Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs: The Economics of Cooking, Part 1

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to cover a key issue on cooking: the cost.

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!

Related Posts:
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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Anonymous said...

About cutting boards you said "prefer plastic here for sanitary reasons", but I had read that wooden cutting boards are more sanitary because they kill the bacteria that develop on the surface from cutting meats (especially chicken), whereas plastic just lets it sit there an fester. There is a discussion of this topic here.

Anonymous said...

If the $125 is still too much, go to any of the following:

1. Restaurant Supply Stores that are open to the public. They can be very low price.

2. Outlet stores. But as usual, a lot of stuff is not marked down much--but some is.

3. Thrift stores and garage sales. Very cheap. Not good for nonstick--I like Revere stainless steel pans anyhow.

Anonymous said...

i came here 6yrs ago with just my clothes so when i moved out of my relative's abode 6 months after i don't own a thing. i moved in with a cousin and they also have some kitchen stuff of their own. 6 months after i finally moved into my own apartment. during this 6 months i know that i will live by myself so i have to purchase basic home stuff.after days & nights of research both online and books ( i'm a reader by the way) i made up a master list of things i think i need before moving into my own apartment. i also visited a lot of stores from walmart, outlet stores, department stores, online stores, and yard sales. before i purchase anything i compare prices and check if i'm getting a better deal from one store to another.
one thing i had in mind when i was "shopping" is to always ask myself do i need it now or can i buy it later? the internet and books are really good sources of information.
good luck.

Daniel said...

Thank you all for your comments!

We get a little deeper into the cutting board debate here:

Also, heading over to restaurant supply stores and even garage sales is a great idea for some excellent bargains. You never know what you'll find.

And yes, the internet and books are really good sources of information. :)


Sasha said...

Ooh, neat blog!

When I recently got more serious about setting up my kitchen, I got an internet subscription to Cook's Illustrated and checked out their equipment recommendations. They really do look for best value as well as performance. It simplified things vastly.

Anonymous said...

i do a lot of these things .when i worked i would make three meals on nthe weekebds and and have plenty of left overs for the whole week. for xmass i bake tons of cookies. i take one day just to measure out all the dry ingredients for each cookie and put in zip bags. i put smaller bags inside with any sugar it needs. i write on the baggie the name of the cookie and if its a single or double recipe. and i write the ingredienst that are in the bag. when i go to make each recipe it makes it so much easier to have to just add the wet ingredients.each day ill take two or more of the baggies and make the cookeis till all the bags are gone.i also keep two samller baggies on one i write , cookies to be made.and when i make the cookie i put the recipe in a baggie marked cookies really does make it go faster.

Daniel said...

Sasha, thanks for the positive vibes and for your input. That's a great suggestion.

Anon: these are interesting ideas, thanks for sharing--I'm sure they could be applied to many areas of cooking too, not just for cookies.


Anonymous said...

Some may feel squeamish about eating it, but rabbit has a fan base that grows as cooks discover how easy they are to raise — and how good the meat tastes.

Claudia said...

I'm fresh out of college and inherited pretty much everything my roommate and I have in our new apartment. Something I hadn't thought of until a few years ago (and have now inspired my boyfriend with) is to have two good frying pans of about the same size. I have this because that's what I inherited, no lids (or maybe one pan was from a thrift store). When I need a lid, which is less often than when I need two pans, I just flip one over the first and it really works perfectly as a lid.

Sally said...

Mark Bittman also wrote a good article about stocking a kitchen without spending a fortune:

I have 3 wooden cutting boards -- two small and one large. One of them was made sometime prior to 1957 for my mother by my grandfather. I wash them well with soap and water after use and bleach them only when they have a stain. They do occasionally go in the dishwasher -- usually when I'm too tired to clean them by hand. I can't think of any incidence of food-borne illness -- and I'm not as careful as you when cutting meat, especially chicken. I'm not saying I'm NOT careful, just not AS careful.

Sometime about 1975 I bought a set of Farberware Stainless pots and pans. I'm still using all of it today and it looks and cooks great. The only thing I've ever had to do is tighten a screw on one of the handles. Over the years I've added a few pieces of All Clad Stainless (all bought on special deals) that suited my changing needs, two pieces of Le Crueset and I inherited a cast iron skillet.

When I started watching TV cooking shows, I started paying attention to what the TV cooks/chefs were using. Not so much the brands (because many hawk their own brands), but the actual pieces. With a few exceptions, very few use any electric appliances. Food processors, blenders, ice cream makers and juicers seem to be the biggest exceptions.

Few use microwaves routinely, or slow cookers or pressure cookers. All are handy and have their place in the kitchen, but do you really need them? I currently don't have a microwave or a pressure cooker, but I use my slow cooker regularly.

Daniel said...

I agree with you Sally, these items aren't necessary, at least when you're initially setting up a kitchen. Good thoughts.

I also wrote a post on celebrity chef-branded cookware, making the case that it was very rarely worth the extra money.

And Claudia, thank you for your thoughts! That's minimalism at its finest, isn't it?

What other insights do readers have?


Anonymous said...

I litter-ally inherited my kitchenware after my grandmother died just before I moved into my first apartment. She was looking after me, I know it.

Nothing was fancy, but it was good enough to work with, and as I got married ( yippie registries) and saved up for the things I wanted to upgrade it has been a good way to economize. Lots of the original stuff is now in the camping pile, but we still use it. A cookie sheet or a pyrex baking dish are pretty straight forward.

Until you explode the pyrex in the oven. Pyrex isn't recyclable if you were wondering. . .

chacha1 said...

I love stuff like this because it really does blow up the "it's too expensive to cook at home" whining. I wrote a post about setting up a kitchen, including appliances!, for under $1000. It can be done.

DH and I are still using a rice cooker he inherited from his Mom when he moved out. That would be 30 years ago. :-) And I still use a stockpot inherited from *my* Mom when *I* moved out. My coffeemaker was free from Gevalia and my grinder was free from Green Mountain.

Living with a hideously inefficient oven for 8 years, I have developed so many workarounds that there is a good chance I will not even install one when we get our retirement property.

Preconceptions about what a kitchen needs to be - reinforced by pervasive and attractive marketing - are largely responsible, I think, for the massive overestimation of how much it needs to cost to set up as a home cook.