Things I use a lot to the point paying money for them:
- A trusty spatula. Mine is red and awesome and silicone all over, which makes it very easy to clean. It keeps stir fries from burning, mixes up batters, and even did all the work for a batch of snickerdoodles (involves whipping butter and sugar; this really is not done without an electric mixer of some kind). You should really like the way it feels in your hand, because it's going to spend a lot of time there.
- A metal whisk. It should strike you as the right size and fit nicely in your hand. If it doesn't have a lot of places for bits of food and bacteria to get stuck, so much the better. It's great for mixing up lighter batters, like for crepes, pancakes, waffles, and quickbreads.
- A set of measuring cups and spoons. These don't have to be nice, although it's a bummer when your 1 cup measure breaks a handle.
- Tupperware or Pyrex. It is worth noting that I call all plastic food storage containers tupperware (that aren't bags. Incidentally, if it has a seal, it's Ziplock; if it's glass, it's Pyrex. I am very susceptible to branding.), even though I don't own a single piece of tupperware. I don't have a lot of leftovers, but the smallish round ones are nice for marinading tofu and storing extra couscous or quinoa. And it really sucks to make twice as much as you need and have to chuck it because no recipe ever makes just enough for one person. Tofu also has to sit in water when it's being stored, and the rectangular ones are about the right size. I bought an 18-piece set of Ziplock containers for cheaps at Target, and it's served me pretty well. Alternatively, get some Pyrex. They're much less likely to give you cancer.
- A pancake-flipping spatula. Has many uses, some of which can be covered by the trusty spatula, but pancake flipping is not one of them. If you hate pancakes and cookies, don't get one.
- A decent knife. You don't need a full set, although a bread knife is nice to have if you bake bread or buy fancy bread from the bakery down the street (or, in my case, the $.98 french breads from walmart). A paring knife is really all you need, unless you regularly cut really large vegetables (like watermelons, although squash and eggplant and beets would probably like large knives as well). My point is, get one knife at a time, and just get ones you need. You can buy a fancy cutco or ceramic set when you pay off your student loans. I currently own three paring knives that I bought for the bird beak knife in the set that cuts apples really nicely. The rest are my housemates' and do include a butcher knife, a bread knife, and at least five steak knives. I do use them, but I don't need to buy any right now.
- A small saucepan. Smaller is better, since I tend to only cook servings of rice, quinoa, and couscous for myself, and that only takes about 1/4 cup of dry food, or 1 cup water at the most. With a big pan, a cup of water won't even cover the bottom.
- A medium-sized mixing bowl, preferably with a spout. A medium sized bowl can usually hold the average batch of cookie dough or cake mix, and can also hold small projects like a single pancake. I like spouts for crepes, but it's not a necessity. I really, really like bowls with handles, since I find that a lot of my cooking involves pouring things. Even if I'm making cookies, it's nice to have a handle anyway.
- A small skillet. If you're only cooking for you, you only need a small one. Make sure it's heavy enough to hold itself steady when nothing's in it; the pan should be heavier than the handle, in other words. Don't go cheap on this one. If you can get it from a family member, so much the better. If you have to go cheap, just be aware that it will probably burn about half your food if you turn your back on it.
- A medium saucepan. Sometimes, you just gotta make soup. Sometimes you make it for your housemates, in which case you want lots of extra soup-making space. It's also nice if you're making a fancy dinner, like pasta with steamed vegetables or white sauce or something.
Food to keep in the pantry and/or fridge
- Tofu. If you're eating it regularly, which I am, buy a block of extra firm that has a nice, long time until expiration, and then buy a new one when you run out. If you know you won't make it back to the store for a while, buy two. I hate running out of tofu. That being said, if you don't like it, buy beans instead.
- Lentils. Even if you don't eat them regularly, they never go bad. They can be mixed in with rice in stir fry, hidden in tomato sauce, or put in soup.I've been trying to ditch soy-based proteins as the main staple of my diet, and these are great for that. Buy it in bulk, and the plain brown kind is usually less than $1/lb. And 1 pound of lentils will last a student cooking for one or even two a very long time.
- Peanut butter, or some kind of nut butter that you're not allergic to. Get your favorite kind; it's worth it. It'll probably last you ages, unless you're a sandwich kind of person, which I am not. I'm a "I need protein and have no time! Ooh, peanut butter, omnom." kind of person. I also put it on apple slices, and have taken to making thai food, which requires peanut butter. In any case, nut butters are a fairly inexpensive way to incorporate protein quickly into your diet. Loose nuts, preferably with light to no salt, really preferably raw, and please no peanuts, are also great. You can make them into milks, too.
- Also quinoa and Braggs Liquid Aminos, but see below for those.
- Rice. Never goes bad and is fairly good for you. Can go in any recipe. Can also make rice milk if you have a blender and cheesecloth. I own instant in a box, brown from Trader Joes, and a mix from the winco bulk section. With beans, makes a complete protein.
- Couscous. This is personal preference, but I love that stuff. It's a fairly nutritionally-neutral wheat pasta, so I've been trying to replace it in my diet with quinoa. I buy all mine in bulk.
