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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Having lived off-campus for much of my undergrad and all my grad years, and being a huge cooking enthusiast I have some absolute must have items: a good chef's knife and paring knife - use them everyday, as well as a sharpener, knives are only good if they are sharp. couple good pots and pans, and at least one non-stick for eggs... pyrex baking dish (can be used for everything from brownies to roasted vegetables) spatula immersion blender garlic press cutting board as for food: I like to keep fresh fruit and vegetables close by, chickpeas, canned tuna, chicken, can be added to salads or pasta for a quick dose of protein never be without: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper finally - i try to experiment, the very worst that happens in the kitchen is that while disappointing if whatever you make is awful, you throw it out and start again (or revert for the night back to college days and order pizza)


The comments already posted certainly tell you enough about how to select and buy the proper equipment and food items for starting your kitchen. My addition is this piece of advice which helped me when I was first learning to cook (not that many years ago) - "If you like most of the ingredients you're putting in the dish, you will probably like the dish." This has led me to many experimental dishes, most were good and only a few bad (venison in a cream sauce, uck!) Also, try and remember that food and cooking do not have to be complicated. Buy fresh food while in season from a local CSA or Farmers Market. For example, right now I cannot get enough asparagus. I chop it into chunks, add to the top of a pile of rice and season with salt and pepper. Simple and delicious. Putting together foods that taste good is not a bad way to begin the lifelong process of learning to cook. Lastly - HAVE FUN! Do not take yourself too seriously in the kitchen. If you mess up something, it is really okay. I warn dinner guests when I am experimenting with a new recipe. But I like to live dangerously...


I agree with just about every piece of advice that has already been given so some of my suggestions will definitely be repeats, but here goes after I beg you to carefully consider the use of non-stick cookware. If you choose to use it, follow the instructions about proper use, especially in regards to heat levels and what kinds of utensils to use. Buy one from a reputable vendor, not a cheapo one. People cooked extremely wonderful food for a very long time without non-stick cookware and it can still be done. That said, it sure makes things a lot easier, just get a good one. What kind of budget you are on will definitely influence how much you can spend on things like cookware, knives, and gadgets. There are some decent lines out there that are not name brands and don't cost as much, such as Lodge (for cast iron) or even going to Macy's or IKEA for their in-house brands. I have collected many different pieces of brand name cookware over the years, but darn-it-all, I still occasionally use most of the pieces I got in that Revereware copper-bottom 10 pc set that I bought at a warehouse sale 25+ years ago. They boil eggs and pasta just fine, so if budget is a concern, don't let the brand name prices intimidate you. Good knives are even more important and a Chef's knife and paring knife are the most essential. More importantly though is keeping them sharp. Invest in a sharpener and learn how to use it properly. It doesn't matter how expensive it was originally, it won't cut nuthin if it's dull. Several cutting boards in both wood and polyurethane for food safety reasons. A couple of good quality whisks are helpful too. I couldn't agree more that planning your weeks menu will be really helpful. You will know how much and what to buy and cut down on waste. It will also allow you to incorporate leftovers in later meals (grilled chicken from dinner tastes great on a salad the next day). And you can pick up staples as you need them, thereby cutting down on the up front expense. If you are able, buy your spices and staples from a bulk source. No, I don't mean buy a lot, quite the opposite. Especially if you are single or only cooking for a small number of people, buying only what you will need for the next few weeks or months (depending on the item) will ensure that your food is fresh. Spices, oils and flour. etc. do have a shelf life and there is nothing more disappointing or embarrassing than being ready to cook and finding that one of your ingredients have gone bad. The ability to buy bulk will depend on the stores available to you, but you can buy small quantities of spices online. I find I go to my Fanny Farmer cookbook for a lot of basic stuff, and Heidi's cookbook is a must of course! Good luck, have fun and bon appetit!


