Letter: Setting up your First Kitchen Recipe

101 Cookbooks readers weigh in on how to outfit and set up a first kitchen.

Letter: Setting up your First Kitchen

A couple months back I posted A Letter from an Unwilling Cook, a 60 year-old English man who was trying to find inspiration and motivation in the kitchen. I posted the letter with the hope that you (my readers) would have insight and advice to share beyond what I might tell him. The response was unbelievable - 220 comments!

I received another letter this week. This one is from Olivia, a student ready to embark on her first summer in an apartment on her own:

Hi Heidi,
I'm a college student on a meal plan, and seeing your updates gives me hope in food after another greasy cardboard-flavored meal at the dining hall. Anyways, this summer is the first of several where I'll be working an internship and have my own apartment. The whole situation is simultaneously exhilarating and daunting, especially in terms of figuring out the whole living on my own thing. Part of that is, naturally, food.

I've cooked at home plenty of times, and a few times at school after interrogating everyone I know in search of a pot or baking pan. I can make basic meals on my own and follow recipes easily, but I'm not sure about buying food--I've always worked from an already-stocked kitchen, or else just bought the ingredients for a single meal. Where do I start? What basic staples would you suggest? Thanks for any advice you've got!


I thought I would open up the discussion to all of you.
I suspect many of you have recently been in her shoes, or maybe you have kids in college that are striking out on their own for the first time. What advice, suggestions, nuggets of knowledge do you have for Olivia? I suspect general guidance, basic equipment or pantry suggestions, personal stories, names of books and the like will all be much appreciated.

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Make lists of everything you use as you go. I sort my lists by market. Supermarket, fishstore, deli etc. Save them in your computer, print each week and do inventory in your kitchen. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but once you get it going, it will save you tons of time and money. Also, I try to buy one food a week that I have never tried before. Best of Luck!


How exciting! Im just a few years ahead of you as well. In terms of your hardware, 1 med. size pot, one or two pans, a few knives (even those cheap packs of 4 steak knives work for everything), and a few other utensils is that that you NEED! I agree fully that having your basics around always is great (pasta, protein - meat, tofu, tuna??, basic condiments - oil, basic herbs and spices, etc.) You can even be creative with that as well. Quinoa or couscous instead of rice is always a very quick, healthy and delicious alternative. Frozen veggies are somtimes good, and so are frozen fries (theyre better if you make them yourself, but if youre feeling lazy its a great quick fix.) Then, you can get your produce once a week or so. Get what you think youll use in one week - bag of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, garlic, onion, some fruit, maybe a bunch of a fresh herb (its a cheap way to help out your dishes.. basil, cilantro, mint??). Milk, eggs - those are great to have around too... they come in handy all the time, yogurt maybe? And then if you need to run to the store for that one thing you forgot, lucky we live in a world where we can do that. You'll figure it out. My brother joked that I could barely boil water before my sophomore year. Im far from there now... GOOD LUCK!


Ann has great advice. For someone on limited budget and experience, start simple. Don't kill yourself to get eh best equipment out there. A good spoon, tongs, 2qt pot, 9in saute, and cookie sheet are a good start. If you have good friends: BORROW! If I had to do it all again: Beans, rice, barley, garlic, fresh greens (kale, collard, mustard) are inexpensive, nutritious and filling. It's not glamourous, but it'll keep you healthy and fed. Try also ethnic markets, the best produce/meats at reasonable prices. Re: spices - SIMPLE. Pick out what you know you will use (and like) and expand your selection as the knowledge of how to use them and the budget increase. Salt, pepper, garlic, AND grow your own herbs in pots on the window.


