Kitchen Lighting Design Tips

The right lighting in your kitchen brings out the best in cabinets, countertops, food — and you. Here’s our guide to kitchen lighting design.

Kitchen with several kinds of lighting
Image: Bob Manley

Used to be, when it came to kitchen lighting, builders simply slapped up a fluorescent ceiling fixture and considered the job done.

Now, we’re realizing that good lighting design in a kitchen is a must, like adequate counter space and rollout shelves. In fact, LED lighting has climbed to the top of kitchen wish lists, according to the 2013 Consumer Kitchen Trends report from the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence.

Introducing LED lights into your kitchen is a good start, but you also need to create layers of light to make your kitchen feel warm and welcoming while also providing functional task lighting. The best way to do that is to use different types of lights:

Recessed Lights ($177 installed; $2.79 bulb)

Lights recessed into your kitchen ceiling:

  • Cast task lighting onto sinks, countertops, kitchen islands and built-in pantries. If you place the lights around the perimeter of the room, you’ll avoid shadows when you stand at counters and islands.
  • Highlight beautiful kitchen cabinetry.
  • Illuminate dark corners that other lights can’t reach.

Plan on installing one recessed light for every 4 to 6 feet of ceiling space. Mix wide-angle recessed lights for ambient lighting with narrow-beam lights for task lighting.

But don’t go light-crazy. Range hoods have their own lights, so you don’t have to train a recessed light on your gourmet stove.

“You don’t need three recessed cans across the top of a 48-inch refrigerator, when all you need to do is open the door,” says North Carolina designer Karyn Reilly.

Over-Cabinet Lights ($200-$300 installed for 16-ft. run)

Over cabinet lighting in a home kitchen

These lights are less about function and more about style and mood. Mount these lights on top of your cabinets where they illuminate displays and spread a warm light on walls and ceilings. If you use efficient LED lights, you can keep them on all night to lead the way to late-night snacks for only about $3 per year.

“They don’t get hot,” says Jake Van Wyk, marketing director of Häfele America, makers of cabinet lighting. “We leave it on in the kitchen all night. It leaves a nice glow in the room.”

Under-Cabinet Lights ($300-$400 installed)

Once considered a kitchen luxury, under-cabinet lights are now must-have task lighting that bathe countertops with bright light.

The trick is to hide the lights behind the edge of wall cabinets, so you only see light, not the fixture. For optimum task lighting, place lights in the front third of the cabinet; to highlight a beautiful backsplash, place lights in the back.

You can use several types of bulbs in under-cabinet lighting:

1. Strips of LED lights, which stick onto cabinets, are beginning to lead the pack because they're so energy efficient and easy to install ($40 for a 16-ft. roll).

2. Fluorescent fixtures are the most cost effective ($22 for 23-inch fixture), but they have a bluish glow.

3. Halogen and xenon emit a bright light but can burn hot and be double or triple the cost of fluorescents.

Related: Do You Know Which Light Bulb to Buy?

Toe-Kick Lights ($200-$300 installed for 16-ft. run)

Toe kick lighting in a kitchen

Hide these strips of LED lights on top of your base cabinets’ toe kicks, connect them to a motion sensor, and you’ve got a warm glow whenever you walk into the kitchen.

Use them as night-lights or as another dimension of light to add texture to your kitchen.

Pendant Lights ($196-$337 installed)

Pendants are great in kitchens with high ceilings to add light and visual interest. Chose a pendant that throws light in all directions to enhance ambient lighting; or pick one with a shade that directs light down to create task lighting, especially over an island.

Install small pendants to create an open feel to your kitchen; or pick bigger, heavier ones to make a decorative statement and distinguish the food prep area of larger kitchens. You can hang several pendants at the same height, or stagger their heights for more visual interest.

Ceiling Fixtures ($128-$269 installed)

Once the star of kitchen lighting, ceiling fixtures are lights installed onto (flush mount) or close to the ceiling suspended on a small stem (semi-flush mount). They provide general lighting and are common choices in small kitchens.

Because kitchen lights stay on for several hours a day, energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs were once the mainstay of kitchen ceiling fixtures. But their bluish light was a problem.

“No one is happy in fluorescent light,” says Raleigh, N.C., kitchen and bath designer Ruth Ann Taylor.

Now, LED lamps are becoming increasingly popular because they provide warmer, more true-to-life light than fluorescents, and they can burn for 50,000 hours.


Sunlight provides free, bright light that brings out true colors in cabinetry and countertops.

If you don’t have enough daylight, think about installing skylights or solar tubes. Or, trade wall cabinets for windows, which illuminate countertops and further brighten the room by reflecting off surfaces.

Related: Lighting Isn’t Cheap: Here’s How to Do It Right

Housing And Real Estate Expert Lisa Kaplan-Gordon
Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Lisa Kaplan Gordon is an award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer who contributes to real estate and home improvement sites. In her spare time (yeah, right!), she gardens, manages three dogs, and plots to get her 21-year-old out of her basement.