How to Set Up Your First Kitchen

A list of basic equipment, supplies and pantry items that are essential in a first kitchen

For many college students, living off campus means they will have their first experience attempting to cook for themselves in their very first apartment kitchen. If you’re a kitchen newbie, it can be hard to know how to equip your kitchen on a relatively small budget — let alone what to cook once you’re in there.

If you are starting from scratch, without a spatula to your name, here’s a checklist of essential equipment. Remember to look in secondhand stores such as Goodwill and Salvation Army as many of these can be found for cheap. IKEA is also a great place to shop for the essentials.

A Checklist of Essential Kitchen Equipment

Once you have the essential dinnerware — dinner plates, soup bowls and cereal bowls, a flatware set, beverage glasses, and coffee mugs — here are a few pieces of basic equipment you’ll need.

  • A small paring knife
  • A large chef’s knife
  • A silicone spatula
  • A wooden spoon
  • A whisk
  • A grater
  • A medium soup pot
  • A large sauté pan or wok
  • A small nonstick skillet (for eggs)
  • A baking sheet (for roasting chicken/vegetables)
  • A large mixing bowl
  • A small mixing bowl
  • A glass 8″ square dish (for roasting chicken/vegetables)
  • A measuring cup and measuring spoon set
  • A colander (for draining pasta and rinsing vegetables)
  • 2 cutting boards (one for vegetables; one for meat)
  • A can opener
  • A blender

Other essential kitchen supplies include dish towels, pot holders, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, sandwich bags, paper towels, sponges, dish soap and dishwater liquid. You’ll also want to get some food storage containers. I buy a ton of mason jars. They are super cheap and can be thrown in the dishwasher. If I lose or break one, not a big deal. I also carry my water or a smoothie in one, and they don’t leak in my backpack or car. You can buy them new or at a thrift store, or you can just start collecting your old tomato sauce jars.

There are other kitchen appliances that are nice to have, such as tongs, a peeler, garlic press, coffee maker, tea kettle, rice cooker, slow cooker and a toaster oven — my favorite kitchen appliance — but the list above will get you started.

A Checklist of Basic Pantry Staples

Now on to foods. As an addiction nutritionist, I hear all the time, “Eating healthy is expensive!” This can be true — if you don’t know how to shop. Here are some simple pantry basics to stock up on.

Oils, Vinegars and Condiments

Buy olive oil in bulk, and keep refilling the same container. Other good things to keep around include vinegars, such as balsamic and rice; ketchup; mayo; Dijon mustard; soy sauce; and hot sauce.


Dried spices are great and usually just $1.99. If you want to jazz up a meal, try garlic powder, sea salt, black pepper, curry powder, dill, oregano, taco seasoning packets and blackening spice. Another option is to get a general seasoning such as Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute. It goes on anything from eggs to salmon to tacos.

Canned Goods and Bottled Items

Jarred sauces are your friends. Marinara, pesto, curry — these are great in a pinch to put over meat, tofu, pasta or rice. And much more affordable than takeout.

Stock up on canned soup. Go for some protein in these soups, such as chicken and rice, lentil, minestrone, etc. Tomato soup is yummy, but it’s loaded with sugar and has no protein. I also think that chili with beans is a great option.

Canned beans — black, cannellini, chickpeas, kidney — are also an important pantry staple. Organic beans are usually about $1 each. Keep these on hand and use as a topping for a salad, a quick burrito, chili makings and a cheap shot of protein. You need to make sure you are getting enough protein and fiber in your diet, and beans are packed with both.

Canned tuna, salmon and chicken are great, too.

Of course, don’t forget the peanut butter and jelly.

Grains and Legumes

When it comes to pasta, go for whole wheat or the Barilla ProteinPLUS pasta. It’s a few more pennies a serving, but it has as much protein as a chicken breast. Score!

Get a big bag of brown rice and store it in one of those fancy mason jars. It will keep for the semester. Make up a bunch, and eat it for days.

I lived off beans and rice for most of my financially challenged sophomore year of college.

Buy a big old container of oatmeal. Microwave for two minutes, and add some peanut butter, jelly or frozen berries and you will make it until lunch. I promise.

Other dried grains you can try include barley, millet, quinoa or wheat berries.

Refrigerator Basics

It sounds odd, but I think veggie dip trays are brilliant. Many of us have looked in the fridge and found an entire bag of carrots looking fuzzy or that the cucumber is now liquid. You are much more likely to make a salad or a stir fry if the work is done for you. If there is a veggie dip tray in our fridge, my teenage daughter and her friends will eat that first — even before the chips.

Eggs are a cheap and amazingly perfect food. They last a long time in the fridge and can be made for any meal. If you are running out of time, whip up two eggs and a splash of water in a mug. Microwave for 30 seconds and then stir. Pop it back in the microwave for 30 more seconds and you have pretty darn perfect scrambled eggs. I call them muglets.

Other refrigerator basics include butter, cheese, milk and plain yogurt.

Freezer Basics

Trader Joe’s has a bag of flash-frozen chicken tenders that don’t even have to be defrosted. They’re the perfect thing to throw into your toaster oven with some olive oil, seasoning salt and maybe some pesto. Pair that with a salad made from greens and your veggie dip tray, and that is a date-worthy meal!

Stock up on frozen fruit and vegetables, too.

Storage Produce

Nuts are the best because you can keep them in your bag or purse for weeks and they won’t go bad. If portion control is hard, then pick up some nut or trail mix packs. They are a perfect snack size to keep the hungry — or hangry — away.

Other good staples to keep in your pantry include garlic, yellow and red onions, potatoes, and dried fruit.

An Easy Recipe for the Aspiring College Chef

Here is a recipe that is part of the Center for Addiction Nutrition program. Not only is it delicious and integral to a healthy diet, but it is also fun and requires almost no cooking skills. Enjoy!

Chicken (or Chickenless) Salad Three Ways

What You Need

  • 1 whole rotisserie chicken, meat picked and chopped into bite-sized pieces, or Beyond Meat’s faux chicken strips
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • Salt and pepper

For Curry Chicken Salad     

  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 apple, chopped, or 1 cup grapes, sliced
  • 3 green onions, sliced

For BBQ Chicken Salad

  • 1/4 cup BBQ sauce
  • 1/2 cup frozen corn, thawed
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

For Classic Herb Chicken Salad

  • 2 tablespoons herbs such as tarragon, dill or basil, fresh or dried
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1/4 red onion, diced
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced (optional)

What You Do

Combine all ingredients, and then get creative. Add chopped walnuts or cashews. Mix in raisins or cranberries. Top with avocado. Put on a bed of arugula or spinach, or pack into a pita pocket.

Written by Victoria Abel

Victoria Abel is the founder of the Center for Addiction Nutrition. She has been in the field of addiction and recovery since 1992. After her daughter’s critical illness was healed through a change in diet, her interest in food escalated. After completing a nutrition degree, she combined her years as an addiction therapist and her passion for nutrition and creativity. She now consults at many treatment centers as well as offers one-on-one nutrition therapy with clients. She lives in the mountains of Arizona with her now very healthy daughter.


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