If the kitchen is the heart of the home, the kitchen island might be thought of as its pumping aorta—the center of everything. It’s intended to be the bustling social hub where food is prepped while guests gather round to keep the chef company.
Kitchen islands first became a thing around the 1930s, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed the first “open plan” living space. With all that space flowing from one area to another, there needed to be some delineation, which led to the introduction of the kitchen island. Julia Child bolstered the popularity of “island life” with her cooking show, and in the 1980s, the kitchen island became all but ubiquitous in the modern home.
Kitchen islands are so popular, in fact, that most homeowners fall into one of two camps: those who have a kitchen island, and those who wistfully wish they did.
I fall into the former. But after years of hosting countless dinner parties with guests gathered round, perched on barstools, pouring out their hearts over glasses of merlot, I have a confession to make.
I hate my kitchen island
Passionately. Especially during the holidays. Or, to put it even more bluntly, I hate the behavior it encourages in guests who glom onto my island as if it were the coming of the next Messiah. Sad it’s come to this, really, since I chose my tile so lovingly. Apparently one of the few people in the world who doesn’t love granite, I chose lovely large dark gray-green tiles (darn grout, of course) with glass accents in the middle.
I know I’m probably risking the possibility that none of my dinner guests will ever come near my island ever again, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. So, whether you’re pining for an island or attending a dinner party and want to study up on some much-needed kitchen island etiquette, here are some reasons why this popular kitchen feature drives me nuts.
1. Kitchen islands are clutter magnets
No matter how many hooks and tables I place in my foyer, my guests (and family members, much to my annoyance), often place their backpacks, purses, keys, and other items on my kitchen island. Why? Think about where that purse or backpack has been. Restaurant floors. Public restrooms. Grocery carts. Subways. Seriously, don’t put your bag on my island, ever. Not to mention that I’d like it empty to admire, since I selected my tiles so lovingly. Trust me, they look fabulous when not covered with stuff.
2. Kitchen islands invite people to pounce on food before it’s fully prepared
You can just tell guests are waiting for that Thanksgiving turkey to emerge from the oven so they can seize the first tender morsel (“Just a taste!” they always say). Or, they’ll start nibbling on the snacks I’m plating to carry out to the TV watchers in the living room. Even though I typically resist the urge to slap grabby hands, it’s annoying that the island seems to encourage vultures who decide it’s open season on whatever food hits the surface, even if it’s clearly not ready for the masses yet.
3. Kitchen islands prompt conversation that can distract me from the task at hand: Cooking
Ugh, I know my guests are just trying to keep me company. But I’m cooking, OK? I don’t really want to hear about Great Aunt Mary’s most recent “minor surgery.” Because as I try to follow the conversation and formulate some sort of appropriate answer or listening noise, I’m going to lose count of how many cups of flour I’ve added, or forget where I was in my recipe, and the results aren’t pretty.
4. Kitchen islands breed ‘barstool cooks’
Barstool cooks, much like armchair quarterbacks, just love to hang around the island offering “helpful hints.”
Would-be Rachael Rays say things like, “Oh, have you ever considered adding nutmeg?” Nope. Or, “I sometimes braise the meat before roasting it.” Nice. Host your own dinner party.
Cooking is not performance art, at least not in my kitchen. I don’t care for my guests watching me wrestle with the can opener or observe that just maybe my dressing is a little soupy, which is why I am desperately adding chunks of sandwich bread to absorb the extra broth. If I need a food rescue, I’ll ask for help—or more likely consult my iPad.
5. People around the island just get in my way
So, the kitchen island, by nature, is a work space. Therefore, guests who sit there are in my way 100% of the time. Their feet are inevitably dangling over the cupboard where I’ve stowed the roasting pan, blocking access to the pots I need to make the gravy. Or they’ve made a nuisance of themselves by spreading out their 50 samples of holiday cards for everyone to peruse.
6. Worst yet, guests offer to ‘help’
So I have a rule that I share with people who visit my house for the holidays: “Don’t clean up my kitchen, and I won’t clean up yours.” I have a system, mind you. Problem is, when guests are clustered around the island, they feel obligated to help—even insistent—but the reality is they’re making things worse.
Let’s say, for instance, I’ve used my island to create a dessert assembly line—plate, pie, whipped cream, sprinkles, fork, serve. Easy, right? Not when people try to insert themselves in the process, creating confusion over whose dessert is whose. Look, I’m keeping track of Cousin Chloe’s dairy allergy and Uncle Peter’s newfound distaste for gluten, and it’s all part of the intricate process I’ve laid out on the island, OK?
In short: There’s a reason I’ve moved my barstools away from my kitchen island and into the TV room when I host. And why I put the snacks in the TV room, too. And the bar cart. So my guests will go. Sit. Somewhere. Else! But they rarely take the hint.
Don’t get me wrong—I truly do love to host, and my guests, and I know they mean well when they hover nearby. But if you want to help, head to the living room where you belong. When I’m ready to chat, I’ll be right behind you.
Cathie Ericson is a journalist who writes about real estate, finance, and health. She lives in Portland, OR.