Strategies for keeping clutter off your dining table

If your home functions anything like mine, your dining table isn’t used just for eating. In addition to providing a dining space, our table is used for meal preparation, my son’s coloring surface, an alternate work station if my husband or I need a change of pace from our desks, a hang out spot to sit and read, and dozens of other purposes. Keeping clutter off the table so it’s ready for eating or whatever chore we want to throw at it can be a challenge, and these are some of the strategies we use to keep it clear:

  • Have a mail processing station by the main entrance. First and foremost, the dining table is not a place for mail. Create a mail processing station by your main entrance where you can sort, shred, trash, recycle, and properly handle all of your mail.
  • Install hooks for coats and bags by the main entrance. Similar to the previous point, the dining table is not a place for coats, hats, bags, and briefcases. Hang hooks for coats and bags near your main entrance so these items don’t end up on the table.
  • Keep a trash can near your dining table. If you have a formal dining room, you likely don’t have a trash can in this space. Find a way to hide one in a buffet or side table, or keep one very close by in another room that you can easily pick up and move into this space. You’ll be amazed by how useful a simple trash can will be for keeping clutter off your table. Earn an additional point if you can hide a recycling bin in the room, too.
  • Organize your buffet or sideboard to meet the needs of the space. So often sideboards and buffets are full of china that is rarely used or silver service you pull out just once a year. If you want these special event items, store them someplace more remote (the high shelves of kitchen cupboards are usually good locations) and use your sideboard or buffet for things you actually use in your dining room. In addition to storing place mats and napkins, our sideboard holds crayons and coloring books, a pair of scissors, an extra set of my reading glasses, table cleaning supplies, a few pens and pencils, a spare power cable that works with all the laptops in the house, an extension cord, and a radio.
  • Set the table as the first step of meal preparation. If you don’t plan to use the table while you’re making the meal, set it with plates, cups, silverware, etc., as your first meal preparation step. This way, when housemates come through the dining room, they won’t deposit items not related to the meal on the table. Setting the table is also a wonderful chore for any child three or older.
  • Don’t pick up and drop stuff someplace else. Although it is incredibly easy to just scoop up what is on the table and set it on another surface, try your best to properly sort through items when you remove them. Throw out the trash, put toys away, shred the credit card applications, and file papers that need to be filed. The top of the sideboard or buffet is as bad a location to hold this clutter as the table was.
  • Wipe down the table and sweep the floor after every meal. To keep from getting ants, this step is imperative with a toddler in the house. However, it might not be such an obvious step if the people dining at your table aren’t in the habit of dropping half their food on the floor. Completely cleaning off the table after every meal makes it a welcoming space for the next meal or whatever other use you need. This is also a great thing to do after every alternate use, too.
  • Avoid having a catch-all container that lives on the table. In some homes the catch-all container is a circular rotating tray, in others it might be a decorative plate or bamboo platter. Devices that are made to hold salt, pepper, sugar, napkins, and condiments are great for containing small items — but they’ll end up holding other non-meal related small items if the tray isn’t removed from the table after every meal. Have a place in the kitchen for this service to live in between meal times.

What steps do you take to keep clutter off the table? Share your additional strategies in the comments.

23 Comments for “Strategies for keeping clutter off your dining table”

  1. posted by Anne on

    Great ideas here. I learned a simple but elegant point from Peter Walsh: flat surfaces are not storage spaces. Whether it’s a dining room table, bed, floor, countertop, or other horizontal space, it’s easy to lay things out on it and eventually stack it up. But keeping these flat spaces clear is one of the keys to decluttering.

  2. posted by timgray on

    My fix was to make sure we USE the dining room table all the time. WE got rid of the fancy table with it’s leaves and changed the dining room into more of a “pub” style room with a 4 person pub table and stools along with other changes to make the family want to use it as much as possible.

    Because it’s in use all the time it does not get cluttered. Breakfast and morning activities are there, same as evening with dinner and homework. On weekends it’s the place where friends come over for board games or just general relaxing. It works great. I was tired to being afraid of using the expensive formal table and it’s silly to have a giant table only for 3 days a year (Thanksgiving, Xmas, Easter) when the whole family shows up.

  3. posted by *pol on

    This is a definite hot spot for me.
    We have a lovely formal table, but it’s in the greatroom too close to the couches, etc. Kid’s homework, puzzles, books tend to “grow” there! I’m as guilty as anyone else in the house. I have tried putting a few pretty arrangements in the center to discourage it, but they just get lost in the piles.
    In a perfect world, the table wouldn’t exist but for the big family feasts we host several times a year… since no one has invented a shrink ray yet, I just have to deal with the clutter trap 365 days a year.

  4. posted by Melanie on

    @*pol – You could just rent a table whenever you need it, instead of putting up with it the rest of the time. Or use folding tables that can be put out of the way when not needed. With a tablecloth noone would know the difference.

