Are you a recent high school or college grad, or are you living alone for the first time? Don’t panic; you’ve got this. Stocking a kitchen can be simple and inexpensive. Here’s how it’s done.
My first kitchen, in a basement apartment in Portland, Oregon, featured a pot with no top and a very scratched “nonstick” skillet. I owned one not-at-all-heatproof spoon that would melt a little bit every time I stirred my cheesy mushroom pasta—a gloopy dish I proudly considered my specialty until a pal who had traveled to Italy intervened. (And thank goodness).
I’m all too aware that cost is often the barrier to setting up your first kitchen, but if you have yard sales, vintage shops, Salvation Armys, clothing swaps, or anything similar nearby, you can often get the following on the cheap. If you’re lucky enough to afford Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, or Amazon, even better—but you can live without matching cobalt-blue glasses until you can afford them. I promise.
Here, in order of priority, are the things you’ll need:
A large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid
Beans, rice, soups, pasta—all the cheap foods require a pot with a lid. The thicker the bottom of the pot, the better, as that will help you avoid scorching your food. When you’re rolling in dough, you might want to snag a good Dutch oven (a fancy term for a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid) such as one from Le Creuset or Staub. One of those will set you back a pretty penny, but you’ll have it for decades. Get something as big as you can find, but make sure it’ll fit on your burners or electric stovetop. You don’t want something that will slip all over the place.
A good knife
You will likely eat more healthfully (vegetables can’t cut themselves!) and more safely with a decent knife, such as the 8-inch, well-regarded Wüsthof pro, which is $28. The sharper your knife, ironically, the less likely you are to cut yourself with it, so this is the one item you need to be in good shape. Everything else can be cheap and cheerful for now.
A cutting board
Again, buy the best one you can, but if you’re buying secondhand, don’t pick up a cutting board with deep grooves in it. (It’s not a wise move, food-safety-wise.) You can live with one cutting board, even if it’s wooden, so long as it’s in good shape.
The nonstick versus cast-iron conundrum is a tricky one when it comes to your first skillet. If you’re a scrambled-eggs-for-breakfast person, go ahead and snap up a non-scratched nonstick pan instead of a cast-iron skillet, if you can only afford only one. If you’re the sort of starter cook who wants to sear steaks on your stovetop, then throw them in the oven, or if you grew up around cast-iron pans and can live without a ton of scrambled eggs, go ahead and go the cast-iron route. Your cornbread will be the envy of the neighborhood!
A flat-headed wooden spoon
You are going to need heat-resistant utensils for stovetop cooking. Yes, Oxo makes some great ones, as do other vendors, but I was fine for a long time with simply a flat-headed wooden spoon. You’ll use it for soft-scrambled eggs, for getting tomato sauces un-stuck from the bottom of a pot, and for keeping veggies moving so they don’t burn. Ideally you’ll also own a round-headed wooden spoon, for getting foods out of the corners of pans, and a spatula, for flipping pancakes. But on a desert island, I’d want a flat-headed spoon for my coconut-and-desperation sautés.
Two glasses, mugs, bowls, plates, forks, knives, and spoons
I distinctly remember owning just one of everything in my first college apartment, and learned that nothing will make people pity you like the sentence, “Don’t worry, we’ll share the fork!” So poke around yard sales, bother friends, find out who’s moving out of town, and get at least two of everything. If you have space and money, get four; you’ll feel so luxurious.
It’s much safer not to have bowls and plates face-down on a towel or surface when drying; you’re trapping moisture under them, which can breed bacteria. Make sure you have a sturdy dishrack—I like tough plastic, which last me longer than wooden ones—where you can space out dishes so they have air circulation. And keep it pretty clean.
A rimmed sheet pan
You have to use your oven somehow, and a sheet pan—also known as a rimmed baking sheet—is going to be crucial for those sheet pan dinners, roast vegetables, and speedy tuna melts. If you must, pick up a cheap 12-inch cast-iron skillet—Lodge makes a good one—instead, which can go from stovetop to oven and is much better for liquid-heavy foods like pork butt and whole chickens. Eventually, though, you’ll want a sheet pan, too. You’ll find yourself cooking more tarts, pies, pastries, and vegetables once you have a large surface with which to play.
Watch: Sheet Pan 101
I’ve definitely strained pasta using a spoon, a bowl, a pot lid, and all sorts of other strange items, but try to get your paws on a colander. It’s so much safer when you’re dealing with boiling water, and you’ll re-use it when salting vegetables and draining canned beans to get off that icky gooey substance.
A couple of re-usable towels, a sponge, and dishsoap
Yes, you could blaze through paper towels, but re-usable cloth towels are going to be handy and will make you feel homey. Pick up ones that don’t fall apart or shed, and use them to dry fruits and veggies, spread out produce, and clean up around the kitchen. Just be sure to wash them regularly so you’re not spreading around bacteria.
Measuring cups and spoons
At some point, you’ll want to bake something, and you will need measuring cups and spoons. Eyeballing a half teaspoon of baking soda just isn’t going to cut it for making cookies.
Extra Credit: One large bowl
Somehow this took me the longest time to acquire in my starter kitchen, but at last my mother—tired of watching me try to compose salads in small bowls—bought me two large stackable glass bowls. They take up a ton of space, but I use them weekly now, for things like mixing fresh tomatoes with pasta, mixing bread dough, and tossing salads with dressing.
You’ll need food, too, of course! Yours will be unique and might be based on the culture you grew up in. For some, rice will be key; others can’t live without beans and hot sauce.
You know you best—talk to your parents to find out what precisely was in your favorite dishes so you don’t find yourself weeping about not owning smoked paprika some night—but don’t panic: Kitchens are beautiful in that they morph over time to suit your taste, your most beloved meals, and your life. Yours will become a reflection of you—in the very best way.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.