A list of essential (and nice to have) cookware and small appliances – cooking tools for healthy eating that will help you make good food and enjoy it more.
In order to eat healthy on a budget you need to cook food – there’s really no getting around that, is there? Some of us enjoy cooking (though there are always those times), and some don’t – but no matter what camp you fall into, having the right tools for a recipe or task makes cooking a whole lot easier.
I know this first-hand after spending years with the cheapest, dullest tools (an immersion blender made of plastic that melted in hot soup, a food processor that couldn’t make bread crumbs, a knife that sawed through breads instead of slicing…) and then realizing how pleasant AND quicker things went with more quality tools.
BUT, I’m also here to say you do not need to spend a ton of money, “top-of-the-line” doesn’t always equate to better quality than middle-of-the-line. Sometimes it does, but not as often as you might think.
I’ve gathered up my favorite cooking tools that I’ve shared in the weekly Three Things articles and occasional recipes, plus a few more for this resource of essential cookware and small appliances (will be sharing a list of essential knives and kitchen gadgets soon, too).
These are items I truly use and love, some of which I couldn’t imagine cooking without, but I’m listing some as truly essential and other’s as “nice to have” because I definitely do not think more is better (simplicity in the kitchen, too). I lean towards tools that are multi-function so they do more and take up less space than a bunch of one-use gadgets, but if you have the room, all the things on this list will make your cooking – and eating – life better.
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Essential Cooking Tools for a Healthy Kitchen
1. Stainless steel cookware. Stainless (inside and out) is the way to go for the longest-lasting pots and pans for healthy cooking. These are the criteria to look for in good SS pots:
- Made to last. They should be a heavy, quality set with an encapsulated aluminum bottom which is the best for even cooking. For years I used a set of my grandma’s heavy aluminum pots, which we found out we shouldn’t use anymore, but that taught me that cookware can, and should, last a long time.
- Stainless lids vs. glass lids. I prefer stainless since they won’t break, but I do know the value of glass lids for seeing when rice is done and water boiling. I added a 3-quart pot and a 12-qt. stock pot with glass lids for that reason. But the choice here is up to you, really.
- Riveted, all metal handles that won’t fall off and can go into the oven. Some are ‘stay cool’ but if not it’s easy to use a pot holder if the handles get hot.
- Stainless interior. No weird surfaces, whether non-stick, anodized or whatever – just stainless. Stainless steel lasts longer, doesn’t put anything into your food or the air, and is scrubbable if something does stick. (And I’ve discovered that using Bar Keepers Friend on them will make them look like new again.)
While the exact set I bought more than 12 years ago isn’t available anymore, this Cuisinart set pictured includes all the pieces I use the most from my bigger set, has aluminum encapsulated bases and stay-cool handles for a great, won’t-break-the-bank price.
To the above basic set, I’d add these for the most versatility:
2. 12-Inch Chef’s/Everyday Pan. I had no idea I’d use this pan so much after adding it a few years ago, but it’s perfect for one-pot meals – both stovetop and oven – and looks good to serve on the table without long handles in the way. The sides are a bit higher than a skillet, so it also stir-fries food nicely for curries and more. I almost use this pan more than any other – I love it!
3. 10-inch Cast Iron Skillet. My cast iron skillet a favorite kitchen item – but only since finally figuring out how to use cast iron & love it. And when I did, the naturally non-stick, seasoned surface allowed me to toss all my yucky non-stick pans. If you’re lucky to inherit a set or find one at a thrift store, all the better, but Lodge’s 10-inch skillet is a good option when starting new.
Nice to Have Cookware
1. 12-quart Stainless Steel Stockpot with Encapsulated Base. The thicker, encapsulated base is the key to cooking large amounts of soup, stew, or salsa without burning or sticking to the bottom of the pan. This is an item you may not need if you’re not cooking large amounts or making salsa to preserve, but if you do those things, this is a must-have pot. I find the 12-quart to be a better, more manageable size than a 16-quart pot, but larger families may need a bigger pot.
