What if I told you that there was a secret way to get up to a 90% discount on most of the things you’d order in a restaurant?
I’m not fantasizing. There is a way to get food for down to a fraction of the restaurant price, and it’s called cooking it for yourself.
For instance if you want penne pasta with marinara sauce — $7.95 on a typical restaurant menu — you just go out and buy a $1 box of pasta and a $2 can of pasta sauce, and Presto! you have four nice-sized servings of dinner. For 75 cents a serving in less than half an hour, you can have four whole meals that are not ramen. That’s pretty impressive.
And since you’re already doing some heavy adult-ing–signing leases, buying renter’s insurance, figuring out taxes–what’s one more skill? Cooking is easy by comparison: just Google anything you want to make, from triple bean chili to tiramisu.
The trouble is that if you’re just moving in somewhere, you don’t even have a pot to boil pasta in. But for less than $300, you can buy all the tools you need to survive when you’ve just barely made rent and your food budget for the week is $20.
Here’s your kitchen essentials shopping list, and how much everything should cost. I’ve been a little bit generous on the budgets; can you find cheaper? I’ve included suggestion links, but be aware that I haven’t personally purchased/used everything included–so the quality is not assured–and you may be able to find better deals at Wal-Mart anyway (or better yet, you might be able to pick these up for a quarter of a price at a thrift store or garage sale). Shop around.
1. $25 for one nice, big cast iron or aluminum frying or sauté pan, preferably with a lid
2. $25 for one nice, big soup pot or large saucepan, preferably with a lid, which you’ll use to make soup, pasta, and even treats like mulled apple cider in the winter
3. $50 for plates, glasses, bowls, mugs, and silverware hint: you only really need sets of 4, and you probably won’t use those little coffee plates, so try buying a la carte. Also, you probably want glasses that can stack in order to save space in your cabinets, and bowls that are big enough to hold a can of soup. Make sure they’re microwave safe!
5. $10 for two cheap 9″ round cake pans–optional. Dark finish is better for cakes, but you probably won’t find that at this price. Spray these well with Pam when you use them; you won’t get good nonstick for $5 a go, but you also won’t use them often enough to justify paying more for them.
6. $50 for kitchen tools: a serving spoon, a spatula, tongs, a CAN OPENER, a whisk, a vegetable peeler, a colander for draining pasta, a wooden spoon… you get the idea. Just grab these from WalMart or Amazon. Oxo is a good brand for more complicated things like can openers, veggie peelers, or salt grinders, as they’re often well designed, so that can be worth the extra price when they aren’t a pain to use/last longer. Note that you will probably get a salt grinder for Christmas if your family is anything like mine, so don’t feel a pressing need to buy one.
7. $10 for dish towels and rags. Spend all $10. At some point, you’ll make a huge mess and you’ll be glad you had plenty of rags.
8. $10 for an aluminum cookie sheet. Most of the cookie sheets you’ll run into will be “half-sheet” size–this is the size you want. A full-size cookie sheet would not fit in your oven. Don’t bother mucking around with quarter sheets, either. They won’t be as useful or efficient.
9. $50 for your knife set. This includes two knives, a sharpener, and maybe two good, solid cutting boards. First, a chef’s knife for preparing meat–if you’re a vegetarian, opt for a Santoku instead. Second, you should probably have a smaller (like, 6-inch) paring knife. You need a knife sharpener; I like sharpening steels, but if you don’t know how to use those, there are other options. I suggest buying knives in person if you can, so you can feel how heavy they are and take a good look at them. However, I would trust Sam’s recommendation for this chef’s knife.
10. $10 for at least one cutting board; look for plastic or bamboo. Don’t get glass, marble or steel, as they’ll dull your knives.
11. $10 for a good pair of kitchen shears. These should be used just in the kitchen–don’t use them to cut aluminum foil in order to make your kid brother his astronaut costume. (Don’t use them to cut aluminum foil for any other reason, either–it’ll dull them.)
12. $10 for dry ingredient measuring cups, and a set of measuring spoons. The link is a set.
13. $10 for wet ingredient measuring cups–these are useful not only for measuring things like milk, which you don’t really want to try in the dry measuring cups unless you have steady hands, but they’re also useful as mixing bowls because they have nice, high sides. You can whip cream in them, or scramble a bunch of eggs all at once, or you can use them to measure out milk for instant pudding and then eat the pudding out of them all by yourself (not that I’ve ever done that). I wasn’t overly thrilled with the options I found on Amazon and the like; they seem awfully expensive for what I’m used to. Check at your local thrift stores, or raid your mom’s basement.
This comes to about $300; you may be able to do better if you’re good at shopping. If you cook regularly, it’ll pay for itself in a month.
A note or two about knives: You get what you pay for. Cheaper knives dull more often, and they’re about all you can afford–so if you don’t want to make cooking a pain, sharpen them every time you go to use them, and replace them when you’re better off financially. Also, some knives are better designed than others. When you look at a knife, ask yourself: how easy would it be for this to come apart? A common point where they might wear out is between the blade and the handle. How secure does the connection look? Better yet, if you find “full-tang” knives where the metal of the blade extends through the handle, and they’re close to being within your price range, grab them. They are valuable. They’re more stable, better balanced, and more durable than cheaper knives.
Also, don’t ever put your knives in the dishwasher. It’ll ruin them, no matter their price.
Here’s the list of things you should NOT buy:
Anything that does only one thing and takes up space in your kitchen. I don’t care how cute the “spoon rest” or the “scrambled egg mixer” is; you don’t want to waste money buying them, and you don’t want to clutter your apartment keeping them. Unless you have a professional mashed-potato business, you do not need a potato masher. Besides, it’d just get stuck in your drawers. If you do get one because it’s part of a cheap set, chuck it, recycle it, or donate it rather than trying to work around it. These things are a net loss to have around and a real waste of plastic.
Also, don’t bust your budget getting a stand mixer until you’re sure you like cooking. Even if you really take to the culinary arts, you may want to let your parents buy a nice one for you for Christmas.
Cooking tools are an investment, but they pay off. Not only will you take a weight off your budget–which I know sounds ironic because I just told you to drop up to $300 on cooking stuff if you don’t have a thrift store nearby–but you’ll also make friends if you can cook. And, of course, it’s considered very attractive by potential mates. ;)
Also check out our post on pantry essentials