    Growing up our kitchen table (no dining room) was never cleared enough for meals – and if we wanted to sit at the table we had to squeeze our plate in amongst all the other clutter (mail, ashtrays, dirty coffee/tea mugs, books, whatever guitar dad was rebuilding, etc). Usually we didn’t bother and just ate on the couch watching tv. It was something that always bothered me.

    Now that I have my own kitchen table, I work hard at keeping my kitchen table cleared and ready for meals; and use most of the same strategies as in this posting. You have to be diligent. We eat our meals in the kitchen, not the dining room.

    We utilize our dining room as a study, and that’s where our computers and study materials are kept. We have a rule that only school related items can be put on that table. It can easily be cleared if needed for guests, but there is no sense in not using that space in the meantime.

  5. posted by A.R. on

    The way I quit putting clutter on my dining room table: I have a two year old. You can’t leave anything on there without her getting into it, so it is always cleaned after meals and very little gets set there for long.

    Now I just need to improve on other flat surfaces.

  6. posted by Violet @ Clutter. Coffee. Chaos. on

    Some great ideas here. My kitchen island is the family dumping grounds- sometimes I clear it off three times in a single day!

  7. posted by Anita on

    I have to say, I don’t really get the whole “dining table clutter” thing. Growing up, the dining table was used for all meals. If you weren’t eating or using it as extra prep space for cooking, then odds are another family member was using it for those purposes, so your clutter would not be appreciated. For all other activities requiring a flat, table-like surface (like writing or reading), there are desks.

    So my biggest piece of advice for keeping clutter off the dining table is: use it as a dining table for every meal. Force whomever is cluttering it to clear the table before every meal. If this is enforced daily, they will eventually learn to stop cluttering up the table in the first place.

  8. posted by DawnF on

    Anita said it quite PERFECTLY.

    I think something that might help, too is if the kids see the adults in the house not clutter up the table with their junk mail, coffee mugs, etc., etc. then perhaps the kids themselves will not clutter up the table. Hopefully they will learn by example.

  9. posted by Jorge on

    I think the best way to keep any dinning table clear it’s if the table it’s a really expensive one -such as one made of some kind of in extinction timber- wich you won’t want to use because of course it costed you a lot!!! or having a full time housekeeper.

  10. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    Anita and Dawn are right. If the expectation is set by all that the space should stay clear, it helps. Also, a clean space stays cleaner longer. If you put one thing down :just for now” it becomes like a magnet for other clutter.
    We only have a kitchen table, no dining room, and like several commentors, I grew up in a home where you couldn’t eat at the kitchen table. We specifically bought a rectangular table that has 2 leaves that extend on 2 sides to make a large square table. we can squeeze 9 people at it, but most of the time it is kept in its smaller state. One of the best investments we made!

  11. posted by Shari on

    I don’t like “clutter” on the table, but do believe in fully utilizing our space, especially since we live in a somewhat small house. We have one dining/kitchen table that we eat all meals at AND serves as the kids coloring/craft center between meals. So for us, the large catch all container on the table is very valuable. It holds the kids crayons & markers, and when we get ready to set the table I just pile any on-going paper/projects in there as well and set the container on the kitchen island while we eat. I use to have it all stashed away in a nearby sideboard, but finally decided that since someone is using the table for art several hours a day, why keep fighting it (as in, hiding all the supplies). The sideboard is still stashed with extra art supplies (and my china is up high as Erin suggested), but the basics are out on the table for easy access.

  12. posted by linda on

    One option to “train” the people in your house is to find an empty box or laundry basket and every night, fill it up with whatever clutter has accumulated that day: books, markers, junk mail, winter hats, sunscreen, etc.

    Once people see what accumulates over the course of a few days, they might be a bit more amenable to keeping track of things.

  13. posted by Sabrina on

    Great discussion. I encounter this issue with all my clients. I like your suggestions. Here is a question I have for everyone. If we all think of the same process for clearing clutter, will this process work for everyone as well?

  14. posted by snosie on

    I agree with using tables for meals – our family eats at the table for all meals that we’re home (except some snacks, which we wander around with). That being said – we still find ourselves clearing it regularly for these meals! Despite having a study with two desks, it’s a preferred marking table for mum!

    That being said – the ‘clutter’ that accumulates ends up on the nearby chest of drawers top & a little phone table, and overflow into the study’s two desks!! It frustrates me that so many bills and letters collect – rather than being promptly processed. But, that’s not for me to fix, I handle mine differently.

  15. posted by Jen on

    @Living The Balanced Life – you’re right that just putting one or two things on the table will draw all sorts of other clutter to it. It’s kind of like “broken windows theory.” A slightly cluttered house is likely to get more cluttered, but if someone in the house feels that their piece of clutter will really be noticed because it’s the only one, maybe they will think twice about it. Maybe.

