Reader Mail: How to Outfit a Kitchen on a Budget or 14 Things Every Kitchen Needs

I get a fair amount of reader mail and I do my best to answer everyone quite quickly and thoroughly. Recently, I realized that readers often bring up great questions and so I thought I’d start answering them regularly here on the blog. Here’s the first one.

“In your book I like how you were able to show how people with different lifestyles were able to take on cooking successfully and even give people shopping strategies to stretch their dollar. While you have done a great job in showing how accessible cooking really is, I feel as if you missed one thing. The essential tools for a kitchen. Do you have any thoughts, especially for those trying to stock one on a budget? Thanks, Benito

Kathleen says: Thanks for the great question, Benito. I’ve put together a very general guide that I’ve used for events aimed at college students, and you’ll find the list below. People have been quite successful making a lot of food in the past centuries with little more than a pot, spoon, bowl, knife and cutting surface. My niece Michelle recently moved into her first apartment, and this whole concept became quite real when we look at her bare cupboards and had to think, “What does she really need?” and “How does she equip this for the least money but at good value?”

A Good Chef’s Knife
Don’t waste money on a cheap knife block set. The quality is not good, and you’ll get a bunch of knives you’ll never use. Start with a chef’s knife, usually around eight-inches but this can vary by your size and your hands. I always suggest going to a store that will allow you handle the knife first. What you’re after is what I call “the steel and the feel.” If it’s uncomfortable, you won’t want to use it. It should have a blade of good enough quality that it can take an edge and keep it. After your chef’s knife, follow it up with a 10-inch bread knife and a small paring knife. Try not to skimp, and get one that feels good in your hand. Never put a knife in the dishwasher; the detergent will dull the blade, the heat from the steam may warp it and neither will do much for the handle, either.

IKEA makes a decent (if not long lasting) chef’s knife for $10, and Victorinox makes a high-carbon steel one for about $30, but you’ll be replacing both in a couple years. You can find great deals at restaurant supply stores and at the business-focused Costco outlets. If you want to splurge, explore mid-range options from German or Japanese knife manufacturers such as Henckels, Wusthof and Global. Avoid their very cheapest, entry-level goods, though; at that point, you tend to be paying more for the name brand than the quality of knife. If you invest in a knife and treat it well by hand washing it and getting it regularly sharpened, it can last a lifetime.

Cutting Board (or two)
A good-looking cutting board can double as a serving platter for parties.  If you’ve got two, you can use one for meat during food prep. Avoid glass; it has a grating sound and will ruin your blade.

My favorite kind of cutting board is the Epicurean-brand variety made from recycled paper looks great, it can go into the dishwasher and will last for years ($24), so it’s eco-friendly and a value. Next up are cutting boards made from bamboo. They’re inexpensive, look good, and are also eco-friendly. Just don’t put them in the dishwasher; wash them by hand and let air dry. A large inexpensive cutting board such as food-grade plastic can be had for little money and I prefer to use these for meat or fish preparation since they can be sanitized in the dishwasher; just be aware that they tend to warp over time ($12). Wooden cutting boards are handsome, but need a little extra care. ($30+).

Measuring cups and spoons
Stick with basic metal measuring cups and spoons to start. You’ll find good deals from IKEA, a warehouse store or online, but note that you can often find them at Goodwill or Salvation Army stores with a decent housewares section for as little as a $1 each.

Hot pot or electric kettle
A hot pot or kettle is great for rapidly boiling water. Whether you use it to brew a cup of tea, get a jump on water for pasta, or cook even ramen noodles. You’ll find one can find a thousand and one potential uses for it. ($13+)

Can opener
Go a step up from the hand killer $2 version and get a heavier one that works that won’t destroy a can or leave dangerously sharp edges.

A large heavy-bottomed pot
A six- to eight-quart heavy bottom pot will keep you from burning everything you put into it, and will allow for an even sauté onions and vegetables, thus making this a good choice for soup, beans, chili, stock, etc. in addition to using it for boiling water for pasta or steaming vegetables. You can get an inexpensive stainless one from IKEA or a restaurant supply store. Just avoid a thin non-stick version or aluminum, both of which will leach stuff you don’t want into your food and will generally be too thin to do anything other than boil water.

A 3-quart heavy skillet or sauté pan
Food writer Michael Ruhlman made this observation in his book The Elements of Cooking: “I can’t think of anything less useful in a kitchen than a cheap non-stick pan.” I agree. Get one that is at least three quarts, and preferably stainless steel, cast iron or a quality non-stick, such as this “everyday pan.” When taken care of, both types will last for years. Be sure to get one that has no plastic in its design (including the handle) so that it can go into the oven, far-extending its value beyond the stove top. Avoid non-stick which limits its use and can’t be used over anything other than low- to moderate-heat and will eventually need to be discarded.

A cast-iron skillet (or this awesome combo set) with can be purchased for about $25 and has the bonus of being great for roasting a chicken, making a casserole or baking bread in the oven. Follow directions for cleaning it and you’ll have it for years. Or, hit a restaurant supply store or a Costco business center and spend $30 on the same kind of pans used in restaurants. If splurging, go directly to a quality brand such as All-Clad. Sure it’s $150 for a 3-quart sauté pan with lid, but if take care of it, you won’t ever have to buy another one.

A colander ensures you don’t burn yourself trying to drain pasta or while making stock, plus you can use it to wash fresh produce or as a fruit bowl for the table. If you can find a mesh one, it’s even more useful. They often found at thrift stores for a buck.

