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 that we're using LED lights, that's 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 ($550 installed; $5 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 four to six 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 Karyn Reilly, associate professor of interior design at Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Over-Cabinet Lights ($200-$300 installed for 16-foot 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.

“They don’t get hot,” says Jake Van Wyk, category manager for lighting at 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 ($200-$300 installed)

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

The trick is to hide the lights behind the edge of wall cabinets, so you see only 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.

Strips of LED lights, which stick onto cabinets, are energy efficient and easy to install ($20 for an eight-foot strip).

Pendant Lights ($95-$250 installed)

Pendants are great to add light and visual interest in kitchens with high ceilings. Choose 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 ($90-$230 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.

Now, LED lamps provide warmer, more true-to-life light, 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.