These 16 essential tools are the only ones you need to get started in your new place.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
August 09, 2020
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Getty Images/Aleksandr Zubkov

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

Whether you are headed back to college and living off campus for the first time or just moving into your first apartment, it can seem like there are a lot of things to figure out. One of the biggest changes for people living on their own is making (or, in some cases, buying) all of their own meals. The first step to being kitchen savvy in your new place is to make sure you have the tools you need to set yourself up for success. These are the essential kitchen tools you need to stock your first apartment. 

Trust me, there are few things worse than having everything almost ready for dinner then realizing you don’t have a sheet pan that will fit all of your veggies or a food processor to make pesto for you. This may seem like a long list but with these kitchen tools, you’ll be able to make almost anything, as you become more experienced in the kitchen. 

Chef’s Knife 

First things first, you need a quality knife to cook. Once you have one, you will never go back to chopping vegetables with a steak knife again (it’s ok, I didn’t know either). Though there are several really cheap knife options out there, this one is worth a slight splurge for better quality. Try this one for $33.93 on Amazon.com. To really up your knife game, throw in a paring knife (from $10.63, Amazon.com) for smaller tasks and a serrated knife (from $15.97, Amazon.com) for foods like bread and meat as well. 

Cutting Board

Whether you go the plastic or wooden route (my personal favorite is wooden), make sure you get a sturdier one with some grip, like this set for $18 on Amazon.com. Bonus: it’s dishwasher safe. Beyond a place to chop, I use my cutting board as a full-on staging area whenever I am cooking. I set out my ingredients in the order in which I’ll use them. This helps me stay on track with the steps of the recipe without having to check it every 30 seconds. 

If you have the space, it can be worthwhile to have a few different cutting boards—having one that’s just for raw meat or fish can be helpful to prevent cross contamination. However, if you only have the budget or space for one, just be sure to wash it thoroughly between uses. 

Skillet 

From a quick egg sandwich for your walk to class to a stir fry dinner, a good skillet will be one of your most-loved kitchen tools. Try to get a small one and a large one, like this set from Amazon.com (from $42.99), so you can choose which best fits what you are making. Though any type of material will work, I would highly recommend a cast iron pan if it is in your budget. If you learn how to season and take care of them, they will last forever and cook your food evenly every time. 

Pots 

Just as a spoiler, pasta is probably in your future if it is your first time living on your own. Also, nothing warms you up like soup when you start paying your own heating bill. Similar to skillets, pots are super versatile and make the top of the list when talking kitchen essentials. Opt for a few sizes, with at least a small and large option, so you aren’t making sauce in a huge pan or overfilling a small pot with boiling noodles or rice. This Cook N Home Stainless Steel Pot has over 2,400 five-star reviews on Amazon.com (buy it: from $34.99). 

Pro tip: make sure to buy pots with lids. Not only will this help your water heat up faster, but also they can double as a strainer in a pinch. Or if something finishes cooking a little too early, throwing a lid on top will help keep it warm off the heat, so it doesn’t overcook while you finish up everything else. 

Mixing bowls 

When recipes call for root vegetables to be tossed in oil before roasting, or to toss a salad in dressing before serving, you should actually do it. Not to worry, there are mixing bowls for that. One mixing bowl may be enough to get by if you are quick with doing the dishes, but this Pyrex Smart Essentials set (Buy it: from $42, Amazon.com) is one of my most prized possessions and is worth the splurge. Oh, and did I mention homemade cookies? 

Measuring cups, spoons & liquid measure

Especially if you get into any sort of baking, being able to actually measure ingredients will give you a much friendlier introduction into cooking at home. Trust me, a tablespoon and teaspoon are actually quite different (by about three times, to be exact). Measuring helps you take the guesswork out of what you are cooking to help get the flavors the recipe author intended. I prefer metal over the plastic ones so that the numbers on the handles don’t fade (from TK on Amazon.com). 

