The 5 o'clock question "What's for dinner?" may stir dread in most working moms, but for Ali Baird, 39, there's an additional hurdle: finding her favorite spatula. "Sometimes it's here," she says, opening a drawer bursting with everything from meat pounders and ladles to corkscrews and can openers. "But sometimes it's somewhere else, because my husband is in charge of breakfast and our babysitter prepares the kids' dinner." Circling the kitchen, she opens a second and then a third mixed-up drawer.
Cat Cora surveys the sunny space and quickly identifies Baird's Achilles' heel: "Everything needs a designated place, or it becomes chaos," says Cora, cohost of the cooking competition show Around the World in 80 Plates, who has come to help the family get organized. "It's not about rigidity; it's about empowering you." Despite the swirl of activity around Baird—1-year-old Winnie is asking for dried apricots, 4-year-old Ben is playing with a cell phone at Baird's feet—Cora's comment seems to instantly relax her. "I know I need help," she says. "Hunting for things can tack on 20 minutes to making a meal."
Baird, who's studying to be a therapist; her husband, Jon, a writer; and their kids moved into this spacious home last year, and their attempts to settle in never went beyond unpacking boxes. "After decades of tiny galley kitchens, I feel like a brat for complaining about finally having a bit of space!" Baird says. But once she had the additional cabinets she'd always dreamed of, she didn't know what to do with them. Figuring out where to put the pots always seemed to take a backseat to, say, coordinating schedules. "Most evenings that I cook, I've got just enough time to pull together pasta or bake some fish," she says. She'd begun to worry that the clutter was becoming permanent.
Cora encourages Baird to start at the stove: "It's at the heart of every meal, so think of the space surrounding it in concentric circles—things that you use often should be accessible, while special-occasion items can be farther away." That means the food mill hogging top-drawer space gets demoted to lesser real estate, while spices move to within arm's reach of the stove. "Spending half a day setting up your kitchen will make you more relaxed in the long run," she says. "It's not you versus the kitchen—it's your kitchen."
Next: See Cat Cora's amazing kitchen makeover