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The Rise And Fall Of Kitchen Islands: Old And New Seating Options For Your Kitchen

Kitchen islands have been one of the hottest features in kitchen design for years now. As floor plans become more open and homeowners consistently favor a barrier-free layout, kitchen islands have seemingly become the ideal piece of furniture. They provide storage, seating, and prep space, and allow guests to interact with the people cooking. But lately some homeowners have been bucking the trend in favor of a few more traditional options, like a kitchen table, breakfast nook, or formal dining table. Each type of seating offers its own advantages and drawbacks, and creates a different dining experience.

Fully Equipped Kitchen Islands

Kitchen Islands Are Great For Entertaining, But Can Feel A Little One-Sided With Family (by Kenneth Fromme)
Kitchen islands are great for entertaining, but can feel a little one-sided with family (by Kenneth Fromme)

People embrace kitchen islands so wholeheartedly because of their versatility. The simplest islands are little more than tall tables. But with a little effort, they make it possible to add features your kitchen might be lacking. A “fully equipped” island can have a sink, a cooktop, a prep station, dishwasher, storage cabinets, and even a built in oven or microwave. And that’s ignoring what even the simple ones have: comfortable seating for two, four, or more. But as the kitchen has become the gathering hub of the home, many families are finding that heavily equipped kitchen islands don’t always leave a lot of room for things like schoolwork. And while islands allow guests to interact with the cook while a meal is being prepared, bar-style seating doesn’t provide the face-to-face experience that many prefer for family gatherings.

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Kitchen Tables For Family Meals

Kitchen Tables May Not Have The Same Functionality As A Fully Equipped Island, But They Can Be A Little More Family Friendly (by Hugh Jefferson Randolph Architects)
Kitchen tables may not have the same functionality as a fully equipped island, but they can be a little more family friendly (by Hugh Jefferson Randolph Architects)

Reverting back to the classic kitchen table is one option that’s regaining popularity. This is somewhat surprising. Ordinary kitchen tables lack many of the features of kitchen islands. The key difference is that they can comfortably seat about twice as many people. That means a larger family can eat together at the same time, seated face to face. You probably don’t want to use kitchen tables for food preparation (though if you do, opt for a counter-height one!). But they’re a great space for kids to do homework or art projects; a kitchen table will let them stay in the same room with the family without getting underfoot.

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Say Hello To Banquettes And Breakfast Nooks

Breakfast Nooks Can Seat Anywhere From Two To Six And Double As Great Centralized Yet Out Of The Way Workstations (by Best&Company)
Breakfast nooks can seat anywhere from two to six and double as great centralized yet out of the way workstations (by Best&Company)

One of my personal favorite alternatives to the kitchen island is the humble built-in breakfast nook. Styled after restaurant booths and often built adjacent to a window, breakfast nooks offer the perfect amount of space for a small family to dine casually and great warm morning and afternoon sunlight. By design, nooks are tucked away out of the way of the preparation area. That means they won’t have quite the sense of involvement you get from sitting across from a cooktop; a little less good for entertaining, but great for family meals. Plus, because the table is out of the way, it can easily be used for homework after school. If you also have a main dining table you use for dinners, you won’t even need to clean up after!

Don’t Rule Out A Traditional Dining Table

Formal Dining Rooms Are Very Much Back In Vogue, And Are A Must If You Entertain Large Groups Frequently
Formal dining rooms are very much back in vogue, and are a must if you entertain large groups frequently

Perhaps the most surprising shift is the recent revival of the formal dining room. Kitchen islands partially took over the role of the conventional kitchen table, putting dining sets out of vogue. But separate formal dining rooms (or, in a very large, open kitchen, a formal dining area at the far end of the kitchen) have made huge gains in popularity lately. Think large tables and cushy, upholstered dining chairs. This setup doesn’t have the same intimacy and accessibility of dining in the kitchen. But it can often seat quite a few more people (especially with a table that extends and a few spare dining chairs). That makes it a superior option if you frequently entertain large groups.

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Finding The Right Option For Your Family

Large Kitchens With An Open Floorplan Can Easily Accommodate More Than One Type Of Seating, Making It Possible To Create A Flexible Layout That Works For Your Family (by Jackson Design & Remodeling)
Large kitchens with an open floorplan can easily accommodate more than one type of seating, making it possible to create a flexible layout that works for your family (by Jackson Design & Remodeling)

Which of these four options (or which combination of them) will work best for you depends on a couple factors. First and foremost it’s important to consider how many people will be eating in your home on a regular basis. Note that I didn’t say how many people are in your family; families with a busy schedule who eat and run will need less seating than one that eats every meal together. How often and how many people you entertain at a time matters, too. People who do a lot of entertaining may want to dedicate a separate space for guests, either a formal dining room or an entertainment-centric kitchen island in addition to the typical family eating area.

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Be Realistic About How Much Space You Have

An image of a kitchen with a two-tier, T-shaped island, with the foremost portion serving as a kitchen table
Whatever type of table you choose, remember to account for the chairs – and how much space they’ll take up with someone in them – to ensure proper clearance (by Paul Reidt)

Space also needs to be a lead consideration, not the number of seats, but the footprint of your dining set. Having a formal dining table means sacrificing a full room in your home; a more intimate breakfast nook or a small round kitchen table can take up very little space. But both are bigger than just the tables alone. If you plan to have a kitchen table or island with seating in your kitchen, it’s crucial to size it properly – and that means accounting for the chairs. Even if a table technically fits, if you can’t move freely once everyone is seated, it’s too big. Whatever type of table you choose, adequate clearance and proper scaling to the size of your space is crucial to ensuring the look you love is also a pleasure to use.

There’s no wrong answer when it comes to choosing the best type of kitchen seating. But thinking carefully about your family, home, and friends will always get you a better one!