Remember to get aluminum foil, ziploc bags, parchment paper (if you're going to do much baking) and some kind of storage containers--the plastic reusable disposable ones might be a reasonable affordable start. A well-stocked pantry is a great thing to have, but what "well-stocked" means for you depends quite a bit on your personal taste. But these might help you think about what you want to have around. For cooking: olive oil, and a neutral oil such as grapeseed, canola, or vegetable oil, vinegar (champagne, balsamic, red wine, rice ), soy sauce, some kind of hot sauce, dry pasta, rice, couscous (bulgur, barley, quinoa are also good options), canned and/or dry beans (chickpeas, black beans, pinto, white beans, lentils), frozen edamame and peas, canned tomatoes (Muir Glen organic fire roasted are good), capers (salt packed rather than brined), salt (kosher or sea salt is nice), black pepper. Parmigiano reggiano is a good thing to splurge on. Fresh garlic and onions keep well (potatoes and sweet potatoes are almost in this category, but too many can go bad in a one-person household). Dried mushrooms are another nice thing to have around. A lemon or two, and maybe a lime, and a piece of ginger. Other things you should buy as needed (fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, yogurt, eggs, fresh herbs, bread, tortillas, etc.). Spices: crushed red pepper flakes, rosemary, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, coriander, bay leaves (depending on what you like, this list can go on and on, but buy as you need them...) For baking: flour, sugar, brown sugar, butter (can be stored in the freezer), baking powder (Rumford in the red can is aluminum free and tastes better), baking soda, vanilla extract. Cocoa powder (dutched or natural), cornmeal, oats, other flours if you'll use them. Dried fruits, such as raisins, currants, apricots, cranberries, cherries, dates can be nice. Buy nuts, if you're so inclined, as you need them and store extras in the freezer. Store whole grain flours in the refrigerator or freezer. Other sweeteners such as maple syrup and honey can be nice (for the more adventurous there are also barley syrup, rice syrup, stevia, agave nectar, etc. to consider). You don't need all of this at once. If you're only in an apartment for a few months, a full pantry may be overkill, but make sure you always have *something* you can make for dinner in under an hour--whether that's peanut butter and jelly or pasta and olive oil and parmesan or beans and rice or chickpeas in marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. You'll figure out what works for how you cook as you go.


Whoops! Sorry for the double post. Anyway, I think what you should do is think about your previous kitchen experience, which was likely your parents' kitchen. Try to remember what food you cooked most often, what ingredients you wished they had, what pots/pans/utensils you used most often. This will give you a good idea of what you will actually use, not what you think you should use. I also would not spend much time perusing other people's grocery lists because only you know what you like. I agree with other people who suggested buying things as you need them. Otherwise you end up in that frustrating situation of having a full pantry yet feeling like there is nothing you want to eat. You may find cooking difficult for the first few weeks as you notice what's missing from your kitchen but you also won't waste money buying items you don't use. Since you are cooking for one you will always have leftovers because most recipes are meant to feed larger numbers. Plus, making extra food means having to cook less often! Therefore you may as well buy some good tupperware for storing and freezing leftovers. Have fun settling in!


If you only want one cookbook get either the Joy of Cooking or Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything or, my personal favorite, Barefoot Contessa (the first one). Any of these plus a saute pan, a dutch oven, and two great knives (one paring, one santoku) and you're really set. The farmers markets are your friend -- go whenever you can and you'll get into good habits as well as feeling very zen as you wander through them if you're not in a rush. Good luck!


Heidi-- what a fabulous idea this is! I would like to go on record as saying that much of cooking equipment comes from shopping excursions at second hand stores like Salvation Army and he like. None of my "le creset" is that brand, it's an earlier version of enamel cast iron, DESCAUX. I agree that a few excellent pans are necessary, but one need not buy them brand new. any cast iron pot can be refinished and reseasoned in fact. Think about what your staples are and buy them in bulk. Put money into good glass or excellent tupperware containers for easy/safe storage. I find this makes it easier to cook because I can see all that I have. My favorite basic cookbooks, tried and true are Silver Palate and The Breakfast Book. I don't follow recipes for savory foods but I find that if I have an onion, olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper and one favorite vinegar in the house all I need is some protein and a veg to make a meal easily. I agree with buying spices in bulk. Or set up a tiny one window ledge fresh herb garden. With even a small amount of sunlight you could have rosemary, thyme and parsley leaves. Best of luck, Olivia. And we'd all love to hear back how these comments helped, or what your first meals were!

