How to survive a big renovation—and stay sane. 

By Melanie Mannarino
Updated October 03, 2017
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I’ve been dreaming of a kitchen expansion since I moved into a house with a tiny galley kitchen more than 10 years ago. The reno would be epic. My vision: I’d blow out the back wall, expand the current space, add a first floor bathroom (a must for visiting parents with aging knees and a sure-fire improvement that ups resale value!), and make sure the entire room is lefty-friendly for me (without being overtly so... again, resale value).

And now that I’m in the middle of my dream expansion? Here’s what I never dreamed of: Living without a kitchen for weeks on end and creating makeshift meals for my family using only a microwave, toaster oven, and the one steak knife I didn’t pack away (in a location that has now completely slipped my mind and may, in fact, be the Upside Down). I am actually tired of restaurant meals and takeout. I’m itching to bake. This project feels epically long.

But I’ve learned a few things along the way. Things I’d like to share with anyone contemplating a kitchen redo, whether making over your existing space or building a new one. (I’m also writing this down in case I decide to do it all again in 10-15 years. I suspect the pain and suffering of a renovation might be akin to childbirth: Once it’s all over and your world is improved immeasurably, you forget all about the hard parts.) Here, a few pointers:

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A Coffee Pod Machine Is a Lifesaver.

Before demo, we had a beloved automatic drip coffeemaker (and a French press for power outages). Now I'd have to dump coffee grounds, then hoof it upstairs to rinse the dirty reusable filter in the bathroom sink while trying desperately not to drip on the carpet. Not my idea of fun—especially since my husband drinks regular and I drink decaf (that's twice the opportunity for dirty-coffee stains). So we bought a Nespresso. We fill the reservoir with water from a jug, empty the used capsules into the recycling, and go about our day.

Farmers Markets Often Sell More Than Produce.

A neighboring town has a huge farmers market every Sunday, and I usually love to go and buy fresh produce—tomatoes, squash, mushrooms, corn, peaches. All the things. Then I go home and cook up a storm. But what I didn’t notice until this season was that they also sell prepared foods. There’s an Italian market that sells family-size trays of chicken marsala, lasagna, meatballs, and homemade marinara sauce. There’s a sweets stand that makes the best scones. There’s a bakery that sells roasted garlic bread. It is more expensive than if I’d made it all at home, but it’s definitely more affordable than takeout.

When It Comes to Creative Meal Prep, You Have to Know Your Limits.

When I was a kid, my mother baked a cake from scratch on a gas grill in the backyard during a power-outage that was a result of Hurricane Gloria—then whipped up a batch of frosting by hand. I try to live up to that can-do attitude daily, in every aspect of my life. And while I did make a delicious, bubbly pizza on the grill the other day, I stopped short of boiling water for pasta on the convenient side burner when my husband asked where I’d be draining the pasta once it cooked. The flowerbeds? The gutter? One flight up in the bathroom sink? Imagining boiling-water splashing on my toes, I gave up and ordered Chinese food.

Construction Has Some Catch-22s.

The cabinet company couldn’t come measure the space until there was a space to measure. So the room got framed, and the measurer came out. It was at this point I learned the cabinets would arrive in six to eight weeks. The contractor will be ready for the cabinets weeks before then, which means we will wait—and there’s nothing we could have done to prevent that. (Oh, and the countertop people can’t measure until the cabinets are in… and the tile backsplash can’t go in until the countertop's installed….)

Real Plates Are a Luxury.

We try to reuse our paper plates—say, if I have toast for breakfast, I’ll use the same plate for my salad lunch. And everyone gets one disposable drinking cup a day—unless it just held water, in which case it’s yours indefinitely. I liken it to glamping. But when we had dinner at our friends’ home last night and she served our (fresh-cooked!) pasta dinner on regular dishes, with metal silverware, my husband and I felt like it was our anniversary or something. And then we asked if we could move in with them until the reno is over.

It’s Better Not to Count the Days.

Earlier today, I guesstimated that we’ve been kitchenless for three to four weeks. I’ve purposely avoided counting the days, so as not to get crabby. It will be over when it’s over, you know? It’s helped, because I think to myself, this is how we live now. We live with small appliances on our dining room table in a room that is divided by floor-to-ceiling black plastic. But just a minute ago, for purposes of this article, I checked the calendar. It’s been six weeks. On the one hand, I really wish I didn’t know that. On the other, at least my “don’t count the days” theory really works!