- Quinoa. When cooked right, it has a texture a lot like couscous, sort of a cross between couscous and rice. It also is a complete protein. See ya later, soy! As usual, go to bulk first and google the recipe later.
- Pasta. Any kind. Whole grain types are nice for adding fiber to your cheap, plain, practically fiberless diet of couscous and tofu. Again, bulk sections are your friend.
Saucy sorts of things:
- Pasta sauce. By which I mean the tomato kind. The canned stuff takes a long time to go bad, and it's really nice for a quick meal when you're tired and still have ten hours of homework to go.
- Soy-based sauce. I favor Braggs Liquid Aminos (tastes exactly like soy sauce but has lots of protein; has a few sibling sauces on the market), because it's an easy way to add protein to your otherwise deficient diet, but the stuff is expensive, so keep it around for special, tofu-less occasions and use normal soy sauce or tamari or something for marinading tofu.
- Vinegar. I've been using whatever kind of vinegar I can find in the cabinet lately, but a lot of delicious asian recipes call for rice vinegar, so that's what I bought when all we had was distilled white stuff that A had used half of to clean her old apartment. Red or white wine vinegar or cider vinegar would probably work as well; I don't recommend white distilled because I think of that as acetic acid, used for Doing Science, or as a cleaning solution. I guess you could get balsamic if you're a vinegar nut and put it in salad dressing and stuff, but I prefer my salads naked. Not that I ever eat them anyway.
- Wine. This one is very, very optional and often replaceable with vinegar. If you're over 21 and have no moral objections to alcohol, consider buying a bottle of cheap red stuff even if you don't drink it. Red wine is really, really good in tofu, since the sharp alcohol taste cooks out and leaves you with an almost bread-like flavor, and the tannins are still good for your heart. White wine works about the same way (just with fewer health benefits), but I don't buy it because I don't really like to drink it as much. If you're under 21, or hate wine, or feel really awkward and immoral buying it, just get some cheap red or white wine vinegar for liquid content if enough of your favorite recipes call for vinegar or wine.
- Vegetable broth or bouillon. It's full of salt, but it makes a good base for tofu marinades when you're bored of soy sauce or are having it with tomato sauce, and it's also great for cooking your couscous, quinoa, and rice. Also for soups, if they happen (i.e. if I get sick and can't function enough to make real food but still sense that I should put warm vegetable things into my body).
- Flour. I've got unbleached, but I'm trying to make the move to whole wheat, which is more expensive. I'm mostly switching over because I've had a look at my waistline (there are a lot of cookies in there) and also my sourdough starter died. I use flour all the time: for crepes, pancakes, white sauce, and all the cookies and quickbreads and the occasional yeast bread. If you're not making sourdough starter from scratch or craving homemade whole grain bread, don't bother. Unbleached is the same price as bleached, so go with that because it's slightly healthier.
- Baking soda. Cleaning and deodorizing agent as well as exceedingly useful in baking.
- Baking powder. Again, baking. Baking powder biscuits, for instance.
- Some kind of sugar. I don't care if you get vegan sugar or store-brand-white sugar or agave or honey, just keep some around for when your waffle recipe calls for it. And so you can make cookies all the time, of course. It's a good idea to keep brown sugar around as well. Baking, baking, baking.
- Vanilla. I have one thing to say: Cookies. You can get fancy vanilla extract, or even vanilla beans (and make your own extract with vodka, tempting, very tempting, but very expensive), but they are more expensive. My mom always used imitation, so I have nothing against it and in fact have some in my pantry in plastic bottle right now. It's the cheapest store brand I could find. My cookies have been widely acclaimed as delicious. Suck on that, purists.
- Cornstarch. Not just for making things thick (inside joke, sorry), it also works as an imitation egg. Mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water, then add a glug of oil to imitate one egg. It makes for awesome crepes (add a little more salt) and quickbreads. A can of cornstarch is a lot less expensive than eggs, in the long run and the short run. It won't scramble or provide protein, though.
- Butter. I'm pretty miserly with this stuff, which is usually margarine anyway, and use olive oil whenever possible, making an attempt to find vegan cookie recipes that don't call for vegan margarine. I'm looking into coconut oil, but can't really afford it at the moment. It does make a difference if you use real butter over margarine, but I don't care that much.
- Oil. I prefer olive oil. You could use any kind of oil, and canola is probably cheaper, but I like the taste of virgin olive oil that's as green as I can afford. It's also good for the heart. I hear sesame oil is delicious in asian food, but it's also really, really expensive.
- Herbs. You can get all separate herbs, but I don't have time to be fancy. The cheapest plastic bottle of "Italian herbs and spices" at winco has served me well.
- Garlic. Get the fresh stuff and never run out. Use it all the time in all the foods.
