Kitchen Must-Haves: What You Actually Need

Kitchen Must-Haves: What You Actually Need

You probably already know that prepping your own food is key for eating nutritiously and inexpensively. But for some of us, that’s easier said than done.

One aspect of cooking that can be particularly overwhelming is feeling like you don’t have the right supplies. Part of that is having a strategically stocked pantry. The other part is making sure you’ve got the essential kitchen hardware – the pots, pans, and tools – to get the job done.

So what are the “must-haves” for your kitchen? 

Cooking on your own is much easier when you know you have the right tools at your fingertips.

Setting Up Your Kitchen

Do any of these apply to you?

  • You’re living on your own for the first time and realizing, eek, you have to prepare your own food, but where you do start?
  • You’re getting married and have no idea what to put on your registry
  • You’re in your 30s…or maybe even your 40s…and you realize you’ve been relying mostly on take-out or freezer meals since college

You can’t buy it all (I mean, if you can, that’s truly awesome) – so what are the core pieces you truly need to cook a wide variety of meals?

This guide presents the essential equipment for your kitchen. We’ll start with the Must-Haves and work our way from there in order of descending importance.

The items in this guide find the optimal point at which quality meets affordability. If you buy the absolute cheapest version of an item, it may fall apart and you’re replacing it 6 months later (making it not so cheap anymore!). This list focuses on getting you the most for your money!

Level 1: Kitchen Must-Haves

These are the bare-bones essentials to have on hand in your kitchen. With these items alone, you will have the capability to do the core cooking skills: chopping, baking, satueeing/frying, simmering, and storing, . If you’re starting from scratch, start here! And if you’re not starting from scratch, peek through this list and make sure you’ve got each of these on hand.

THE LIST

  • Cutting Board
  • Chef’s Knife – a cheaper and a pricier version
  • Glass Food Storage Containers
  • Non-Stick Frying or Saute Pan
  • Cutting Board
  • Saucepan – a cheaper and a pricier version
  • Measuring Cups and Spoons

Cutting Board

Having a designated board for slicing, dicing, and chopping means that you can cut cleanly and safely. A sticky board like this prevents slipping and easily goes into a dishwasher afterwards.

This set comes with 2, which means you can designate one for meat and one for vegetables while you’re prepping a meal. Keeping those two items separate is key for food safety! (keep those raw meats away from your veggies that won’t be cooked also)

Chef’s Knife (Cheaper Version)

If you have one knife in your kitchen, let it be a chef’s knife! A chef’s knife is a workhorse that can be used for just about any chopping need in your kitchen.

This Victorinox model is by no means fancy, but serves as a great beginner chef’s knife if you’re on a tight budget.

Chef’s Knife (Pricier Version)

This is a more luxury version of the knife above. Though the price might seem steep, this knife will last for years of daily use.

Glass Food Storage Containers

Preparing leftovers or “meal prepping” is so important for eating well. It saves you major time and money to cook once, making extra servings that you can enjoy later on. Having the right dishes to put your prepped-food INTO is part of this equation.

Why glass, rather than plastic? Even though glass is more expensive upfront, it’s more versatile and longer-lasting, so you’ll probably save money in the long run. Unlike plastic, glass does not get yucky stains and it can be heated to high temperatures. Heating plastic in the microwave or the dishwasher may cause plastic to leech into your food.

Non-Stick Saute Pan or Frying Pan

A pan a kitchen-essential for cooking anything that needs brief, medium-high heat – which is a lot of foods. Eggs, veggies, chicken, fish, beef, tofu, tempeh, stir-fries, pancakes, fritattas can all be cooked in here. You can also use a saute pan for toasting nuts, making sauces, and reheating certain frozen items (like Trader Joe’s frozen gnocchi, my favorite).

Measuring Cups & Spoons

If you’re following a recipe of any kind, you’ve got to have the measurement tools to make that happen. One set of dry measuring cups and spoons gets you pretty far (liquid measuring cups also exist, but those are nice-to-have rather than must-have, unless you’re a serious baker).

Saucepan (Cheaper Version)

A saucepan helps you cook the more liquid-heavy processes or dishes that you can’t do in your saute pan. This includes boiling pasta, cooking grains like rice or quinoa, simmering soup or chili, and making sauces.

Saucepan (Pricier Version)

This version of a saucepan is bit more upscale, which means it’s likely to last longer and heat a bit more evenly.

Sheet Pan

Sheet pans are super stars for making quick dinners. Throw chopped vegetables and protein on your pan, and you’ll have dinner ready 15-20 minutes later without too many dirty dishes. Sheet pans are also necessary for baking cookies.

