Cooking is infinitely rewarding, especially if it’s tasty, but when you’ve got a bad back, kitchen design plays a huge role in how much we’re able to enjoy it, and for how long.
Back pain is something that afflicts most of us at some point in our lives. 80% of all adults are expected to deal with it. It’s a major cause of sick time and lost income.
While a lot of issues are a factor in why and how we end up getting back injuries, at least some of the problem results in how poorly we treat our backs through the way we live our day-to-day, how we sit, furniture choices, and more. This is super-duper true in the kitchen, where lots of people don’t realize how much they can adjust things.
Kitchen design affects back health
If you think your kitchen doesn’t affect your back, think again. From counter height to shelf positioning, how often we bend and stretch, and all the repetitive motion, there’s so much we have to reconsider in the kitchen, especially since we’re in there two or three times a day, at least.
In June, I got to meet the previous tenants for my apartment, so I know both of them were around my height, and I know the fella was a former pro cook who had a bad back, so I was really surprised to see the cupboards once I moved in.
Why? Because the shelves were poorly planned.
Now, in renting apartments, we’re sort of stuck with what we get, but there’s a lot we can improve and customize for ourselves. Even when you’re buying, if your funds don’t allow you to gut the kitchen, then you get what you get, right? I think a lot of us go into our new kitchens sort of resigned to working with what we have, almost like coloring between the lines.
But kitchen shelves are usually adjustable. Mine are. They have the little plastic peg-wedge thingies under them. Pop those bad boys out and move them where you want to have ‘em.
So what was the big problem here? The top shelves were up high and the middle shelves were down low. This is wrong-minded for anyone with a back problem — which, statistically speaking, eventually means all of us. Shelf positioning might be the number one thing you can do to improve your kitchen without spending a dime.
I would recommend everyone, period, to lower-height shelves at the bottom of the cupboards, then always put your tallest shelf at the top. The taller the top shelf, the lower it begins, right? So, you reach less.
I have three shelves total for my cupboards. My two bottom shelves are about 8” high, and the top is 11.5” high. Before, the last tenants had the middle and top shelves reversed, making the the top shelf 8” high.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but that’s a 3.5” higher reach you have to make when you’re getting something off the top shelf. Not fun for people with upper-back injuries.
How low can you go? (Not very.)
Bending’s the big issue in my world, so it meant rethinking my limited cupboards down below. Instead of using the big bottom corner cupboard for pantry items, since I’d have to get down and dig through to reach stuff, I decided to put all my large bowls and casseroles in there (and lesser-used in my china cabinet across the kitchen). The pots and pans I decided to hang on the wall, so I wouldn’t have to bend or strain to reach them. Then, the big drawers normally used for cooking pots and casseroles, was delegated for my pantry items.
I find this role-switching thing in the cupboards has really made some of the basics in cooking a lot easier for me on those days when my back is being persnickety. Grab a pot off its wall-hook, no bending required. Open a knee-high drawer for the polenta, great.
It all comes down to understanding that you’re not stuck with your kitchen — you’re just not imagining its fullest potential.
Climbing the walls: A good thing
For true ergonomics, think beyond your kitchen cupboards.
Get wall-mounted rail systems to hang oft-used utensils off with S-hooks, or consider the Julia Child pegboard. Install wall-mounted open-air shelves for additional storage. Embrace the mighty wall hook. When it comes to the shelves and wall hooks, check the packaging for a maximum weight. It makes a big difference sometimes.
Make your things easy to reach for. Don’t pile your cupboards deep with things that make you have to bend, stretch, and twist to reach. Those are tough on muscles for those of us who have to be careful.
Give up on the dream of having clear counters and a perfect magazine kitchen. When you work with injuries, make it a practical kitchen where everything is accessible, visible, and easy to grab or put back.
If you have to put things into lower cupboards or shelves, consider sticking them in removable trays or boxes, so you don’t have to stay bent for a long period, searching, but instead can remove the applicable box/tray, look through it while standing at the counter, and put it back.
All these little adaptations make a big difference in the long-term, especially when you have a flare-up.
Don’t look at your kitchen for what it is, look at it for how you can make it better, how you can truly make it yours, because it has a lot more potential than you might think.