Essential Kitchen Lighting Tips, According to Industry Pros

Light the busiest area of your home with help from the professionals.

Life happens every hour of every day in your kitchen. You live by its lighting, no matter what’s happening in the space—from bright task lighting for preparing meals and doing work or crafts to soft, barely-there lights for not-yet-awake, early-morning coffee-making and late-night freezer raids to satisfy ice cream cravings. With the right layers of lighting, your kitchen can be the perfectly lit setting for every moment of your life.

ALA kitchen lighting

Courtesy of American Lighting Association

01 of 14

Vary Lighting Sources

white kitchen marble backsplash

Kim Cornelison

A well-lit work area is a safety essential in a kitchen. Lighting can also be used to create ambience. The key to good kitchen lighting is to rely on a cast of lighting sources and to layer your lights, mixing ambient (overall), task, and accent or decorative lighting with natural light.

02 of 14

Think in Multiples

ALA pendants

Courtesy of American Lighting Association / Holgate

Chandeliers are a timeless addition to any room but pendants are taking over kitchens everywhere. “Pendants allow you to set the design tone for the room,” says Tim Stumm, Z-Lite creative director. Over an island, “you might do three pendants, each with a 6-inch puddle of light, or five smaller pendants, each with a 2-inch circle of light.” Even if you have a single junction box in the ceiling, “don’t limit yourself by thinking you can only hang one pendant,” he says. “You can install a canopy that allows many pendants on that single box.”

03 of 14

Light Beyond the Wiring

colorful modern kitchen

Kim Cornelison

“One big mistake: feeling hamstrung by the electrical layout, especially when there’s only wiring for one overhead light,” Stumm says. “I like to ask questions: Where do you make coffee? Where do you prep? Tell me the work zones, and I’ll light those areas.”

There are many kitchen lighting options that don’t require hardwiring, including rechargeable lights. “We can now put lighting where there is no electricity,” he says. “There are solutions for these dark corners!”

04 of 14

Leverage Layers

ALA kitchen lighting

Courtesy of American Lighting Association

“In a kitchen, you really do need three layers of light,” Stumm says. “Ambient is the ceiling light that illuminates the whole room; task is pendants over the island and undercabinet/counter lighting to shine on the area where you’re chopping or peeling; and accent lighting.”

Accent lighting spotlights special features, such as artwork or open shelves, and brightens dark spots, such as a toe-kick along a lower cabinet edge. Together, the three layers make for a bright space for cooking and cleaning, but each layer on its own or in combination creates an almost endless variety of moods.

05 of 14

Take Advantage of Tech

ALA kitchen lighting

Courtesy of American Lighting Association

While you might have switches (with dimmers, of course) for the room’s main lighting—ceiling can lighting, an overhead semi-flush fixture, and pendants over the island—consider installing switches for specific zones, so you can light just one area of the room, Stumm suggests. Or use a motion detector so that as you walk to the coffee station, it lights up. “One thing I love doing in kitchens is having the toe-kick lighting on an occupancy sensor,” he says. “That way, they come on when you walk in. You don’t have to turn on the lights or fully wake up when you go to the fridge in the middle of the night.”

06 of 14

Utilize Smart Lighting Controls

ALA kitchen lighting

Courtesy of American Lighting Association

“With smart controls, your rooms can be like a theater, where every scene is lighted differently,” says Terry McGowan, FIES, LC, director of engineering and technology for the American Lighting Association. Set different lighting for stimulating activities like kitchen work or playing table tennis in the basement or for cozy evenings by the fire. “Tell your lighting professional what you want in terms of control,” McGowan says. “Just lighting? Security? Appliances? All of these can be looped together in a whole home system, if you want.”

07 of 14

Look to Lighting Trends

ALA kitchen lighting

Courtesy of American Lighting Association

From Stumm’s observation, modern farmhouse style “is waning a bit, but contemporary styles in black finishes are all the rage right now,” he says. Transitional in style, they can lean traditional or modern, and mesh well with just about everything. “You can change your style: Start with farmhouse and then pull the shiplap out, and go more contemporary,” Stumm says. “The black fixtures still work.”

08 of 14

Optimize Sight Lines

ALA kitchen lighting

Courtesy of American Lighting Association

While multiple pendants are a design must-have, “there’s nothing worse than building a wall with lighting,” Stumm says. Visually heavy or solid pendants might do just that if they stop you from seeing the other side of the island. “Consider a less dense or clear fixture because you want the eye to travel through it. It’s there but not there: You can see beyond it.”

09 of 14

Optimize Task Lighting

traditional gray kitchen with marble backsplash


Task lighting should be included over the cooking surface, at the sink, over the counters, and over any table or other work surface. These fixtures should be about 30 inches above an island, peninsula, or table, but might be higher if you are taller or are placing the light over a raised surface or an area such as a cooktop.

10 of 14

Add Recessed Lighting

modern dark gray kitchen

John Granen

Recessed, or can, lights that provide ambient lighting for the room should be 24-42 inches apart. Recessed kitchen lighting should work to light the entire room, not just areas without task lights.

11 of 14

Remember Reflective Surfaces

white kitchen with mixed metal finishes and hardware
Adam Albright

The size of your kitchen helps determine how many fixtures you will need for adequate illumination, but color makes a difference, too. White reflects light, bouncing it back into the room and making the space feel brighter. With many white surfaces, you might be able to lower the wattage of bulbs used or even cut back on the number of fixtures and still have a well-illuminated room.

In this kitchen, a reflective white ceiling, white walls, and white countertops maximize the provided light, which bounce light, spreading a soft general illumination across the large island.

12 of 14

Convert Can Lights

subway tile kitchen

Tria Giovan

If you're tired of the recessed can lights in your kitchen and want to add stylish pendants, use recessed can converters. The switch is as simple as screwing in a light bulb. A socket adapter with a cord spindle plugs into the socket, and a cover plate masks the recessed-can opening.

13 of 14

Brighten a Dark Kitchen

kitchen with black honed marble backsplash


The darker the colors in your kitchen, the more sources of light you'll need to make sure you can see what you're doing. Dark surfaces absorb more light than white and light-color surfaces do. According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, a kitchen with dark surfaces needs about one-third more light than a kitchen with lighter surfaces.

14 of 14

Include Under-Cabinet Lights

black kitchen cabinetry

Edmund Barr

Recessed undercabinet lighting can help with dishwashing duties and create subtle mood lighting in architectural coves or areas with accent tilework. Adjust the color and intensity to create a mood. Puck or recessed mini can lights also bring sparkle underneath and to the interiors of cabinets. New easy-to-install puck lights are available with LEDs, which use much less electricity to produce light, last much longer, and produce less heat (which affects home cooling bills).

BHG Lighting magazine 2023 cover

Adam Albright

For more help with a lighting plan, find an American Lighting Association showroom near you. And check out our latest issue of Lighting magazine.

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