There is one area that almost inevitably gets reduced when someone is trying to be mindful of their money: the food budget. This is one area that many people are likely to overspend on – after all, food is pleasurable for most people. One of the best ways to get more bang for your buck is to start cooking for yourself. Many people are intimidated if they have never cooked for themselves before, but it is really not too difficult to cook healthy, tasty, and thrifty meals. There are millions of recipes on the internet, and there is enough variety available that you will undoubtably find something that you like to eat that is within your skill level to make.
More on that later. Before you can start cooking, you have to have a few basic tools in your kitchen, or else you simply won’t make much progress. Different people use different tools and methods when preparing tools, but a lot of the basics are standard no matter who you are. After learning how to cook (both through my mom/grandmother/great-grandmother and by trial-and-error, as well as working in restaurants), I find that these are the tools that I turn to the most, that I find most useful, and that I feel complete my kitchen. Sure, there are plenty of meals that I can make that don’t entail the use of all of these utensils, but in order to make most any recipe, I find these tools the most important:
1. Can Opener. You have to be able to get your cans open! Canned things are typically going to give you more bang for your buck, so I suggest you pick up a can opener if you don’t already have one! This is easily available. Mine came from the local dollar tree for a dollar!
2. Measuring cups (liquid & dry)/spoons. These are completely necessary. Some recipes you can eyeball, but if you want your food to taste like the recipe, you need to be able to measure the appropriate amounts of ingridients for that recipe. Take it from my experience – a heaping tablespoon of cayenne pepper has a much different effect on chili than a heaping teaspoon! These can also be found most anywhere. You can get a complete set of cups and spoons for under $5. A liquid measuring cup can also be found for under $5 if you look around.
3. Ladle. Homemade soups are a great way to have a frugal meal that has multiple servings and freezes well. A ladle is not absolutely essential to getting the soup out of the pot, but it makes it a lot easier. You can find these anywhere for cheap, between $2-3.
4. Chef’s knife. Your chef’s knife is going to be seeing a lot of action, so this is a piece that you want to invest some money in. Still, a good sturdy knife can be found for under $25. You want to make sure that the metal is of a good weight (not flimsy) and that the piece looks like it can hold up to regular sharpenings. Many knives come with a lifetime guarantee – keep your eyes peeled for one of those!
5. Paring knife. These are cheap. They are really useful for peeling or chopping smaller vegetables. It’s also nice to have paring knives around if you need to cut something, but your chef’s knife has already been used for raw meat – a paring knife will save you the time of having to wash the chef knife. You can find a really nice paring knife for under $5, but you can get a pack of decent paring knives at Wal-Mart or a dollar store for $2-3.
6. Kitchen shears. These don’t have to be fancy, unless you are intending to cut through bones on a regular basis. They can be a pair of regular scissors – they just need to be dedicated to the kitchen. For food safety purposes, you don’t want the scissors that you used to open the packaging of a steak to be the same scissors you use later for cutting wrapping paper. You can find this for under $5 (cheaper if you do not want a high quality).
7. Whisk. A whisk is something that I don’t use all the time, but when I need it, it’s very convienent to have. Oftentimes, a fork will do the job that a whisk does quite well, but occaisionally a whisk is the better choice – like when you have thick batter or a sauce bubbling on a hot stove eye. You can pick up a good whisk for under $10 (note: I prefer a whisk with metal spokes. I’ve used others before and they are not as sturdy. I also like a medium sized whisk – a very large or very small whisk will only have certain times where it is useful).
8. Spatula. Get a good, high-melting point plastic spatula. You will use it all the time. Under $10.
9. Mixing bowls. A good set of mixing bowls is really important for combining any sorts of ingridients. I recommend a set, because oftentimes you will need a few bowls to complete a recipe. Oftentimes, you can find nicer bowls and double them as serving dishes. $20-25 new, but many times you can find them for much less on Craigslist or at yard sales.
10. Storage containers for leftovers. Same as above. You want to maxmize your returns when cooking for yourself, so you need to be able to store your food and make it easy for you to reheat and eat later. A good set will run you for $20-25 dollars, but you can find them for much cheaper by looking for them at yard sales or repurposing other containers (I have used Cool Whip bowls for years to store my soups/sauces!).
11. Cutting board(s). A decent cutting board will run about $10. You don’t have to buy the best quality, but don’t buy the cheapest either (they can get cuts/grooves in them easily and bacteria can breed). I like to have two around – one for raw meats and one for fruits/veggies. You can get away with just one, but it is much better to have two for food safety purposes.
12. Strainer. Essential for noodles or rinsing veggies, you can find a cheap one of these for $4-5. A fine mesh is good for small things (think quinoa, beans, etc) but a larger hole is better for pastas and large veggies. Be warned, if you get a cheap mesh strainer, it will rust!
13. Sauce pan. Known around my house as a “boiler”, this is a pot that will allow you to boil things and make soups and sauces. Ideally, you would have one smallish-to-medium pot for every day use, and one larger one (a “stock” pot) for when you make larger quantities, but you can get away with just a medium one in the short term, or if you rarely do bulk cooking. Expect to spend $30-45 for a decent pot. You don’t want one that is too thin on the bottom, because then you may end up with sauces that scorch on the bottom. One that is too thick will take a long time to heat up and may not conduct heat evenly. A good place to look for these items are places like Ross, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx – they have good name brands, but you don’t have to purchase the whole set.
14. Frying pan/skillet (one big and one small). Same as above. You want something that has a thick, even bottom to the pan. I prefer non-stick or Teflon, because it makes clean-up easier, but that is a personal preference. It’s nice to have one large pan for making bigger meals and a small pan for cooking eggs, or just one meal for yourself. Ross, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx all have good quality items at a reasonable price. You will probably spend about $30 for the larger pan and about $20 for the smaller.
15. Cookie sheet. Get a good quality cookie sheet. Not only can you bake cookies on this bad boy, but you can use it to broil meats and veggies – and in a pinch, it can work as a pizza pan! $10
16. 9×13 or 8×8 pan (Pyrex, metal, silicone). Excellent for baking brownies, casseroles and lasagnas, the pan is wonderful. If you mostly cook for yourself, an 8×8 pan will work best. If you routinely cook for a larger crowd or like to have a lot of leftovers, the 9×13 is your better bet. I prefer Pyrex, but any thick metal pan works just as well. I have never tried silicone, but I know that some people like them as an alternative to metal pans. $15-20.
17. Oven mitt/potholders. Dollar store! Also available from any friend who likes to knit 😉 You can find this for under $5. I suggest getting at least two for heavy dishes.
18. Tongs. Not completely necessary, a long fork will do in a pinch. However, it works well when you are trying to turn something over in a hot pan!! $5.
19. Vegetable peeler. Good for peeling vegetables (obviously) but also a good idea for thinly slicing veggies. $5.
20. Crockpot! More on this amazing appliance later. For now, let me just say that it is a busy singletons’ dream appliance, and I highly recommend anyone to get one. You can pick these up for $20-35 new, but oftentimes you can find them at garage sales cheaper.
TOTAL: $ 250 for NEW!
You could totally bust that budget if you tried. Shopping at thrift stores, garage sales, Craigslist, etc. can be a great value. Also, you can put the message out to your social network – chances are, you have some friends and relatives who would love to get rid of some kitchen utensils!
Cooking your own meals can save you a ton of money, but in order to cook, you have to have a few tools at your disposal!