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Learn to cook deliciously and nutritiously when living on your own

Rachel Sherwood Food Stylist, Culinary Expert and Author Impressions At Home

Starting out on your own can be filled with difficult tasks to get started, setting up your kitchen and feeding yourself well should not be one of them. Here is what you need to know and a basic guide to what to have on hand to make mealtime simple, delicious and fun.


Do buy the equipment essentials

Before you can start cooking you need to set yourself up with the correct equipment. There is much to choose from in terms of quality and price. When starting out it is important to remember you do not need a full set of pans or knives you need a few key tools that work well and you are comfortable with. Purchase what you can afford and take care of it well. You will want at least one saute pan and one sauce pot, note nonstick pans will not last as long but are easier to clean, and high quality stainless steel will last a lifetime but needs patients to cook with well.

For knifes start with a chefs knife they come and a variety of sizes from 4 inch to 12 inch, pick one that is comfortable for you then add a paring knife and serrated knife. These three knives can handle almost all basic kitchen tasks. You will also want a cutting board, sheet pan and some basic utensils like a spatula, turner, whisk, slotted spoon, tongs, peeler, can opener, and strainer.

Next up would be appliances and the three most useful in a beginning kitchen are a crock pot, stand or hand mixer and beverage blender. Only buy what you can afford and what you have space for, if you buy quality tools and learn how to use them well you will not need countless kitchen “gadgets” taking up space.

Do set up a proper pantry

You cannot cook if you do not have ingredients. It is essential to first equip yourself with the basics and begin getting comfortable with them and learning how to use them best. If you have to run to the store every time you are hungry or need to make a meal you won’t do it and will simply rely on what is easiest and available quickly.

Know that every pantry is going to be different there is no one fits all pantry list. However, in order to pull together amazing dishes you must have a few essentials from each of these main categories that fit your taste and diet needs. Below I will explain each group and give my pantry list for each as an example. Know that your needs and tastes may be different and that is ok just be sure you have a few items for each of the categories:

  • Grains/Legumes: Pasta, rice, beans, corn meal
  • Can/Jarred Items: Canned fruits/ vegetables, pasta sauce, jams/peanut butter, Soups/Broth, salsa and condiments like bbq sauce
  • Baking: Flour, sugar, honey, chocolate chips, baking powder, baking soda, salt, vanilla
  • Fresh pantry: These are all your perishable items so be aware of what you are eating so you don’t stock up too much and have it spoiling and going to waste. I have listed a few of my favorites that are longer lasting items that I always have on hand. To this list I will add other items like and rotate through for variety such as fresh berries, mushrooms, eggplant, cottage cheese, sour cream, fresh meats and fish.
  • Dairy: milk, eggs, butter, 1-2 hard cheese, cream cheese, yogurt
  • Produce: Greens, Apples, Lemons, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic
  • Protein: Sausage or cured meats, tofu
  • Ready to eat items: Dried fruits, nuts, cereal, crackers, tortilla shells

Do stock the flavors you enjoy

There is a lot to choose from so only get the things you enjoy and know you will use here are some ingredient and flavor suggestions for some cuisines

Mexican: Onion, green onion, garlic, chilies, chipotle, jalapenos cumin, oregano, cilantro, tomatoes, limes, refried beans, black beans, enchilada sauces and salsa, rice, tortillas, cinnamon and cloves

Italian: Garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, bay leaves, tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, arugula, parmesan, mozzarella, ricotta, olives ,olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta, rice, cannellini beans pine nuts, prosciutto, pancetta, coffee

Indian: Turmeric, cumin, bay leaves, red chili powder, paprika, coriander, Garam Masala, mustard seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, Fenugreek, Star Anise, Tamarind, saffron, cilantro lentils, rice

Asian: Ginger, garlic, green onions, lemongrass, Thai basil, cilantro, soy, coconut, sesame seed and oil, rice vinegar and wine, rice, udon/soba noodles, tofu, peanuts, lime, orange, water chestnuts, beans sprouts, chili sauce, hoisin sauce

Do learn some basic skills

Ask your family and friends for favorite recipes and cooking tips they may have. Look for some local classes for cooking skills like soups, sauces, knife skills and make ahead meals once you know the basic skills you can use this in any recipe or even create some of your own.

Do start simple but be adventurous

Learn basic skills, try new recipes and give yourself permission to fail not every recipe and flavor combination will be a winner, that is ok. Know that there are many “bad” recipes out there that are written incorrectly so it’s not your fault, try and try again. Experiment with new cooking methods and flavors you never know what amazing things you can create. Share your recipes and meals with others this is where the fun is created, enjoy!


Do not over purchase

Don’t feel the need to fully outfit an entire kitchen, you will be surprised at how much you can do with a few good simple tools. stay away from “gadgets” that only serve one purpose and purchase tools that can handle many tasks, see Equipment Essentials above for assistance.

Do not set yourself up to fail

When starting to cook it can be easy to find really elaborate recipes that sound and look good. Keep your current skills in mind and choose recipes that are easy to build your skills, understanding of food and confidence. If a recipe does not turn out as planned try again or get creative on how to save it and turn it into something else.

Do not rely on processed food

Processed foods often contain unnatural ingredients, preservatives and tend to be loaded with too much sugar and salt. Make healthy choices for whole unprocessed food, these are healthier and usually less expensive than processed choices. By learning how to cook and even using a knife properly you will save time, money and energy by chopping your own fruits and vegetables rather than purchasing them already cut up.

Do not get stuck with leftovers for days

Your freezer can be your best friend for quick meals, instead of eating the same dish for days package leftovers in individual serving sizes for easy quick thaw meals later. Soups and chili are perfect to make in large batches and freeze for later when you don’t have time to cook.

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When starting out cooking there are a lot of things to consider. The easiest way to set yourself up for success and get started making delicious meals is to first gather the basic equipment, pantry ingredients and a few trusted recipes. You can’t cook without tools and food to begin with. Have fun being in your kitchen, give yourself permission to explore and fail then start sharing your meals with family and friends. You will love it!

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Rachel SherwoodFood Stylist, Culinary Expert and Author

As a Culinary Strategist there’s nothing Rachel loves more than teaching her clients how to build confidence in the kitchen and create healthier, happier homes through the food experiences they have every day. She’s a Food Stylist and the founde...

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