Another great cooking basic to know, never use a solid measure, like a measuring cup, for a liquid. Since liquids are different densities than solid foods, they require a liquid measuring tool, like this Pyrex 2-Cup Measuring Cup on Amazon.com (from $15.45)

Rubber spatula, wooden spoon & ladle

Get flipping, stirring, scooping and turning with these essential kitchen tools. Think of these as being an extension of your hand, so you can keep a close eye on food as it cooks. Also ladles make it easy, safe and mess-free to serve foods like soup or pasta sauce (repeat after me: do not try and pour from a pot). This Home Hero set on Amazon.com (from $26.99) has over 2,300 five-star reviews. 

Metal tongs

Flipping meats, vegetables, tofu and more just got a whole lot easier. Especially if you are lucky enough to have access to a grill, tongs are a much-needed kitchen tool. May I suggest this Chicken Piccata to test out your new $5 Lyxa metal tongs from Amazon.com

Whisk 

One quick culinary upgrade to impress your friends is by making your own homemade salad dressings and marinades. Simply add all ingredients into your handy mixing bowl or Pyrex measuring dish until smooth and enjoy. A whisk doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive, this $10 OXO Good Grips from Amazon.com will do the trick. 

Strainer 

Though you are aware of the handy lid trick with pots, using a strainer can be safer for pastas and also helps you clean berries and vegetables thoroughly before eating. Vegetables grow in the dirt, so it’s not out of the question for them to have some dirt on them, which is no sweat if you have a strainer like this $12 Stainless Steel Colander from Amazon.com

Microplane or box grater 

Two words: shredded cheese. Also, you actually should use lemon and lime zest when it is called for in a recipe. You can splurge with an all-purpose box grater (from $19.99, Amazon.com) or keep it simple with an affordable microplane (from $10, Amazon.com). 

9x13 baking dish 

This is far and away the most commonly used size baking dish. From casseroles to cakes, you’ll be glad to have this in your cupboard. Even if you are cooking for one, several casserole recipes make great leftovers. One of my personal favorites is our 25-Minute Chicken & Vegetable Enchiladas. Throw an egg on it and call it breakfast. You can get as fancy as you want with a baking dish, but one like this OXO Good Grips Freezer-to-Oven Safe Glass Baking Dish (from $20, Amazon.com) will do the trick. 

Sheet pan 

Sheet pans are a must have if perfectly roasted root vegetables, chocolatey cookies or minimal clean-up dinners interest you at all. We say yes to all three. Having a large rimmed sheet pan, like this stainless steel baking tray for $19.99 on Amazon.com, will allow you to roast anything you need without it running over the edge. 

Can opener 

There’s not much to be said for this one other than a Swiss Army Knife will not work, you can take my word for this one. Plus, several canned foods like beans and diced tomatoes are super affordable and nutritious for weeknight meals in a pinch. Get yours for $13.99 on Amazon.com

Blender 

When you think of blenders, you may just think of smoothies. But they are much more versatile than that. I puree salsas, sauces and batters in my blender as well. The vortex shape pulls solids down towards the blades to give you an even, smooth texture every time. Better yet, to clean, simply add hot water and dish soap, and run on high for 20 seconds. Rinse and it’s ready for another use. For more, check out the best blenders according to our Test Kitchen

Instant-read thermometer

Last but not least, it is worth the $13.99 to get an instant-read thermometer, like this one from Amazon.com, for your new kitchen. Say goodbye to slicing meat and guessing the doneness (or not and hoping for the best). This will help you get a perfect medium rare steak or cooked-through chicken breast every time with a click of a button. I can’t believe it took me so long to get one of these, and wish I had it sooner. 

Bottom Line 

Moving into your first apartment can be full of surprises, but the kitchen doesn’t have to be one of them. These essential kitchen tools will cover you for your basic cooking needs and beyond to keep you well-fed and ready for the new school year (or a new job). For more on how to cook on the cheap, check out our Budget Cooking Guide.