A well-stocked kitchen can be a real money saver. Having the right pots and pans and pantry basics can save you loads in the long run because you can cook more meals at home and spend less eating out. But how do you find the right pans without spending a fortune in the short run? And how do you know what to keep in your pantry that you will actually use? Here are some tricks and tips.
Pots and pans
It's tempting to buy pots and pans on the cheap, but experts say that will cost you more in the end because cheaply made cookware doesn't last — and won't cook things quickly or evenly — and you'll end up buying more cookware sooner. Fortunately, there's a bevy of ways to save on quality cookware.
First, figure out exactly what you need. Check out online guides and tutorials from retailers like Macy's and Bed Bath & Beyond. Most experts recommend owning one saute pan, a saucepan, a Dutch oven and a stockpot. But what you need depends how much and what you cook.
Next, scout off-price websites like Overstock.com and brick-and-mortar discounters like Marshall's and T.J. Maxx, which often have abundant cookware. Jeff Contray, managing editor of dealnews.com, also suggests checking clearance sales and the outlet stores of high-end department store chains like Nordstrom, Macy's or Bloomingdale's.
If you're lucky, you may find good cookware at thrift stores, yard sales or online auction sites like eBay. But make sure the items are good quality (Calphalon, All-Clad and Le Creuset are among many high-quality brands that last for decades). And don't buy anything that's damaged or overused.
Once you have the right cookware, you can spend very little to create delicious meals, if you have a carefully stocked pantry. The trick is to know what you actually will use and what you won't — and then to remember what you've stowed away.
Some pantry basics are obvious: For quick and cheap dinners, keep pasta, couscous, rice and other grains — all very inexpensive — on hand for a foundation. Beans are also inexpensive and work in a wide variety of cuisines. Chicken, beef or vegetable stock, which can be stored for a year or more in a can or aseptic box, is the key ingredient in numerous sauces and soups. Bear in mind that frozen vegetables can be cheaper than fresh, and they can keep longer.
Learning a few simple recipes can help stretch the items in your pantry. Tomato sauce for pasta is one of the simplest, and it can be made tasty with a few additions like onions, garlic and herbs like oregano or basil. Another classic: rice and beans, which costs just pennies if you are stocked up and can be made in the styles of Mexican, Spanish, Italian or many Asian cuisines.
Simple soups can be time- and money-savers. Nothing beats homemade chicken noodle soup for comfort food, and all you need is broth, pasta and a small amount of chicken. Branch out to black bean or broccoli soup, both remarkably easy. All three can be whipped up in a few minutes once you're stocked up, and they'll make even the most kitchen-phobic person look like a gourmet chef.
Online checklists, like this one at Real Simple, bit.ly/chNl4y, can help guide your decisions. But be honest about your taste when you stock up. Don't buy a pound of lentils, even if you can get them at a great price and you know they're easy to cook with, if you know you can't stand them. Buy in bulk at grocery stores, fruit and vegetable stands, farmers markets and warehouse clubs, and be vigilant about coupons.
At amazon.com, Contray recommends checking out the grocery coupons the site publishes every month and using them on top of the 15 percent discount you get by signing up for Amazon's "Subscribe & Save" program, which delivers items every month.
Beware, though, that — like many subscription services — Subscribe & Save may not be cost-effective in the longer run, Contray says. He said customers often pay higher prices after their first shipment.