A set of nesting bowls
You need at least one large bowl to mix stuff in. Consider buying a set of different-sized bowls that nestle into one another. You’ll have multiple options without taking up too much space. Glass or stainless steel are your best investment; avoid plastic as you won’t want to put anything hot (such as freshly made stock) into them and they may stain. Tip: Both glass and stainless steel bowls of varying sizes can often be found for $1 each at Goodwill, and restaurant supply places carry new ones inexpensively, too.

Start with a large spoon. Add a silicon spatula ($4), a vegetable peeler and then a good set of tongs such as those made by Oxo ($8). Add a microplaner/grater. After that, what you cook will help you determine what you need such as whisks, ladles, etc. When we stocked up my niece’s apartment, we bought most of her large spoons, spatulas, whisks, a pasta separator, a vegetable peeler etc. at a Goodwill in Seattle for 69 cents each.

A baking or casserole dish
Great for casseroles, lasagna, quiches, pot pies, brownies or small cakes, plus even roasting a chicken, a small yet heavy baking dish is a great place to start when cooking for one or two people. Consider a square glass one to start, and go with stoneware, glass or ceramic for the most functionality, or commercial stainless steel version (often referred to as a “hotel pan”) at a restaurant supply store. ($12 to $45)

Side towels, oven mitts
A couple of side towels are handy, too; many restaurants and culinary schools use quality cloth diapers since they’re cheap and they have a padded center and can double as a heat pad. I’m a fan of getting a decent pair of oven mitts if you use an oven regularly. Just check their heat resistant; anything less than 400 F isn’t worth buying. You can use an oven mitt as a trivet, too, once something hot has to go onto a table.

Plenty of storage for leftovers
Keep plastic and glass containers from takeout, restaurant leftovers and various food purchases In addition to preventing food from going to waste, you can also store foods you can buy in bulk, such as cereal, spices, flour, sugar, oatmeal, nuts, spices, etc. Plus, a glass jar is great for making vinaigrette. When on a budget, no food should be left to spoil as wasted food is wasted money.

Any other thoughts?



Filed under Cooking Tips

18 responses to “Reader Mail: How to Outfit a Kitchen on a Budget or 14 Things Every Kitchen Needs

  1. Add to the list a roll of freezer/masking tape and a sharpie. And NEVER stash anything in the freezer without labeling it with the contents & date you made it. It’s good to know whether that’s a viable meal or a freezer-burnt fossil in your hands. I do this for things in the fridge, too, like the container of lemon juice I squeezed from the honkin’ big bag o’ lemons my neighbor gave me.
    Cheers! Carol
    p.s. You’re right about glass cutting boards–they sound like nails on a chalkboard and will absolutely destroy a knife!

  2. Very complete list, a terrific post.

    • Kathleen Flinn

      Yeah, I have thos in under utensils. But I’m pretty tied to my tongs. Maybe I should make this a must-have? I used mine for everything…

  3. Nice list. As you’ve pointed out a couple of times…going the way of cheap is sometimes not the way to go. I bought a nice, heavy duty set of pots and pans when I moved into my own place after college. They lasted me for over 30 years when I splurged again on a set of All Clad and gave the old ones to my daughter. Good ones will simply last forever!

    • Kathleen Flinn

      You’re so right. But then some things, you can buy used for cheap (e.g. measuring spoons, spatulas). Invest in good knives, good cookware, a good enough cutting board and (I’ll add here) a quality set of tongs (for $10) and the rest you can get for cheap.

  4. This is such a great help! Our daughter is moving into her first apartment now that she is a junior in college. Very useful! Love your books, and your terrific blog. Thanks Kathleen!

  5. Jenni

    Great list! I would add parchment paper, aluminum foil and plastic wrap — you can cook in parchment (I learned from your book!) and you can do all kinds of stuff with foil including “faking” a lid for a pan if you don’t have one. Thanks!

  6. Clare C.

    This is super helpful. At 29, I am just now getting into cooking now that I have been diagnosed with a gluten allergy.

  7. Andrea White

    I stumbled here by searching on “stocking a kitchen” so that I would know what I *really* need to register for at a department store. Their helpful list suggested we needed a margarita maker – ? I didn’t think so. I am printing this out. Thank you again.

    • Kathleen Flinn

      Good for you! And congrats! How funny. When we got married, the woman at our registery desk suggested that we put this massive $400 espresso machine on our list. Mike doesn’t drink coffee and I just thought, “Really? I am a rock’s throw from about six coffee places… “

  8. The only thing I would add to this list are my measuring cups. stainless measuring cups for up to a cup and glass ones that I’ve collected — 1 cup, 2 cups and 8 cups. My math isn’t great, so it’s always been a blessing to have them.

  9. zoe0640zoe

    For readers in the UK, you simply cannot live without a scale as all recipes are given in weights (liquids are in millilitres). I started with a tiny “dieter’s” scale which was really only appropriate as a postage scale, then got a bigger one with it’s own plastic bowl. Both were a waste of space and (very little) money. I recently asked for a stylish little digital model with tare (you can zero it with something already on the plate, like your bowl, or previously measured ingredients, and measure the next ingredient accurately without having to add in your head) and it’s a pleasure to use. Look to spend about £10 at Argos or

  10. Fabulous article. I just shared it and the book with a former student who is graduating college and looking to learn to cook for himself. I’m also laughing at myself because I am working on getting settled in my just-finished Ikea kitchen and wondering how to make it all fit. I’m such a kitchen equipment slut! LOL.

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