As a current college student that loves to cook, I understand exactly where you're coming from. First I'd suggest taking stock of how much time you'll be working, and if you'll have projects to finish at home. If you're going to be really super busy, trust me, you're not going to feel like cooking that often. If this is the case, I would suggest that you make big batches of stuff like spaghetti sauce and soup and chili and stick them in the freezer. That way, all you have to do is microwave it when you get home. If you DO feel like cooking a lot, I would go with weekly or bi-weekly shopping, that way you'll always have fresh stuff around. Also, I noticed in your letter that you're not getting a full-term lease, just one for the summer. Then you'll be moving back into the dorms (or wherever) for the school year, I'm assuming? If that's true, then I would also caution that you don't get ahead of yourself and fully stock your kitchen with cooking gear. You are definitely not going to want to haul around a set of Le Creuset when you're moving back into the dorms, and then back into an apartment, and then back... etc. Just buy the essentials (sauce pan, maybe a casserole dish, etc.), and then when you've moved into your first real 12-month lease apartment, think about expanding your collection.


The way I handled stocking my first kitchen was to pick out a few recipes that I wanted to make, and then make a grocery list of the ingredients that I would need, and a list of the tools I didn't yet have. (Alton Brown likes to call these things the software and the hardware.) That way I could be sure to only buy what I really needed, and I wouldn't have to buy everything at once. The most surprising thing to me was the cost of stocking the spice cabinet. This is one place where this tactic was especially advantageous, as about 70% of the cost of those first few meals was spent on herbs and spices.

Tyler Hunt

I second Amanda's remarks about planning a menu for the week. One of the great advantages to doing this when you're first starting out is that you don't need to worry about which staples to stock up on -- if you simply follow your menu plan and stock accordingly you will automatically end up with the staples appropriate to your eating habits. When you're in a new area I recommend shopping at a variety of stores until you're familiar with prices and quality. If you can find a good farmer's market, definitely check it out. Near me is a vast market with high-quality produce and spices that are ridiculously cheap compared to what I find at the local grocery. Get a couple of good cookbooks with very basic recipes and good advice. I highly recommend "Joy of Cooking" and "Good Housekeeping Cook Book" -- both are chock full of information about various foods and their use, storage, and preparation. Both also have an excellent selection of basic recipes. When you're starting out, the recipes are excellent for learning various cooking techniques. As your cooking skills improve, they lend themselves well to providing bases for your own recipes. Nowadays I rarely follow the recipes from either cookbook exactly, but I still find both to be indispensible references. I'd also recommend that you get one or two other cookbooks that follow a style or mode of preparation that appeals to you -- an ethnic cookbook, maybe, or something focusing on easy, quick recipes? Something with a little more flavor and creativity than "Joy" or "Housekeeping". The web, of course, is also a great reference, and I frequently use recipes from foodnetwork.com and epicurious.com, as well as blogs like this one. I generally dislike cooks.com because the recipes (which are user-submitted) are a bit heavy on the processed food for me, but if it floats your boat then by all means use it. Finally, one thing that made cooking so much easier and more pleasurable for me was a good, sharp knife. For years I got by with cheap chef's and utility knives from Ikea or the local grocery store and, while it saved a little money, it caused years of aggravation. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a good knife -- Forschner makes a chef's knife under the Victorinox name that is excellent for its price. It costs about $30 and won't last forever like a properly cared-for $100 knife will, but the difference between it and the $12 grocery-store chef's knife is like the difference between a spoon and a steak knife! Just make sure you get a block or something to store it in so you don't wreck the blade. (The paring and utility knives from the same manufacturer have been outstanding.)


Stocking is a kitchen is such a personal thing. What one person considers a basic is never used by another. So, if you find your basics are unlike anyone else's, that's normal and how it should be. And, this is true whether it's foods or tools. Gretchen's comments above are exactly how I did it. I would add to use a single cookbook as exploration, because frequently the recipes will call for the same tools, and will have a tools/staples section for the recipes in the cookbook. This, of course, isn't always true, so peruse the cookbook. The library is an excellent source of cookbooks to scout out, as are many college and university libraries. My first purchased cookbook was "The Apartment Vegetarian" by Lindsay Miller, and I completely wore it out. Your particular taste will govern what foods and tools you need.