shuna fish lydon

I was in a sort of similar situation a few years back, in that I moved to Chicago from England, and obviously, I wasn't bringing over pots and pans and wooden spoons in my two suitcases! So I had to start from scratch, and it was things I had in England that I couldn't get here that I missed the most. Like a sandwich toaster (had to wait about three years before I found one of those), and worst of all, an electric kettle! After much searching I found one, and it's my lifesaver. When it came to setting up my kitchen, I have to admit that I didn't really go for quality, I hit the dollar shop for a lot of my tools of trade, and I'm proud to say most of them are still functioning, like the measuring cups. Unfortunately my pizza cutter finally died last year - it was one slice too many for the fella! I've found though, that like many other posters here, I stock my kitchen as I go along. My latest purchase was a rice cooker last year, which doubles as a steamer and I wish I'd bought it years earlier. As for ingredients, go with the weekly menu list - or if you live in a city, and your arms can't carry that much food, aim for at least three meals' worth. You'll find you always over-buy, and that's ingredients for next week or the week after. My staples are definitely English-centric though: malt vinegar, teabags, cadbury's chocolate, and marmite. Not sure that helpful, but part of survival is being able to smile, and a marmite sandwich, cuppa tea and vinegar on my chips, definitely does that!


My personal experience in stocking a kitchen was pretty mishmash: I inherited a lot of pots, pans, and canned vegetables from my mother when I was moving out, but I soon figured out that was just a good starting place. I found myself a heavy, non-stick and reasonably-priced Wok at CostCo about four years ago (and they still have it available, at last look), and that's been my favorite pot ever: It's deep enough to accommodate about a gallon or so of pumpkin curry soup when I caught the wild idea to make it, and it's fabulous for stir fry and so on. I'd honestly suggest looking for something like it, in that it's a multi-purpose pan that I use tirelessly. As for things to stock in the kitchen: I believe in keeping on-hand things like extra-virgin olive oil, fresh garlic heads hanging in the pantry or cupboards, pasta, dried rice, beans, and barley, and your favorite kind of canned broth. (My tastes vary, so I always keep organic beef, chicken, and vegetable broths in my pantry.) Any canned versions of her favorite vegetables, canned tomatoes and/or tomato paste are also a must in my opinion, but I tend toward a slightly Italian bent in my cooking. Balsamic vinegar is a favorite of mine, but I would at least keep a large bottle of white vinegar around. Get some salt, pepper, and I might suggest getting one of those starter racks that come with their own spices: They won't be the best quality, but they will let her get an idea of what the 'basic' spices are, as well as what she does and doesn't like. Aside from that... The week to week suggestion is definitely the best one. It'll help spread out the cost of stocking food, and it'll assist in not getting overwhelmed.


I have learned how to cook for one. Reuse it through the week. It might sound like you’ll get sick of eating the same base through the week but I’m on a tight budget- so I don’t mind just adding different flavors. One- citrus chicken with green beans and almonds. Two-Kabobs (Pepper and Onion in between) Three- fajitas in tortilla shells. (onion, pepper, salsa- maybe even guacamole) Four- chicken salad (Romaine lettuce seems to last the longest) I personally like ranch dressing with some French fries! Five- chicken salad for a burrito (see using the tortilla shell again) --mix almonds (left over from the green beans), dijon mustard, red peppers (what you didn’t cook from fajitas), grapes, red pepper flakes, mayo, curry powder – to extend your individual ingredients shelf life just change peppers to pickled peppers and grapes to raisins. Next week experiment using turkey sausage in pasta and omelets.