- Spices. If you're not particularly attached to one over the other, get a pumpkin pie blend. It has all the traditional spices, like cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves, in one small package. If a recipe calls for a specific spice, like ten tons of cinnamon, the bulk section is always your friend. Bulk spices are surprisingly affordable because you don't have to buy the container or the brand. You will probably want to have a container for them in the first place, though, but itty bitty tupperware would probably work. Or you could go to a thrift store every few weeks for a couple months until you finally run across a cool set of little glass jars, and make little labels for them, and...
- Salt. Life without salt is sucky. The beauty of it is that the huge things of Morton Iodized will last you for years, and you can get a little bit of fancy-ass sea salt or Himalayan rock salt for special occasions if you want.
- A bag of frozen stir fry veggies. I use these in a vain attempt to get my five a day. It doesn't work, but it helps. All I have to do to have a fairly healthy stir fry is thaw out about a cup of the stir fry mix. Most grocery stores have mixes for less than $2, and there's a whole variety of them out there. Don't like mushrooms? You don't have to get one with mushrooms in it. Love peas? Snap pea stir fry. Since my cooking habits and whims are variable, I don't tend to get a lot of fresh vegetables. I know they're better for me, but I can only get them once a week, if that, and they go bad so fast and I get so busy that it's just healthier to have some frozen stuff hanging around.
- Fresh fruit. I keep a bag of itty bitty apples that are perfect for eating while standing in the kitchen, and eat them with peanut butter when the mood strikes me. Slightly under-ripe nectarines or pears are a good option as well, since they'll last you for a while. Dried fruit is okay, but fresh or canned will get you fuller with less sugar and more water, a ratio that I need to push for in my daily life. Fresh is optimal, because you know exactly what you're eating if you wash it off; canned has preservatives and colors and sugars and suchlike. My main concern is how embarrassing it would be to get scurvy.
- A multivitamin. As a student figuring out my own diet and eating schedules, and especially as a brand new, self-taught vegetarian, as it were, I needed something with constant nutrients. I prefer the gummy fruit adult vitamins that come in huge jars at costco. Do NOT get the bears for kids; they are nasty sneaky imitations of gummy bears and always have been (no, seriously, I remember hating them as a kid and hiding them under my place mat.). My mom the public health nurse approves, although in my specific case, she got me extra vitamin D and probably wouldn't object to extra vitamin B and possibly iron and calcium. This is based on my specific habits and health history and the fact that vitamin D really improves my mood, regardless of how sunny it is outside, and it's not a vitamin you can easily overdose on. Talk to a doctor, which is something you should do whenever you can afford to anyway, especially with a drastic diet change. You don't want to wake up anemic because you don't have a balanced enough diet to get plant-based iron or with a heart attack because you overuse cheese as a protein substitution.
It's important to note that this should not be your whole diet, and you can also do whatever you want. You should try new things, eat salads whenever you can, get out of culinary ruts whenever possible, and always eat colorful food. Yogurt is wonderful, and oatmeal. I adore potatoes, but they're not a staple for me.
Look for WIC-certified food, since that means that the public health department has deemed it worthy for at-risk moms, babies, and expecting moms to spend government money on. WIC soy milk has extra calcium and possibly iron, if I recall correctly. It's also $1 more than non-WIC soy milk, but you do what you gotta do. If you're a vegan with a deficiency and some extra cash, try looking into those.
If you're lucky enough to live very near cheap, fresh produce, just buy stuff as needed for recipes and consider all raw veggies viable snacks (except mushrooms, who eats those raw? And they're not a vegetable anyway). Tomatoes would have staple status for me if I made soups more regularly (that don't consist of some stir fry veggies and some noodles in about 1.5 cups of vegetable broth; lentils only get added in if I feel like making an effort, which I don't when I'm sick, which is all the time in the late winter and early spring) and could get diced tomatoes in one-serving cans. I use pasta sauce in soups instead.
I buy milk regularly (soy because it's better in tea than almond and cheaper than rice and almond, and it's in sterile packaging and so can be left in the pantry until I run out of the previous carton as well as surviving the hour-long trek home from the store in the summer heat), but if you're not a cereal person or a tea-with-milk person, you don't really need lots of it around. Most baking recipes don't call for it, although a some breads and definitely pancakes, crepes, and waffles need it.
Anyway, what I started out to do with this post was to give newbie cooks and/or newbie vegetarian cooks an idea of some things to look for in the grocery store. If you don't have a recipe for something and don't even know if you'll like it and only have $20 for groceries this month, then don't get it. If you can possibly bum food off your parents, do it. Build up a pantry gradually, not all at once, buying just what you need for a recipe at a time (unless someone offers to pay for your grocery shopping, in which case go for it). There are a lot of great, versatile, healthy vegetarian foods that I don't have on this list because I don't cook with them. Like beans other than lentils.
I feel like I'm back in my public speaking class, where we were taught to repeat the main points three times through the course of a speech. So here's my final summary:
Buy food you like and can afford, but make sure you have some healthy food. Don't worry too much about kitchen stuff; the world won't end if you don't have a spatula. Buy perishables according to a recipe, but think bulk food sections for nonperishables.
And above all, love life and enjoy all aspects of your food.