Kitchen Tools and Pantry-Stacking

We’re getting into all the equipment you absolutely need to cook in college. We’ll also talk about the equipment that’s really nice to have, and will let you make absolutely all the recipes in this book. If you live in a dorm room, you should ask your RA about some of the equipment (like a smoothie blender and multi-cooker), but if you live off-campus, you should definitely consider getting everything. We’ll also get into how to stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Let’s start with equipment, first:

Must-have cooking equipment

To cook most recipes in this book, you’ll need the following equipment. Take note: I’m not counting bowls, spoons, forks, cups, etc. You don’t really “cook” in those.

Meat thermometer

Eating undercooked meat is not only unpleasant, it’s dangerous. You need a good, reliable meat thermometer as part of your college cooking arsenal.

A decent knife set

To prep and chop stuff, you need knives, and you can find decent sets for $20-$25.

Cutting board

Speaking of cutting, you’ll need a board. Avoid plastic if you can, because little pieces can get in your food.

Stovetop pots

I recommend at least two stovetop pots: one big enough to cook pasta and another medium-sized one.

Cast iron skillet

You’ll use a skillet a lot for various meals, and I like cast iron, since you can move it from the stove to the oven. You can find a decent one for $25 or so.

Cookie sheets

It’s probably a good idea to have at least two cookie sheets. I like ones with rims, because they absorb heat better.


Microwaves can be used to quickly cook certain food and heat up leftovers. If you’re in a dorm, you’ll probably have access to one somewhere. If you’re living off-campus, be sure your place has one.

Pizza cutter

Good for slicing certain doughs (like cheese cracker dough in the “Snacks” section) and of course, slicing pizza.

Can opener

A basic tool that’s easily forgotten, you’ll need it to open cans of beans, corn, etc.

Mini fridge

If you’re on campus, you’ll need your own mini fridge to store food and leftovers. Prices vary by size.

Measuring cup and measuring spoon set

To measure ingredients, you obviously need a measuring set.

Nice-to-have equipment

There are really just two pieces of equipment that are really nice to have, but aren’t absolutely necessary for most of the recipes. If you can, though, I highly-recommend them:

Rice cooker/multi-cooker

A lot of the recipes in this book use rice, and it’s way easier to cook rice using a rice cooker than on the stovetop. If you have the space and budget, however, I recommend getting a multi cooker instead. These are three appliances in one: rice cooker, slow cooker, and pressure cooker. You probably can’t have one in your dorm, but once you’re off-campus, they are a big time-saver.

With slow cookers, you might be tempted to get a big one, just for the future, but if you’re cooking meals for just one person, they might not turn out well in a giant cooker. There are a big range of sizes from mini 1.5-quarts to 8+ quarts. For most of the recipes in this book, especially the soups and stews, slow cooker versions should be good in a 2-quart/8-cup cooker.

For multi-cookers with pressure cooking settings, however, I actually recommend a 6-quart one, though, which may seem big – it lets you cook up to six servings of rice – but it can also cook much less. On the pressure cooking setting, it only needs ½ – 1 cup of liquid to work. I’ve successfully cooked just two small chicken breasts in a 6-quart pressure cooker.

Smoothie blender/little food processor

There are a handful of recipes in this book that call for blending. You’ll need either a smoothie blender or food processor. These can be found for pretty cheap, so it’s just a matter of if your dorm will allow them. Once you’re off-campus, do make getting one a priority. If you want to be able to blend frozen things, ice cubes, or harder foods like root veggies, expect to pay a bit more for good blades and power.  

Must-have pantry list

You know what equipment you need, but what about actual food? Here’s the very bare minimum:


Eggs are good on their own and good in both savory and sweet recipes.


Lots of the recipes in this book use ground meat, like turkey, pork, chicken, and beef, while the poultry section also uses frozen chicken. Since you probably have a small freezer, you may not be able to have a wide variety of meat, but you should always have something on hand.


A portable snack, one of the most affordable fruits you can get, and important in a variety of recipes.


Pasta is really filling and easy to make, and the base of quite a few recipes.


Similar to pasta in that it’s a very filling ingredient, and in a lot of recipes in the book.

Plain yogurt

A replacement for mayo and sour cream, yogurt is also great for breakfast and dips.


My favorite sweetener because it lasts forever and is sweeter than sugar, so you don’t need a lot when you use it.

Olive oil

A very healthy oil, it’s used for pretty much every savory recipe.


If you’re going to make sandwiches or toast, you need bread.

Peanut butter

High in protein, peanut butter is a great snack for any time of the day or night.


Good on its own as a snack, mixed into pasta, crumbled on top of salad, or sliced for sandwiches, you can use cheese in a lot of different ways.


I consider either cow’s milk or non-dairy milk an essential fridge ingredient, because it’s used in a lot of recipes and drinks, like coffee or tea.

Canned tuna

It doesn’t take up shelf space, it lasts forever, and it’s packed with protein. While you can’t afford a lot of seafood, you can always afford tuna.

Salt and pepper

I don’t even count salt and pepper as ingredients in the five-ingredient recipes, because they’re both so essential. Without them, food is terribly bland.

Dried garlic

I put dried garlic just under salt and pepper in terms of importance.

Italian seasoning

I couldn’t afford a lot of fresh herbs in college, and didn’t have space for a bunch of dried ones, so just one good blend of Italian seasoning is the way to get herby flavor.


I really like paprika’s spice, but if you have another hot spice you prefer (like dried red pepper flakes), go ahead and get that one instead. You need at least one spicier spice in your pantry.

Frozen vegetables

Fresh produce seems to go bad the second you put it on the counter, so frozen is the way to go. Depending on space, try to have at least one bag of frozen veggies at all times.

