There are two primary types of costs you'll bump into when you try and cook: 1) setup costs and 2) food costs. I'll cover the economics of food costs in a later post. I want to tackle the issue of setup costs first because they seem to be the primary stumbling block for most of our friends.
If you only focus on straight meal costs, cooking at home just crushes buying prepared food or eating out. But for many people the total setup cost for all of your kitchen gear is an entirely different matter. If you buy the wrong stuff, aren't sure what to buy, or pay too much for what you do buy, it can suck all the fun out of cooking for years. I won't even talk about the worst of all worlds: you return from the grocery store, arms filled with produce and mind filled with enthusiasm about the meal you are about to cook--and you discover you don't have the right &^*$% equipment to make the dish. Believe me, I've been there.
What I hope to show you today is that it’s NOT that expensive, complicated or even time consuming to set up a basic kitchen. I'll give some good advice on what basics you'll need and what you likely won't need. And you won't get hammered in the wallet after it's all over.
I'm confident that you'll find the economics of cooking at home to be insanely compelling if you are prudent about what you spend and then actually use your gear regularly. Keep at it. You'll get so good at cooking that, at a fraction of the cost, you'll be making better food at home than anything you can buy at the store OR in a restaurant.
The 80/20 Rule
My wife and I have a small kitchen crammed full of all sorts of dishes and pots and pans and tools. But our kitchen obeys a sort of an 80/20 rule where we do the vast majority of our cooking with a surprisingly small percentage of our equipment.
To stock a basic kitchen with enough tools and equipment to cook most things, you will need:
- Pots and Pans: at a minimum you’ll need: 1) a medium saucepan (say 4 quart size), 2) a large stock pot/soup pot, and 3) a fairly deep (say 4 quart) non-stick frying pan with a lid (~$40.00 for a set of these by Silverstone at Wal-Mart)
- A few sharp knives (cheaper ones are okay for now—a Ginsu 15 piece set of more knives than you'll ever use costs ~$20.00 at Wal-Mart, if you just buy a couple of inexpensive individual knives probably less)
- A set of measuring cups and measuring spoons (~$15.00 for an entire set at Wal-Mart)
- 2-3 mixing bowls (small, medium and large, can be cheap plastic) (~$7.50)
- A 1.5 quart Corningware casserole dish (~$15.00)
- A cheap cutting board (can have two, one for meat and one for veggies), prefer plastic here for sanitary reasons (~$5.00)
- 2 cheap spatulas, 2 ladles, 2 serving spoons, a rubberscraper, a can opener, etc (all of these can be bought VERY cheaply at your local grocery store) (~$20.00)
$125-$150 or less
All together this will run you maybe $125 to $150. I used Wal-Mart website prices not because I’m commanding you to shop there, but more just for a reasonable cut at sample pricing. You might find stores charging more or less. And yes, you’ll also obviously need plates, silverware and glasses too, but again, these can be had very cheaply at any discount retailer. Save the fancy china and silver-plated utensils for later in life.
In terms of time it will only take you maybe an hour or two to hit a big box retailer and your local grocery store and pick up all of this stuff. All in, this is about equal to the cost (and time for that matter) of one nice restaurant dinner for two with a good bottle of wine.
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list. You’ll find what you need in YOUR kitchen as you go along and cook the recipes that catch your eye. But my point is that it’s not that expensive to get yourself totally set up to cook the vast majority of meals that will hit your kitchen. And in less than one year you’ll have amortized the total cost of all your new gear over at least 100 meals (assumes you cook twice or more a week), thus the initial $125 to $150 startup costs will become an irrelevancy compared to the savings you’re generating each time you cook.
Thank you China!
It’s a lot less expensive to set up a kitchen these days that it was when I finished school and moved out on my own. Now that we live in the days of Wal-Mart and inexpensive goods imported from China, you can stock a basic kitchen surprisingly cheaply. Honestly, when I did my own due diligence on prices in preparation for was writing this post, I was stunned at how inexpensive things were. Basically most stuff costs less now than when I was first stocking my kitchen in the early 1990s—and I’m not even adjusting for inflation…! A textbook example: my mother bought me a 10 piece set of RevereWare Aluminum Disk Bottom Pans (what Revere now calls Tri-Ply Bottom) in 1990 for $149.99. I just checked the Revere website and guess what? The same thing now costs only $119.99. That's after 17 years. What happened to inflation??
It’s only when you get sidetracked to Crate & Barrel or Macy’s and you find yourself surrounded by Calphalon or Swiss Diamond pots and pans that you’ll get hammered in the wallet. Stay out of those stores and don’t bother to pay up for that stuff. It’s just not worth it.
Another idea is to "inherit" your kitchenware: I’m actually not joking about this. When I finished school and moved out on my own, my mother gave me some cast-offs from her kitchen that she didn't need anymore. I got her old measuring spoons, some ladles and serving spoons, a Corningware casserole dish, baking sheets and some other baking pans and measuring cups. Most of this stuff I'm still using 16 years later.
When I was 20-21 and totally broke, I also “borrowed” a set of industrial-strength plates, glasses and silverware from the Cornell University dining halls, all of which lasted me eight years before my wife put her foot down and got us new stuff. :) Furthermore, many people consider their cookware to be just another fashion item, to be cast off when the next season rolls around. If you have family or friends who think like this, try and take advantage--and save some landfill space too. Don't worry: my point here isn't to persuade you to steal silverware or stand between your parents and their cast-off bin. But if you are a bit creative you can save even more money so that cooking at home makes even more sense.
Buy some good stuff down the road
Later, I'll dedicate a post to helping you buy "good stuff" for your kitchen. Today's post is just to get you started so that cooking is easy, cheap, and most importantly, easy on your wallet. Down the road I'll give some examples of where it can be worth it to pay up for gear, especially if it helps you enjoy cooking even more. I'll share some examples of good stuff we've bought that turned out to be worth it many times over. And I'll also talk about a disagreement my wife and I had on whether to pay up for some expensive knives. Laura, you were right all along! I can admit it now.
Nobody NEEDS a George Foreman Grill
But the fundamental truth I want you to keep in mind is that there is a lot of expensive crap out there that you DON’T need. Nobody needs a George Foreman Grill, a Salad Shooter, or $100 wok, or even a $250 5-piece set of Le Creuset stoneware, and you don’t need a $120 fondue set (especially if you hate fondue like I do...). Yes, of course you can buy these things if you really want them. You won't get any annoying exhortations from me to save money (there's plenty of that kind of advice here, here and here). My main message is don't buy a ton of overpriced gear and then expect to "save money" by cooking.
Good luck! Go on out there and get started!
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
A Recession-Proof Guide to Saving Money on Food
Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings
Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule
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