Spatula + Tongs

I almost downgraded these to the “Very Good to Have” (Level 2) category, but then realized they’re a non-negotiable.

A spatula will help you in your saute pan with eggs or whatever else you’re frying. It’s also key for any baking, as you scrape the sides of a bowl.

Tongs will help you serve, mix, and transfer foods from one pot to a next in a safe and savvy way.


Level 2: Very Good to Have

Now that you’ve covered your bare bones basics, let’s look one level up. These items are incredibly useful to have (and you might be able to argue that some should be Level 1), but you can survive without them. Add these pieces in as your budget permits!

THE LIST

  • Meat Thermometer
  • Mixing Bowls
  • 9 x 13 Baking Dish
  • Colander
  • Blender
  • Paring Knife

Meat Thermometer

When I was younger, I thought meat thermometers were only for advanced cooks – but once I got one, I realized that NEW cooks are the demographic who need these most. With a meat thermometer, you don’t have to play the guessing game of “is this done yet?” when it comes to meat, poultry, fish, and other dishes that need to be cooked to a certain internal temperature. This chart shows you your minimal safe cooking temperatures for proteins.

Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls

These are helpful for mixing – duh – but the highlight of stainless steel is how easy it is to clean. Stainless steel is lightweight, super sanitary (cleans easily), doesn’t change the taste of food, and lasts forever. Once you buy these, you won’t have to again.

9 x 13 Baking Dish

Your baking dish will help you make bake savories (like lasagna) and sweets (like brownies). It’s also an awesome format for one of my favorite breakfast dishes: baked oatmeal. This recipe is awesome, and I double it so that it fits the 9 x 13 pan.

Colander

Use it to scrub (your vegetables, fruits, potatoes), drain (pasta, beans, chickpeas), and rinse (quinoa, rice, lentils).

Paring Knife

A chef’s knife is absolutely essential, but a paring knife is quite helpful if you’re in the market for a second knife. Paring knives can handle your smaller tasks, like cutting the stem out of a strawberry or deveining shrimp.

Blender

It’s tempting to put this is “Level 1: Must-Haves,” but blenders can be pricey so I’m keeping them in Level 2. With that said, they’re so important. Not only can you use them to make the obvious smoothies, but you can also use them for making salad dressings and sauces, turning oats into oat flour, and pureeing soups.


Level 3: Nice to Have

Lastly we have the nice-to-have’s. These pieces are still definitely helpful, but you can probably survive without them better than you can Levels 1 and 2. Some of these items have quite specific uses, which makes them incredibly handy but not a true basic.

THE LIST

  • Food Processor
  • Immersion Blender
  • Box Grater
  • Cast Iron Skillet
  • Bread Knife
  • Dutch Oven
  • Instant Pot

Food Processor

If you’re starting to get more serious in the kitchen, a food processor is amazing to have. Unlike a blender (unless you have a super high-speed blender), it can handle non-liquids like nuts and beans. Food processors can help you make energy balls, blondie bars, pesto, and all other manner of deliciousness.

Box Grater

Aside from cheese, you can also use this for zucchini, carrots, and other vegetables, which can be added to baked goods, pasta sauces, eggs, salads, and much more.

Cast Iron Pan

Some might rank this higher – and in all transparency, I probably would, too, if I knew how to use mine better. Cast iron pans that are “seasoned” (i.e., have a thin layer of oil on it from repeated use), they can impart extra flavor and get food super crispy.

Bread Knife

Even though your Chef’s knife can do almost everything, cutting bread is an exception. The thin serration on a bread knife helps it slice its way through without mushing your loaf too much. If you buy whole loaves of bread or like to bake, a bread knife is worth having on hand (a cheap one is fine!).

Instant Pot

If you’ve been on Pinterest in the past 2-3 years you’ve surely seen the hype. I am typically skeptical of gadgets, but this one is the real deal. An instant pot is awesome for cooking fluffy grains like rice and quinoa in half the time it would normally take. They can make perfectly hard-boiled eggs. And, an Instant Pot can help you make a chili or a stew in less than an hour that would normally take 8 hours in a Crock Pot (in case you’re in a hurry).

If you’re just starting out, stick to the most essential kitchen items and build from there!

What to Skip

Items you probably don’t need? Anything that has an incredibly specific purpose. Avocado slicers, meat shredders, hamburger molds, and the like may gather some dust.

With that said, some people swear by their garlic presses, apple slicers, and other niche objects. Let the types of food that you like (and maybe some Amazon or Wirecutter reviews) be your guide.

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