Stock Your Kitchen Like a Pro Without Blowing Your Budget

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Getty ImagesWhipping up a meal (or several) is easier when your kitchen is stocked with pantry staples.
By Geoff Williams

If you've ever felt overwhelmed in your kitchen, it's understandable. After all, if your job doesn't involve food preparation, you spend most of your time thinking about something completely different. Many amateur foodies know exactly how to run a kitchen, but not everyone is a natural-born cook.

However, if you don't know what you're doing in the kitchen, it could be costing you. According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, the country wastes 70 billion pounds of food every year. If you have appliances that are energy hogs, that's even more money down the drain.

U.S. News asked a handful of home-improvement experts, chefs and the like how they manage their own kitchens. If you know what you're doing, much of what follows is common knowledge, but if you're clueless about culinary arts, these suggestions may be your life raft.

Staples. Since you can't have entire grocery aisles in your kitchen, you need a selection of go-to items to grab when you're trying to get something on the table for dinner, without ordering pizza. Chef Erika Gradecki, owner of a personal chef business Food For Your Soul, in New London, Connecticut, always has the following in her kitchen:

Spices and herbs. If you aren't a personal chef and just want a few must-have spices and herbs, Gradecki would pick Italian seasoning.

"This is usually a combo of thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary and sometimes marjoram," she says. "It doesn't have to be a fancy brand, and doesn't have to have exactly all of those. It's cheaper than buying those herbs separately, and they complement each other well."

She also recommends buying cumin. "This is a great spice for anything from soups, chili and stews to meats, curried foods, etc. It gives you a little kick without too much spice," she says.

And keep all-purpose seasoning on hand, Gradecki advises. "Usually salt, pepper and garlic salt as a base," she says. "Some add turmeric or a few other additions to the mix. Like the Italian seasoning, this is a great go-to if you're on a budget, and it seasons just about anything."

Condiments. The biggies are cooking oil, [cooking] spray, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder and molasses, Gradecki says.

Old-fashioned oats. "Different from quick-cooking oats, which are cut smaller and get pretty mushy when cooked, old-fashioned oats are able to keep [their] shape when cooked. They're a great source of fiber, which keeps you fuller longer, and can be used for breakfast, baking and more," she says.

Rice. It's versatile, not to mention cheap and filling, she adds.

Butter, eggs and milk. Most recipes call for at least one of these, Gradecki says.

Of course, everyone has their own definition of "staple." Carlo Filippone, chef and CEO of the Clifton, New Jersey-based Elite Lifestyle Cuisine, which delivers chef-prepared meals to homeowners, agrees that eggs are vital, but also suggests having spinach, natural peanut butter, lean poultry, potatoes and mixed greens in-house as often as possible, because they all work well in a variety of meals. (OK, the peanut butter, he says, is for snacking.)

For Cheryl Rios, a Dallas-based business owner who cooks daily and comes from a large Sicilian family, pasta and olive oil are necessities.

"If you can only afford these two items to always have, then you always have a meal on hand," Rios says. "If you're really broke, fry some garlic in olive oil, boil the pasta, then drain and mix them together. If you have Parmesan cheese, sprinkle on top, and if you have breadcrumbs, fry them up in the garlic and olive oil and add to pasta."

Appliances. When you're buying your next appliance, it's easy to focus on the obvious (will it fit and be the right color?) and forget about, well, everything else. But keep these factors in mind when shopping for:

A refrigerator. Think about the energy it produces, suggests Sabine Schoenberg, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based real estate agent and author of "Kitchen Magic: Secrets to Successful Kitchens."

"Most buy refrigerators for the brand and the look," she says, when they should be thinking about where the motor is. "High-end refrigerators have the cooling motor on top of the fridge, keeping the heat from the cooled area. This saves energy and adds durability," Schoenberg says, adding that a refrigerator with a motor on top can extend the longevity of the appliance.

"Also, the quality of the food in high-end units is simply better," Schoenberg says. "How often do people wind up throwing out spoiled food from their fridges? This is cut way down with high-end units. The cooling is way better."

Schoenberg adds this, which may not be practical for money- or space-crunched homeowners: "If the budget allows, buy a separate fridge just for drinks. That will free up your fridge space tremendously. Many good kitchen designers will recommend this."

Of course, if your old refrigerator works, you could put it in the garage for stowing excess beverages, if you don't have room for two refrigerators in your kitchen.

A stove. If you're in the market for a new stove, do your homework. For instance, glass-ceramic stovetops look beautiful, but they can be hard to clean; many cleaning products are no match for certain foods, and even water can burn onto the stove surface, meaning you'll see stains.

Nancy Lauseng, a marketing professional in St. Michael, Minnesota, and someone who loves to cook, says the best appliance she ever bought was a convection oven combined with a microwave and range hood.

"This gave me three appliances for little more than the price of one," says Lauseng, who just moved into a new house. She plans to get another combination oven soon.

A dishwasher. Consider the noise factor. "This is an issue that is gaining importance, since today's kitchens are open and connected to living spaces. In other words, avoid having to turn up the TV to overcome the dishwasher noise," Schoenberg says.

Kitchen tools. You could become overwhelmed, and very broke, trying to anticipate every cooking utensil you might need, especially if you're stocking your first kitchen. But the basics include: a pot, skillet, casserole dish, spatula, baking sheet, plates and silverware. Beyond that, knives are always handy, says Anna Carl, a consumer scientist at Whirlpool Corp.'s Institute of Home Science.

"You don't need a specialized knife for every task," Carl says, but she recommends having "a basic chef's knife with a broad cutting blade, a bread knife with a serrated blade and a basic paring knife for peeling and small jobs."

And while you can buy numerous kitchen cleaners, Rios says she always opts for an old standby: bleach.

"Soak the sink in it, clean the floor with it, dilute it and wash the counters down," she says. "It is the utility cleaner."

Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to U.S. News. He is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away," about the great flood of 1913, "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race," about the infamous Bunion Derby of 1928 and "Living Well with Bad Credit." You can follow him on Twitter @geoffw.
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