You don’t need a Le Creuset Dutch oven to whip up a delicious meal for one (or, say, eight). A few key items are enough to launch your cooking career—and some of them may even last you a lifetime.
Moving away for school is like taking a crash course in adulting. And even if you opt for residence and full meal plans in your first year of university, at some point you’re going to have to figure out how to cook enough to feed yourself. Setting yourself up for success means, ideally, picking up some skills before you leave home, as well as a few of the things to help you get the job done. You don’t need a full kitchen’s worth of gear to start, but it’s useful to list the things you’d like to make and go from there. (Bonus points for actually printing out some recipes.)
This task can be incredibly person-specific. Do you enjoy a daily smoothie? Make room in your budget for a Magic Bullet or immersion blender. Do your family recipes call for a multicooker? Consider an Instant Pot. Maybe you plan to eat a lot of raw greens and need a salad spinner, or know that you like to bake as a way to relieve stress and will make use of a hand mixer and baking pans. But some needs are fairly uniform, and you may find you can gather utensils from family members who have duplicates, or from second-hand stores or discount houseware stores. Keep in mind that housemates can share; discussing whether anyone else plans to bring a microwave is a great way to spark conversation, even when you haven’t met yet.
If you take good care of it, a good chef’s knife can last you literally a lifetime of cooking, and it makes a huge difference to your enjoyment of the process. So if there’s one thing to spend money on, this is it. (Parent tip: it also makes a great graduation gift.) There is a huge price range for this one, so buy the best chef’s knife you can justify, and possibly even a steel to sharpen it. An inexpensive paring knife that you can replace every few years is another key purchase.
Don’t ruin a good knife by cutting on any surface other than a cutting board. Solid wooden cutting boards are the most expensive, but they make cutting easier than bamboo boards, and they are less likely to harbour bacteria than plastic boards. Larger, heavier boards give you more room to work and will move around less while chopping, if you have the space for them; a piece of anti-slip rubber matting or a damp towel is great for keeping a smaller board in place. If you dry your wooden board well after washing and give it a rub with mineral oil every now and again, it will last for decades.
Pots and Pans
You don’t need a set! Look for stainless steel cookware that feels heavy for its size, because thicker metal results in better heat distribution. You should also have two pots with lids—one large enough to cook a box of pasta or to make soup (4-6 litres/quarts), and one small enough for sauces (1-2 litres/quarts). A large, cast-iron frying pan is ideal and will last you forever; a small non-stick pan works for cooking scrambled eggs or omelettes.
If you have a full meal plan and no access to a kitchen, an electric kettle might be the only thing you need for now. If you are a tea drinker, this is an obvious choice. Coffee drinkers can buy a plastic or ceramic one-cup pour-over coffee maker that works on top of a mug. Boiling water also means instant noodles without having to leave your room.
There are plenty of tools that are not essential but will make the job of cooking a lot easier, starting with tongs, a wooden spoon and a good pair of oven mitts or thick tea towels. The rest can be acquired as you need them, but you may want to consider measuring cups and spoons, a vegetable peeler, a can opener, a box grater, a colander, a baking sheet, a pancake flipper, a rubber spatula and a whisk.
This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Ode to Spatula.’”