I agree with everyone's comments for the most part. What I would add is: If you're in an area that has great farmer's markets, check them out. You'll get more "bang for your buck" in terms of taste and freshness. Along the same lines, if you have really wonderful tasting stuff from the farmer's market, then you won't need a lot of seasoning. Essentials, in my opinion, are good sea salt (you can usually get it in the bulk section of good grocery stores and only costs a few cents), freshly ground pepper (absolutely a must! invest in an inexpensive pepper grinder.... you won't regret it), and good olive oil (this can be pricey, but can sometimes be found in bulk which is more economical, or Trader Joe's if you have one nearby). Use your own taste to warrant what other seasonings you buy. These suggestions will take you far on a very little money to begin with.


Check out this link for one person's creative solution to a quick, healthy and cheap week's worth of meals. http://www.kuro5hin.org/?op=displaystory;sid=2002/4/29/22137/6511 You may not want to do this EVERY week, but I think it's a good simple plan to get started with, especially for a college student who's on a budget and a schedule. If you use this same way of thinking, you can slowly get a bit more creative with your uses of leftover rice, meat, and pasta. Heidi has some great examples on this site like her Ravioli Pasta salad, Asparagus and Brown Rice and Curried Noodle patties. All of these require mainly basic ingredients, easily accomodate leftovers, take little time to prepare and can be used as a food "template" to create your own recipes based on the ingredients you have on hand.


Can't believe no one has suggested the Gourmet Magazine Cookbook (the big yellow one). We call it the "Gourmet Bible" at our house. There is something for every skill level and taste in that sucker. If money is tight, a good cast iron skillet can be found at garage sale/thrift store for pretty cheap. They can be a problem with sticking if not seasoned well. They retain heat very well and don't warp like their cheap nonstick counterparts. A set of wooden spoons and some tupperware to store leftovers in are essential items I bought when I moved out on my own.


Hey Olivia! I am still in this boat, having just turned 23 with a few years of college left to go. I agree with the other advice, however I wanted to instill you with few other tidbits that help me out. 1) When shopping, make a list. This not only helps you remember what you're buying, but it helps you stay in your food budget as well. 2) Left-overs can be your greatest ally. If you cook slightly larger meals (casseroles, soups, chili, stew, etc.) then you can freeze individual servings and pull out a yummy meal as needed. This was always great for me because you don't have to cook as often (fabulous during finals week!) and it saves you money because it usually costs more to buy individual sized portions. **Invest in freezable containers that can go from the freezer to the microwave** 3) Canned, condensed soup has a huge variety of uses, and most of them are right on the back of the label! Some of my best recipies have it in them and when people find that out they are amazed that it tasted so good! That's about it! Just remember, don't get discouraged at first. Experience is a great teacher and you have to find out what works for you. Good Luck!


As a not too long out of college graduate, who just converted from my college kitchen wear to the wedding gift kitchen ware, my big tip would be garage sales and goodwills. I bet you can find every kitchen appliance and tool you could possibly need there. As for cookbooks, I found a lot of them daunting. But I recommend a book called "cooking for 2 or just you" it has a lot of smaller recipes in it, plus she recommends the staples for your pantry. 7 years after my first apt, I'm still building spices, etc. And almost all of her recipes are insanely easy and only need a few ingredients and are easily adaptable if you don't have what she calls for. Rachel Ray express lane eating has a good staples list as well, but a caution with her recipes that they are never as easy as they seem and I've almost never completed one in 30 minutes. Savingdinner.com is also pretty great, it has healthy, fairly simple recipes that you can check out the sample menus, and get them in portion sizes you need. I also highly recommend a toaster oven and a george forman grill (the small $20 kind which you can probably find at a garage sale) but when cooking for one, you can make almost anything you need in those. And if you don't buy any other spices, buy garlic. For the first year I had my own apt, I pretty much only used, garlic, salt, pepper, minced onions and italian seasoning it will season just about anything.