The best advice I can give is BUY YOUR SPICES IN BULK. Find a health food/natural food store, and they will likely have their spices and dried herbs in large jars from which you can buy just a little baggie. This will infinitely enhance your cooking experience and save you tons of cash. Experimenting with seasonings is exciting and fun, but each jar at the supermarket costs at least four dollars. When you buy in bulk, the spices are probably fresher, and the amount you need might cost anywhere between fifteen cents and a dollar for something heavy like peppercorns. Seriously. Don't buy jarred spices.


- 12" Stainless steel All Clad saute pan - 6" chefs knife w/ steel - paring knife- good for cutting small things, peeling anything, etc. - serrated bread knife- will cut bagels, tomatoes, artichokes, good for choping chocolate too. - le creuset dutch oven, smaller and larger sizes - rice cooker learn a good risotto recipe- you can throw anything in it and its super easy and filling. If you can, take a beginner food class (here in NYC Institute of Culinary Education is excellent) for knife skills and time saving techniques. I agree with the single use tools, not necessary. hope this helps!


A salt mill and a pepper mill (just start by grinding your own, and never look back) at least one good knife a good cutting board one cookbook you can rely on (I suggest the Silver Palate New Basics, or Martha Stewart's Basic) a wooden spoon for stirring things your pantry should have: flour, baking soda and/or baking powder, sugar, olive oil, pasta, rice, fresh garlic (a friend who studied at CIA once told me that anything is edible when sauted in olive oil with garlic and lemon juice and I believe her), vinegar in any variety you choose (I like red wine vinegar) a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white suitable for drinking. (The Galloping Gourmet always said if it isn't fit for the cook, it isn't fit to cook with.) your refrigerator should have: butter, italian cheese of choice, cheddar cheese, olives, parsley, fresh lemons, scallions, eggs, bread, milk You should be able to cook: pasta without it being hard or mushy, biscuits from scratch, rice (ditto), eggs (scrambled, fried, baked or boiled), a grilled cheese sandwich, chocolate chip cookies from scratch, chili, mac and cheese from scratch. Anything that comes in a box, ready to reconstitute, usually isn't worth eating. That includes mashed potatoes, rice, macaroni and cheese, gravy and biscuits. The simplest food is comfort food, and once you can manage to boil an egg or saute a little garlic in olive oil to throw over pasta, you are on the road to culinary independence.

Miz Shoes

I'd suggest buying your pots and pans as you need them - with most sets, you end up with worthless pans that you rarely use. Get a rice cooker or a small crock-pot. It's an easy way to prepare food while you're doing other things. Get a good wooden or bamboo cutting board, and maybe a set of the flexible poly ones - they work great for transferring finely chopped things and can even be used as a funnel. Get a good chef's knife (The Forschner Victorinox one is good - check for it on Amazon) and a paring knife or two. Again, the sets tend to be a little heavy on stuff you won't use often. As far as things to keep on hand, I agree with what other commenters have said: it really depends on what you like. Best of luck!


Olivia, I sent my kids off to college and later, their own kitchens with a copy of THE JOY OF COOKING,(basic cooking techniques) a wok and a couple of good stainless steel pots and pans. They had had years of eating very basic whole foods, lots of lentil soup, vegetables and also brown rice, whole wheat bread. As adults they are both very good cooks and enjoy eating and sharing food. My daughter and I would find it difficult to cook w/o fresh herbs and we all follow the practice of going to the market, finding what is good looking and fresh and letting that be our inspiration. Best of luck in your new adventure! There are so many wonderful foods available now and you can take your time developing your own kitchen and batterie de cuisine. Having brown rice on hand, if you like it, is a life saver and beans of all kinds are our friends. Cheerio and happy cooking, Jones


Rice - always make extra, you can make the leftovers into fried rice. Canned black beans and red beans are great to have on hand. Frozen vegetables are a godsend. I second Amanda's comment - get some good spices, and once you start cooking things you like, your pantry will develop. give yourself the freedom to go to the store every other day if you have to -- it's better than having too many useless ingredients.