    Interestingly, we rarely have stuff accumulating on our dining table AND we rarely use it for eating. We almost never go in there, we usually eat in the kitchen or (I know it’s wrong) in front of the TV. But we have a nice dining room and I’ve been wanting to use it more. It does mean more cleaning though – particularly the wiping down and sweeping up of half the meal from the floor!

  16. posted by Debi on

    My dining-room table issue is that, cluttered or not, our cats use it as a perch to watch birds while we’re out all day. Can anyone suggest strategies to simplify continuous cleaning of the surface? Thanks!

  17. posted by Lee on

    Debi – We taught our cats to stay off of the kitchen cabinets by spraying them with water from a spray bottle. Later, just seeing me pick up the spray bottle brought them down immediately, and finally they stayed off. It was easy to wipe the water off of the counters, but a flannel backed vinyl tablecloth might work over your table to protect it from the water.

    Having a place for everything helps, even having an acceptable place for the cats to watch the birds.

    Having the kids doing art projects on the table may seem inconvenient now, but it will provide them with priceless memories later. They grow up much too soon.

  18. posted by Jenny on

    Re keeping cats off tables, we used inexpensive battery-operated motion detectors (available from Radio Shack) which sounded an alarm when a cat walked past. The noise startled them, plus if we were at home,the alarm was followed quickly by a human with a spray bottle. This pretty quickly deterred them from jumping on the table. The tricky part was to position the motion detectors in such a way so that they picked up cat activity but not every human being walking by (such as facing a wall or low-traffic corner of the room). The motion detectors also taught them to steer clear of a cage containing other animals.

  19. posted by Rachel on

    This is my BIGGEST pet peeve! I lived with roommates until recently, and the way I kept people from dumping stuff on the table was to always keep it set. When I had a larger table I used table clothes, place mats, stacks of dinner plate/salad plate/bowl, napkins and silverware. Now that I have a smaller table I just put two settings of plates and glasses.

    It is fun changing the tablescape with each season and it really makes the room look put together.


  20. posted by Oldfangled on

    This is a constant struggle in my home! Items go from the table to the kitchen counter and back again. Thank you for this post; it has motivated me to work on doing something about it! I’ll be rearranging furniture this weekend to make sure I have a mail processing station by the front door as a first step.

  21. posted by Susan on

    Actually there is a trash (not garbage) basket and a recycle waste basket in the eating area…. One blue and one white no big deal and they get used.

    AND when I put a trash wastebasket in the garage by the drivers door…. it gets used a lot as well, with a far neater car than before. Amazingly a can liner goes to the curb once a week – full.

  22. posted by Chrissy on

    I have to say this is my worst clutter issue. My dining room table looks like a bomb when off on it. The main problem is that we don’t eat on it. I live with my husband and we work late most nights so our dinners are usually on TV trays in the living room. When we do have guests over to eat, I have to clean off the table which holds everything from mail to purses, to my laptop to my vitamins. I like the suggestions in this post, except we live in a split level, so our main entrance is through the garage. Soon as you walk in you go up the stairs to the main living area, or you can make a right and go into our downstairs TV room (currently a gym area). So until now, we’ve been walking up to the kitchen and plopping everything on the table. I have tried to make the kitchen that “catch all” area, but I hated having my kitchen a mess (go figure! lol) Hopefully I can come up with a different system, even if it means using the wall of the gym to house all that stuff. thanks for this post!

  23. posted by Dia on

    I live alone, & am in process of deciding what to put in my ‘dining nook,’ (besides the boxes that I have there now, LOL!) I moved the wooden table outside for the summer, & am thinking a small ‘table for two, or perhaps buffet on the side? I also have trouble keeping horizontal surfaces clear!
    I grew up in the 50s/60s, an only child of older parents, each raised in a bigger family. We ate at one end of the grey formica table, Dad at the head, mom & I on either side. We could put some things on the other half of the table, it was only a few feet from the front door, so I could put school books, etc on the table, & somethings on the chair at that end … but my mom was great at keeping house, & worked on keeping that to a minimum!
    About 16 years ago I shared a house with two other adults, & we had great ‘ground rules’ for shared spaces. A ’24 hour dish’ rule for personal dishes (wash what you use within the day) & ‘cook doesn’t wash up.’ The dining room table was kept clear for dining, & ‘stuff’ relegated to personal rooms.
    We cleaned shared spaces on our days off (we all worked at a retreat/conference center, with housing as one of the benefits), & tried to keep those areas ‘company ready’ at all times. Upkeep of our personal rooms was up to each of us, but sharing a ‘generally clean’ space lead to more care of personal space as well! We rotated chores, & it was a great model for how to comfortably share a space & share tasks.

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