Canned tomatoes--I put them in everything, from homemade pasta sauce to chili to eggs ... Canned tuna is a good versatile staple, too. And going on with cans, I also tend to keep canned black beans and kidney beans around. In the freezer, frozen peas and spinach. In the fridge, good cheese (parm and a microplane to grate it, some nice sharp cheddar), eggs, milk (soy, even), Dijon mustard, and butter (okay, I use Smart Balance). In the cabinets, besides the regular kosher salt and pepper grinder, there's Worcestershire sauce, extra virgin olive oil, and canola oil (because I bake a lot). And I always have a couple onions and head of garlic handy, complete with a good knife (I agree with a previous comment about the Forschner--I have one that lives permanently in my knife kit), and a good cutting board to go with (I have a few colored plastic, flexible ones). And of course, a good pot that comes with a good lid--if you do a lot of pasta, make it sizeable so you don't end up with a starchy mess. A nonstick saute pan would be my next buy, then a nice stainless steel saucier with a lid so I can go from stovetop to oven in one fell swoop. Wooden spoons for stirring, especially in your nonstick.


Can't believe no one has suggested the Gourmet Magazine Cookbook (the big yellow one). We call it the "Gourmet Bible" at our house. There is something for every skill level and taste in that sucker. If money is tight, a good cast iron skillet can be found at garage sale/thrift store for pretty cheap. They can be a problem with sticking if not seasoned well. They retain heat very well and don't warp like their cheap nonstick counterparts. A set of wooden spoons and some tupperware to store leftovers in are essential items I bought when I moved out on my own.


I find myself in the same situation at this very moment - I just got a new apartment and need to stock the kitchen. My mom (who, needless to say, is a wonderful cook) took me to the store to help me buy the essentials - olive oil, spices, flour, sugar, cereal, etc. Now that the essentials are out of the way, the time has come for me to prepare my menu for the week (which is a tip that I received from my dad). Planning it out ahead of time has been a huge benefit - it allows flexibility (being able to choose between meals throughout the week) and doesn't drain the budget (since only what you *need* is being purchased). Plus, with all of the left-overs (at least in my case) I haven't had to eat out as much :-) Another thing that is keeping me well prepared is by using the numerous recipe resources available online. I check out my "Recipes" tab on my iGoogle everyday. The good ones are tagged in my http://del.icio.us account for future reference. So, at the beginning of every week, I'll spend a few minutes in front of my computer reviewing recipes that I tagged the week prior to help me decide what I what I will prepare that week. Anyways, I hope everything goes well with your new apartment :-)

Brian Fryer

Spices in bulk, quality cookware and your favorite foods- you've already received some wonderful guidance from fellow foodies. I love eating with friends, and one way to quickly build your pantry and have a great time is to have "ingredient-potluck" dinner gatherings. Plan a menu, as simple or elaborate as you wish, and then ask each guest to bring a couple of the ingredients. Some you'll use all at once (veggies, meats) and others you'll be able to enjoy for many meals to come (one really good vinegar can bring so much joy. . .) Have a fabulous and delicious time in your new kitchen!


I agree with buying pots and pans as you need them. However, when you talk with friends and relatives about getting your own place, you may find you get a lot of offers of gifts. Most of my kitchen (I've been on my own for 10 years, now, but luckily was never forced into meal plans as the student housing has kitchens were I went to school) came from extras from relatives. I found that if I needed something unusual for a particular recipe, I just put it on the shopping list along with the ingredients. As for food, what you buy will depend upon what you like to eat. I know this seems like a sort of obvious statement, but the implications might not be clear: you do not need to "stock" your kitchen in any one particular way. Buy a few ingredients as you need them for recipes, find the best stores near where you live and add on slowly. You'll eventually find that while you experiment with different recipes you also have a few "old favourites" that you'll always want to be able to make. Over a couple of months, your kitchen will be fully stocked. (Then, you can discover the joy of moving a kitchen full of stuff!)


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