Another suggestion I would add for starting to build a pantry is to avoid 'single use' items. For me this includes some of the more exotic ingredients that I would only use once or twice. My favorite thing to do is variations on stirfry, so I just pick a meat that is on sale and looks good and a couple of veggies. Make a sauce or buy one and voila! All you need are a pot (with lid), a pan, knife, and cutting board.


I would focus on getting some quality hardware instead of quantity. A heavy dutch oven, sauce pan, and non-stick saute pan vs a cheap 25 piece set that will burn everything you cook. Also, a couple of decent knives and a sharpener. I also like to have plenty of meat and poultry in the freezer, just in case I'm not in the mood for whatever was planned. If you're only cooking for one or two, this is easy. Make sure you have some freezer bags and split up packages of meat and/or poultry when you get home from the store. This will help prevent a lot of waste and un-eaten leftovers. Good luck!


Mark Bittman recently (May 9, 2007) had an article in the NYTimes about basic kitchen equipment needs "A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks." A quick search on that site should bring it up.


Well, there are a few tips that can help this transition into solo living go smooth. 1) Get a good pot, and a good saute pan. These will seem expensive at first, but good cookware w/thick bottoms help make the cooking experience way better (and reduces the risk of burning) 2) Keep the following on hand at all time; Chicken Stock, Tomatoes, Coconut Milk, Rice, Pasta, cereal, Milk, bread and coldcuts. 3) Invite friends over to eat because; a) it's not much fun to cook for yourself b) you shouldn't allow them to "cheap out", get them to bring either the side, or salad course. From there, It's always nice to have something in the freezer that you can pull out for those days where you're wiped from work, and dont feel like going to the grocer, but it's always better to cook from fresh ingredients, so think about what you may like for dinner, and just pop into the grocer on your lunch break (it's less busy then) or on your way home, and pick up what you need for that night, and possibly tomorrow night. That way it stays fresh and new, plus you can read this website and get ideas for tomorrow's meal etc.


I'm only a few years ahead of Heidi, and I remember it well. My biggest tip is to plan your menu for the week, and then build your grocery list from that. As for staple items, mine include grains and pasta for quick meals, along with canned tomatoes, pesto, canned vegetables, canned fish, boxed stocks and broths. Flour, sugar, baking soda, packing powder, salt, butter/margarine, and olive oil. Essential, imo, is a fully stocked spice rack. Fully stocked is going to mean different things to different people. I like Mexican and Indian, so I have curry powder, cumin, chili powder, red pepper flakes, taco seasoning. I couldn't live without Penzey's Spices California Seasoned Pepper. I like to bake, so I have a cupboard of extracts (real ones!) and dutch cocoa. Then there's the oregano, the basil, the sage, etc. I could go on, but I'd really recommend thinking about what you like to eat, and developing your pantry and spice rack from there.

Amanda Robertson

When I was in this boat, my strategy was to figure out the two or three things I most wanted to eat and buy the ingredients and tools for those recipes. I think I started with spaghetti, which required a pasta pot and a saucepot, a colander, and a knife, and fajitas, which needed a saute pan and some aluminum foil (to warm the tortillas). Then I bought the food that went with those recipes. With the olive oil, the spices, the condiments, the parmigiano, and the leftovers from those meals, you can make almost any pasta dish or Mexican-style dish. For me, it was easier and cheaper to do it organically, recipe by recipe, than to plot out a massive shopping trip and go from there. And that covers you for dinners; you'll also want to have some food on hand for other times of day. We usually have cereal, milk, and yogurt on hand for breakfasts, veggies for snacking, and popcorn (which I make in a brown paper sack in the microwave so I can control the salt and fat content). And, of course, ice cream! My bottom line is that stocking a kitchen is not unlike what you've already done in putting single meals together. Just go week by week, plan out your meals in advance, and you'll accumulate what you need over time.


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