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Must-haves for a frugal kitchen

For every cooking job there is a perfect tool -- and an affordable way to obtain it.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 2, 2012 3:06PM
Image: U. S. banknotes on shelf in kitchen pantry (© Supapixx /Alamy)As I noted in "A recipe for saving money," cooking at home can save you a ton of bucks. But just as you wouldn't do your own home repairs without a few basic tools, you shouldn't enter the kitchen without a few basic cooking supplies.

Nor should you pay retail if you can help it.

Meg Favreau, a senior editor at Wise Bread, a personal-finance blog,  suggests shopping at thrift stores, discount emporiums such as Marshalls and TJ Maxx, and restaurant supply stores.

Recently she posted "10 things you need to stock a frugal kitchen" on My Money, the personal-finance blog of U.S. News & World Report. Those items are just the basics; as you step up your culinary game, you can add more tools.

Among Favreau's picks:
  • A good chef's knife.
  • Spices.
  • Pots and pans, an oven-safe pan and food-storage containers.
  • Measuring cups and spoons, and mixing bowls.
  • Food processor and/or hand mixer.
I agree with most of her suggestions, although I think she left out one indispensable frugal tool, and I have additional ideas on how to get this stuff cheaply or for free.

Building a cheaper kitchen

"Almost everything you need to do, from peeling vegetables to hacking up roasts, can be accomplished with a good chef's knife," according to Favreau.

I don't have a chef's knife; in fact, I don't know anyone who has one. What I do have is a partial block of knives my sister had quit using; she gave them to me when I moved to Seattle. I also have a 25-cent vegetable peeler from a yard sale. (Post continues after video.)

Some other things I got from yard sales: a 9- by 13-inch baking pan, measuring cups, a hand mixer, serving utensils and a couple of food-storage containers. Much of my storage, however, is done with bread bags, pickle or peanut butter jars and old yogurt or sour-cream containers. (Favreau does this, too.)

Let it be known you're furnishing a kitchen, since some people have items they no longer use. Check yard sales, including the "free" box. Repurpose bags, jars and containers.

A trio of Tupperware storage bowls had been languishing, unused, in my sister's garage. I use them as mixing bowls as well as for storage. If I need a really big bowl, I use my Dutch oven.

Speaking of which: You'll find pots and pans at thrift stores and yard sales, too; my indispensable cast-iron skillet came from a yard-sale free box. I actually went the retail route for a 6-piece set of saucepans, skillets and Dutch oven -- but they were on sale and I paid with a discounted gift card. (See "Get gift cards below face value.")

Pay for kitchen items with discounted gift cards bought online, or obtained free from rewards programs. (See "Free gift cards -- yes, really!" to learn more.)

More frugal shopping tips

Don't rule out dollar stores. I bought my measuring spoons and some spices there. However, most of my spices come from Walgreens when they go on sale two for a buck, or from the ethnic market (which is what Favreau suggests). Mine is a proletarian palate; pricey spice would be wasted on me.

Here's where I think Favreau missed the boat: not recommending the slow cooker. It's indispensable for cooking dried beans, soup stock and all sorts of one-pot meals. I inherited a very basic model from my daughter when she got a super-deluxe one as a wedding gift. They go on sale regularly (best deals around Black Friday) and I frequently see them at thrift stores (plug in and test before buying). 

Three final suggestions for outfitting the frugal kitchen:

  • Check out The Freecycle Network -- You never know what you're going to find.
  • Use a cash-back shopping site -- These include online coupons and free shipping codes along with a rebate. (For the how-to, see "Get paid to buy stuff.")
  • Stage a swap session with friends -- The pal who used the pizza stone exactly twice might be really interested in your sushi mat.

More on MSN Money: 

Jul 3, 2012 10:19AM

I agree a crock pot is a must have. Guys out there, I know what you you're thinking - "I'm a guy and guys in general don't cook". I'm a bachelor paying child support with a modest income, it's essential I save as much as I can where I can and cooking at home is a money saver.

My grocery budget is about $130 / month and that includes everything (food, dogfood / treats for my dog, cleaning supplies, razors, shampoo, soap, etc.) and I don't use coupons. The only way to really pull that off as a single person is to cook in bulk and learn to use leftovers. I can cook a whole chicken in a crock pot and literally have 10-12 different things I can make just off the top of my head. Lasagna is cheap and goes a long way, etc...

Kitchen = Crock Pot

Get one if you don't have one. A cheap one that does the job is $20.

Jul 2, 2012 4:06PM
I agree with Favreau on the Chef's knife.  I have a knife block with many different blades, and random inherited knives, but I almost exclusively use only my Chef's knife.  I would be very lost without it, and as an amateur cooking enthusiast, that would be a sad day.  The only other blades I occasionally use is the paring knife for certain fruits, and a serrated knife for cutting bread.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.