How to Turn a Junk Room Into a Breakfast Nook

How to Turn a Junk Room Into a Breakfast Nook

Clear out the clutter and reclaim your wasted space.
Illustrations by

When my partner and I moved into our house in August 2020, we knew we wanted to turn the back room into a breakfast nook. Yes, it was small. Yes, it had a washer-dryer combo tucked behind an accordion-door closet. Yes, it opened directly onto the back patio—and since we had already gotten into the habit of entering the house from the back door, it meant that the floor would be perpetually cluttered with grass, snow or leaf litter, depending on the season.

But the room was just the right size for a table, the southern and western walls were nearly all windows, and we could see ourselves eating breakfast there. Having overnight guests, and asking them whether they preferred coffee or tea. Talking about the news; planning that night’s supper; asking each other how we wanted the day to go.

Unfortunately, the process of moving created a lot of clutter—and by the time we’d gotten all of our boxes inside the house, that little back room had already begun to serve a different purpose. We called it the mudroom, when we were being generous. It was really a junk room.

It remained a junk room for two-and-a-half years, collecting items that had no other place to go. Cardboard boxes and glass bottles, both of which required trips to specialized recycling facilities. The plastic wrap from an economy pack of toilet paper, which didn’t fit into  our trash can one week, earned the right to remain on the floor for two months. The vent cover from the refrigerator we replaced in 2021. The upholstery attachments from the vacuum we replaced in 2022.

It wasn’t exactly embarrassing—a lot of people have mudrooms, right?—but it wasn’t the kind of space either of us wanted to spend much time in. At best, it was a place to put off the process of dealing with our detritus. At worst, it was a reminder of every task we were neglecting to complete.

One Saturday in December, I decided to complete them all—including the long-overdue assignment of turning the back room into a breakfast nook. It took me two days. Here’s how I got it done.

Begin with the end in mind

Before I picked a single piece of clutter off the junk room floor, I asked myself how I wanted to transform the space.

What could this room become? What needed to remain, and what could be removed? Would it be possible, for example, to use the nook for both breakfast and cocktails? Would the washer-dryer get in the way of our enjoying the space, or would we be able to keep the closet door closed? Would we need a coat rack and a place to put our shoes?

I thought, carefully, about how we might use the room once it was integrated into our lives. I dismissed a few options—this wasn’t going to be a game room, for example—and focused on four specific usage scenarios:

  • A place to gather before work
  • A place to gather before dinner
  • The place where we did our laundry
  • The back entrance to our home

That gave me a plan. More importantly, it gave me a reason to keep working.

Take the time you need

Clearing out two years’ worth of junk isn’t a 20 minute job. It isn’t even a 90 minute job. That’s why I set aside a full weekend to complete the project—and worked, only pausing for meals and sleep, until it was done.

I picked December 10 as my start date because we were hosting a holiday party on December 18, and I wanted to test the space with guests as soon as possible. I knew that once we had people in the nook, drinking eggnog and eating cookies as we watched the sun set through our western-facing windows, we’d never toss a vacuum attachment on the floor again.

That was what kept me motivated, as I swept and sorted and lifted and carried and made one decision after another, every choice supporting one of the four usage scenarios I’d already defined.

That, and the fact that I knew that if I quit before the job was done, we’d be stuck with a junk room until the next free weekend on the calendar—which wouldn’t be until March 2023.

Don’t be surprised if the job expands

When I started cleaning out the junk room, I didn’t realize that I’d end up cleaning out the kitchen—but once I realized that nearly everything that wasn’t getting thrown away would be better kept on one of our kitchen shelves, I got out the step stool and started making space.

Then I got out the rags and the squirt bottle of soap and white vinegar, because some of those kitchen shelves hadn’t been wiped down since we moved into the house—and then I found a trash bag, because some of those shelves still had receipts, twist ties or paper salt and pepper packets shoved into the back corners.

By the end of the weekend, I had decluttered and cleaned two rooms instead of one. I also re-organized our kitchen, putting the tools we used most often in the easiest-to-reach spots—which has probably saved as much time, over the past two months, as it took to set up.

Be prepared to spend a little money

The first version of the breakfast nook—the one that we shared with our guests at our holiday party—was furnished with components we already had in the house. We put out a little wooden work table and decorated it with Santa-patterned dishes. We took a puzzle we had just finished putting together, stuck it under a poster frame we weren’t using, and hung it on one of the non-windowed walls. We created a wine rack out of a wire shelving unit.

After our guests left, I sat my partner down and showed him everything I wanted to buy.

"We need a rug," I said. "We need a decorative cloth for the table. We need stools that can fit under the table, so it can be something you sit around or something you stand around. We need a mat to wipe our shoes when we come in the back door. We need just a little more art."

I ended up spending $190 to get it all done. Everything was in place when my parents came to stay the night on New Year’s Eve—and on New Year’s Day, 2023, we all had breakfast together, in the nook. Exactly as I hoped we would.

Go after the room of your dreams

Have you ever had that dream, where you’re wandering through your home and you find a room you’ve never seen before? And then the room turns out to be, like, everything you’d ever wanted?

That’s what our life has been like, every day, since we turned our junk room into a breakfast nook.

We use it for breakfast. We use it for cocktails. I use the table to fold laundry. I sit on one of the little stools, watch the sun rise—or set, depending on what time it is—and read. Last week we put out a cookie jar and filled it with fresh-baked ginger cookies, giving us one more reason to pause at the table before heading out the door.

We’ve already got plans for how we’re going to use the room this summer. "It’ll be an indoor space," my partner said, "for our outdoor parties."

"I’ll open the windows every morning," I said, "and fill the house with fresh air."

"We can watch our garden grow," my partner said, "or watch the rain."

Keep your promise

I’m not sure what we’ll end up doing, but I can tell you for sure what we’re not doing. We’re not using the space as a junk room—or as a mudroom—any longer. Cardboard boxes go straight to the garage. Toilet paper packaging gets stashed in the basement until we’ve got a smaller-than-average trash week. Bottles collect next to the basement staircase, in a box that can be easily carried to the car. Boots get wiped and then lined up by the back door.

Right now my biggest question is what to do with the two coolers that have taken up residence next to the wire shelving unit. We’ve been using those coolers nearly every weekend, and are likely to continue using them as the weather continues to improve—which means I’ll either need to haul them out of the basement every week, or find a place to put them that isn’t the breakfast nook floor.

We’ll start with the basement plan. A 20 second job, up and down the stairs, easily completed while we do the dishes.

Clutter collects clutter, after all—and since I’ve already spent two days turning this space into the room of our dreams, taking the extra time to keep it clean should be more than worth it. (Check back two years from now to see if I’ve kept my word.)

Illustration by Scott Wilson

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