Canned beans

A good source of protein and fiber, canned beans are very affordable and last a long time. Dry beans are probably cheaper in terms of volume, but they take longer to cook. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll definitely want canned beans around for fast meals.

Canned tomatoes

Canned tomatoes are cheap flavor bombs that can be mixed in rice, pasta, stews, and more. They last a long time and don’t need to be refrigerated (unless opened).


Used to thicken sauces and provide the base of pretty much any baked good, flour is good to have around. All-purpose is fine.


If you eat a lot of overnight oats like I did in college, you’ll always want rolled oats around. They can also be ground into flour with a food processor if needed, or baked into homemade granola.

Nice-to-have food items

The items above are ingredients I think are absolutely essential to any kind of college cooking, but they don’t represent everything. The list below describes the food items that are really nice to have around if you want to diversify your cooking and eating lifestyle, but if you don’t love them, have the space, or the budget, you can go without them and be just fine.


Because of their price and tiny ripeness window, avocados are a nice-to-have item to always have around, and not a must-have. They’re good mashed up on toast, in smoothies, sliced on salads and sandwiches, and you can even make chocolate mousse with them.


I made a lot of overnight oats in college, and I really liked using jam because it provides both sweetness and flavor. If you make a lot of oats or other recipes where you need fruity sweetness, always have jam on hand.

Frozen berries

If you don’t make smoothies a lot, you might want to save space in your freezer for other things and skip berries. However, if you live on smoothies for breakfast or a snack, frozen berries will be a must-have. They’re also nice to have around as an add-in to yogurt and oatmeal.

Sugar or sugar alternative

I like honey over sugar in general, which is why honey is in the must-have, but sometimes you need granulated sugar for baking. If you’re a big cookie maker, you’ll want a bag of sugar or a sugar alternative around.


You always need olive oil, no matter what, but butter is also a great fat to keep close if you have the space. It can be used in a wide variety of sweet and savory recipes.


If you make a lot of sandwiches and think mayo is boring, pesto is a great condiment. It’s also great mixed into pasta or rice, so if space and budget allows it, I recommend keeping a container in the fridge.


I personally had hummus a lot, because I loved it on sandwiches and as a veggie dip, but if you aren’t like me, it belongs on the nice-to-have list, as opposed to the “must-have.” If you have room and you like it, by all means, keep it around.

Deli turkey

Deli turkey is really versatile and can be used to make sandwiches, snacks, and salads. If you love a good turkey sandwich, you’ll want this in your fridge consistently. If not, however, just buy as needed.


Great with eggs, potato hashes, and as a snack with chips, salsa packs a lot of flavor in a small container. If you have room in your fridge shelves, I recommend keeping your favorite kind around.

Fresh tomatoes

If you make a lot of sandwiches or salads, a slice of fresh tomato or chopped tomatoes is a great ingredient. If you don’t make these meals a lot, however, keeping fresh tomatoes around is probably not necessary. You can just stick with canned.


Having a fresh lemon or lime around ensures you can always add a burst of acid to any meal, whether it’s fish or a salad. You can also buy pure lemon or lime juice, and it will last longer in the fridge.

Chicken/veggie stock

For most recipes, you just need water, but for the best flavor in a lot of this book’s recipes – especially the soups and stews chapter- I recommend chicken stock. In fact, if you make a lot of soups and stews, I would label chicken or veggie stock as a must-have. Stock can be stored in a pantry as long as it’s sealed, but once opened, it should go in the fridge.

Leafy greens

If you’re a big salad person, you definitely always want greens on hand, but if you aren’t, this won’t be a “must-have” for you. Greens go bad pretty quickly, so if you don’t know for sure you’re going to be using them, don’t waste your money.

Sweet chili sauce/balsamic salad dressing

A handful of the recipes rely on sweet chili sauce or balsamic for flavorings, so it’s nice to have these on hand. You can quickly flavor up plain meat or make simple salads more appealing.


A nice alternative to bread, tortillas can be used for sandwiches, quick tacos, or just plain cheese quesadillas.

How to meal plan

Once you have your pantry stacked, you’ll be able to meal plan. While it may take a little bit of work upfront, meal planning actually saves time, energy, and money, which are all things often in short supply for students. The first step is to think simple. Meals don’t need to be complicated with lots of ingredients and they don’t have to be dramatically different from day to day or week to week. This book uses a lot of the same ingredients over and over again, but thanks to spices and mix-ins, the meals don’t get boring.

With “think simple” as your philosophy, plan meals 3-5 days in advance. Snacks should be included, so you never find yourself hungry and without a clue about what to eat. With the meal plan you’ve designed, see if there’s anything you can make in advance, like rice. You don’t want to make it too far in advance, which is why 3-5 days is a good schedule. You should also consider if you have space in the fridge for prepped foods. With a meal plan in place, you can go shopping and get everything you need in one trip.

Creating a budget

To cook in college, you’ll need a grocery budget. Look at your current finances and see how much you currently spend on food. Is it as low as you want it to be? Examine where the money is going and if there’s anything you could eliminate. That money maybe could be going to another ingredient, or back in your pocket. To save money on the food budget, consider switching grocery stores, buying generics only, and buying in bulk. Since you probably don’t have the space for giant boxes of food or a million cans, think about asking a friend or two to pitch in, and split up what you buy. After about a month of trying out your budget, take a look back. Think about what worked and what didn’t work. It can take a while to get into the swing of things, budget-wise, so don’t be discouraged.

If you like apps, there are a handful that can help you with tracking your spending, such as:

Out Of Milk Shopping list app that you can share with roommates/housemates

Flipp Helps you find coupons and deals

Grocery IQ – Build grocery lists and tracks what stores have them

Mint – A budgeting app that you can link to your bank account

PocketBudget – A very streamlined, simple budgeting app

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