The Dos And Don'ts Of Sharing A Kitchen With Roommates

Photo: Aaron Thomas, Unsplash

The kitchen is truly the heart of the home, and anyone who's lived with roommates has, shall we say, a more nuanced understanding of that old cliche. Kitchens feed resentment and bitterness just as easily as they produce joy and, unless you and your roommates communicate directly, you're in for a very bad time. Here are some guidelines to help you get off on the right foot.

Do Set Clear, Easy-to-Follow Ground Rules

The first thing that any group sharing a kitchen must do is communicate about their expectations for cleanliness. Everyone's definition of "clean" will vary, but basing your cleaning standards on usability is a great place to start. "Usable" means you can use the space immediately — a few dirty plates in the sink isn't a huge deal, but leaving dirty cutting boards, knives, pots, and pans on every usable flat surface forces the next person to clean before they can cook.

Clean While You Cook

Unless you're actively combining ingredients, stirring, flipping or poaching, chances are you have some downtime while you're cooking. Use that time to tidy up your kitchen, a place you probably spend a decent amount of time but is likely not the cleanest room in your house. If you have roommates, they will thank you.

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Cleaning shared cookware, wiping down the counters, and sweeping or mopping up any big spills as you go should be plenty, but talk it out and come up with standards that will work for you, including how to split deep cleaning. Once you've figured that out, write it down and make the document easily accessible via Google Drive or Dropbox. (This is a good place to keep digital copies of your lease and utility bills, too.)

While you're at it, make a YouTube playlist of cleaning and maintenance techniques — like how to clean a dishwasher filter, reset your garbage disposal, load a dishwasher, properly heat a stainless steel pan, and clean gas or electric stovetops — and share it around as well.

Don't Make A Fucking Chore Wheel

In a perfect world, every household member would spontaneously contribute equally to the care and upkeep of a shared domicile. Theoretically, chore wheels bring us closer to this egalitarian, utopian dreamland; in practice, they shunt the responsibility for keeping a space clean onto (usually) one person, who not only has to identify and assign the tasks but also remind everyone else to do their work. This person — don't @ me — is almost always a woman.

If societal attitudes towards domestic labour are a nicked artery, chore wheels are akin to slapping on a Band-Aid and praying for the bleeding to stop. Don't use them. Instead, establish what "clean" means and kindly, respectfully hold yourself and your roommates responsible for keeping it up. It'll take some patience, but will ultimately be worth it.

Do Talk Explicitly About Money

Splitting costs equally is only fair if everyone can afford to throw in the same amount. If your food budget is extremely tight, be upfront about your boundaries and stick to them. If you have access to familial wealth, use it for good: cover a larger proportion of shared household supplies, buy petrol for roommates who drive you to the store, treat the house to pizza from time to time, or all of the above.

No matter where you're coming from, you have a responsibility to know what you can afford and be honest about it — and never pass judgement on your roommates' financial situations.

Don't Go Full Co-Op

It's tempting to wax idealistic about family-style dinners and a communal fridge — especially if this is your first time living with close friends — but unless everyone is committed to the co-op lifestyle, you're setting yourselves up for frustration and hurt feelings.

A fend-for-yourself approach to meals provides the flexibility that most sorely need. That said, living with lots of people can make for a cluttered, redundant pantry. If you can, pool money and split economy size packages of staples like rice, oil, and spices — plus cleaning products and paper goods — to optimise storage space and save money.

Don't Buy Expensive Cookware

High-maintenance cookware won't get the upkeep it deserves; cheap nonstick pans will scratch and dent inside of a few weeks. This is why stainless steel is my cookware material of choice, especially for people with roommates. It's affordable and oven-safe, it works great on even on the shittiest electric ranges, and it's all but impossible to ruin.

Cheap knives are also where it's at. I, a real-life culinary professional, swear by Kiwi knives, which are ludicrously sharp, lightweight, well-designed, and dirt cheap — practically perfect in every way. Their thin stainless blades dull a bit faster than heavier ones do, but on the upside, they basically sharpen themselves.

If you can't find Kiwi knives in your area, any affordable stainless-blade chef's knife will do the job — just get a good steel and learn how to use it. (A pull-through sharpener isn't a bad idea, either.)

For all you stress bakers out there, skip the cutesy nonstick pans and go straight for food service-grade stuff. Aluminium corrodes in the dishwasher, but is otherwise unbeatable when it comes to durability and heat distribution: two or three half-size sheet pans, some cake or pie tins, and parchment paper is all you need. As for equipment, invest in a sturdy hand mixer — stand mixers are amazing, but they absolutely suck to pack and move — and a digital scale.

Do Label Absolutely Everything

So many kitchen communication problems could be solved by a few rolls of masking tape and a pack of Sharpies. Buy some, put them somewhere visible, and make it house policy to label everything that goes in the refrigerator — from condiments to takeout to leftovers — with your name and the date you opened it.

Oh, and don't forget the plastic soup containers: durable, stackable, and cheap enough to lose or toss, they're the perfect communal food storage solution.

Any guide to living with roommates would be incomplete without a discussion of emotional labour, but unfortunately, that's the sort of life skill you learn by doing — not by reading an essay. As hard as it is, try to remember that not everything is about you. Your roommate who leaves dishes around probably isn't actively trying to ruin your life, so keep the frustration out of your voice when you ask them to pick up.

Similarly, a request to clean up your messes is not a personal attack; just do the thing, and take care of it next time without being asked. (If you struggle with not being an arsehole — which, honestly, most young adults do — the iconic MetaFilter thread on emotional labour is available in convenient PDF form. It should be considered mandatory reading.)

Communal living can be exhausting, but it's a valuable crash course in what it means to participate in society — which is more important than any degree. Have fun, clean up your messes, and don't be an arsehole; it's the least you can do.


Comments

    Don't separate cooking from washing-up as a chore. I clean as I go, whereas most of the people I ever shared with left a bombsite after cooking; there's no way I want my good habits repaid with extra work.

      Yeah it should be you make the mess you clean it. When people cook they will also be cleaner as they are the ones that have to clean it up.

    One thing with cookware I will say is that a good frying pan will be your friend. That's the one item I'd say is worth spending extra on. Other pots and pans, different story and the $10 Woolies options are fine, but the skillet's usually the most used item in the kitchen, and a good solid one will pay you back.

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