2. Enameled Cast-Iron Dutch Oven. This pot is a splurge (well, small in comparison to some!) that will pay for itself quickly if you make your own easy artisan bread instead of paying $4-$5 a loaf. It creates an amazing crust with the least effort – plus it’s great for oven slow-cooking, braising, stews, and more.
3. Stainless Steel Electric Skillet. I only started using this a few years ago, mainly because I wanted to try my hand at frying chicken and the deep sides and temperature controls made it easy, so I bought an inexpensive one that has a non-stick coating. We found, though, that with it’s square shape, it’s great for browning meats, and making things like grilled cheese sandwiches and pancakes, too. Now I know that we will use it at least weekly, I’m going to upgrade to the all-stainless version pictured.
Essential Small Appliances
1. Toaster Oven. You need either this or a regular toaster and for years thought a toaster was fine. Oh how wrong I was. A toaster oven is one of those multi-function appliances I love – it toasts bread for breakfast plus lots of bread for dinner (no need for the oven), makes toasted cheese, cinnamon toast, and reheats leftovers like pizza and nachos to perfection. You can bake potatoes and small breads in it, too. I vote for this over a toaster any day.
2. Handheld Mixer. For mixing basic doughs with regular beaters and dough hook beaters as well a a single balloon whisk beater for whipped cream. Even if you have the nice-to-have kitchenaid listed below, keeping a hand-held mixer on hand is nice for smaller jobs. Oh, and the mixer linked here comes in a case that keeps all the beaters together with the mixer – no random beaters in your kitchen drawers. Genius.
3. Immersion blender with steel base. Cheap plastic base immersion blenders will melt in hot soups (one of my favorite ways to use this), so spend a little more and get one with a steel base. I’ve used this Cuisinart Smart Stick blender for years now – it isn’t expensive and it works like a charm. It’s perfect for blending soups and sauces right in the pot (less clean-up and easier) and for making smoothies. Here are just a few of the things I use it for: slow cooker maple apple butter, easy homemade refried beans, tomato soup, rhubarb butter, cranberry sauce, cauliflower-cheese soup, white bean puree for this delicious shrimp dish, and much more. It doesn’t take up much room and it really is a workhorse.
4. Food processor. I’ve been using this middle-of-the-price-range 7-cup Cuisinart Pro Classic for years and it helps me to make these healthy foods (some that I no longer buy premade because of it): homemade bread crumbs, pesto, hummus, easy baguettes, mayonnaise. It chops tomatoes and vegetables for homemade salsa, tomato chutney, or roasted tomato sauce, grates carrots for this salad or zucchini for any of these recipes. The list goes on and on – see? Essential.
5. Slow Cooker (or newer Instant Pot that is both a slow-cooker and electric pressure cooker [not a canner, though]). One of the ways to cook when there’s not time or you’re tired is to use a slow cooker with a dump it-and-forget-it recipe, like this, this, and this. It’s also a way to cook tender meats and even side dishes like scalloped potatoes when your oven is full of other foods (think: holidays).
Nice to Have Small Appliances
2. Keurig coffee maker with refillable baskets. We ditched our 10-cup coffee maker for this since using the refillable cups is economical and we can choose our own coffee. We appreciate that each cup is hot and fresh every time! If you’re a coffee person, this may just make your “essential” list.
3. Panini maker. This always seemed like a one-hit wonder, so I resisted until I found one at a thrift store. Then I started making sandwiches with it and, wow, does it make them taste amazing! You can squish anything between two pieces of bread (or even tortillas like I did for these aamaaazing breakfast wraps) and it’s like you’ve ordered something at a fancy restaurant.
4. Blender. This may be on many people’s “essential” list, but I find between the food processor (that also shreds cheese and chops onions) and the immersion blender (soups & smoothies), I don’t really use a blender much – it’s just nice to have and this one is good.
5. Air popcorn maker. This is the easiest way to make popcorn – it’s faster than a microwave or stovetop and doesn’t have anything added, so you can add real butter. We have popcorn weekly, so I’d miss this if it weren’t around.
What are some of your favorite cookware & small appliances?
This article is part of the 8 Weeks of Christmas Ideas series where you’ll find resources for cooking, gift ideas, time savers, recipes, traditions & more all November and December through the 24th.
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