals for the kiddies.

      Sadly, the last of the Caniglia's restaurants closed earlier this year when their Leavenworth Cafe (best breakfast in Omaha) was hounded by BLM protestors claiming they were racist because they had a breakfast named The Robert E Lee. Even when they readily agreed to rename it, they were harassed and finally closed.

      Don't miss the cheesy steakhouse potatoes from Driesbachs in Grand Island. Another bastion of aged steaks and fine dining!!

      Thanks again and I'd be tickled to see some of your favorites!!

      1. Hi Betty! Thanks for the reply. I knew your site was too good to be true! TOO many commonalities! Second generation American (Swede/German on dad's side, pure German on mom's) almost identical kitchen layouts (except our "ironing" board looks more counter-toppish) , and you remember Popeye (Aye's strong to the finich, 'cause I eats my spinach)!
        Ate at the Leavenworth one time and you're right, AWESOME breakfast. Sorry to hear it's gone. I'll reserve my thoughts on BLM as I don't want to be accused of...well, you know.
        Quickie - in the 80's and 90's (before my engineering career) I made extra bucks on the weekend playing in a band (country and old rock 'n roll) that specialized in weddings and private parties. We did events at Kalme's restaurant in St. Donatus quite a few times. Also, I'm sure I probably passed through Audubon as I drove semi all over northwester Iowa before returning to school in my forties.
        PLEASE don't doubt your expertise as a blogger. Your warm and down to earth recipes and commentary are just exactly what this world needs more of!! You and yours stay safe and well during this trying time and Keep on Cooking (my apologies to Robert Crumb)!

        1. yes I am very much a keep my mouth shut person when it comes to political controversy- just hate it and it makes me sad.

          My kitchen is my happy place and feeding my people- especially our six grandkids- brings me endless joy!

          We made a get-to-know-Iowa trip years ago and got to St.Donatus at dusk so we explored the churchyard and graves by flashlight. I adored Steve's aunts and learned so much from them- lots of old photos in the hilly eastern Iowa community- it would be fun to step into one of them and visit with the folks.

          Stay safe and warm- and have a rich and blessed holiday season because we still are the luckiest people on earth to live in the Heartland and know the old ways.

          Thank you so much for your kind words. It was a balm in a dry spell!

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