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Fresh beginnings in a new home or apartment or dorm room often mean one thing for the culinary inclined: getting used to a new kitchen. There are pots and pans to unbox, discussions over which appliances to purchase (and which to hold off on), and finding space for your seemingly endless spice collection. 

Related Reading: The Best Places to Restock Pantry Staples Online

Luckily there’s a new book that can lead you in the right direction of addressing some of these concerns. “Your Starter Kitchen: The Definitive Beginner’s Guide to Stocking, Organizing, and Cooking in Your Kitchen,” by former James Beard Award judge and food writer Lisa Chernick, helps both beginners and well-seasoned kitchen dwellers figure out which gadgets are worth splurging on and how to split the cost of appliances and groceries with roommates. Lisa also provides tips on getting creative with storage if you’re working with a teeny space.  

Your Starter Kitchen: The Definitive Beginner's Guide to Stocking, Organizing, and Cooking in Your, $16.99 on Amazon

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Even if you’ve been comfortable in your home kitchen for a number of years, it’s worth hearing what Lisa has to say about budget-friendly and healthy ingredients that have a long shelf life, as well as ways to host a culinary gathering; everyone could always hear a few tips on throwing a dinner party.

Ahead, Lisa shares her list of essential pantry items that she recommends keeping on hand at all times. It’s a topical conversation, considering much of the world is still relegated to cooking at home during the pandemic, and good insight to have, whether you’re moving out of your parents’ place into a first apartment or simply need to keep your college apartment stocked with more than just beer and mac & cheese. Plus, it’s financially beneficial to keep these essentials on hand, allowing you to prepare a meal—even when you don’t believe you have anything in the house (spoiler: You probably do). Along with these staples, Lisa also shares some insight into the oils, vinegars, and canned essentials she recommends stocking up on.

From YOUR STARTER KITCHEN by Lisa Chernick, published by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

Essential Pantry Items 

Whether you’re in a small, first-time kitchen or your forever home, these basic items should always be on hand so you don’t have to run out and shop every time you want to make something. Your kitchen size and cooking abilities may expand, but this streamlined list is the one to come back to in order to always keep your kitchen humming along. And as mentioned in the introduction, basics differ across cuisines, so please use this list as a guideline, and make any swaps you need to tailor it to your cooking.

  • Olive oil 
  • Neutral-flavored oil 
  • Nonstick spray 
  • Red or white wine vinegar 
  • Distilled white vinegar 
  • Canned and jarred essentials 
  • Dried herbs and spices 
  • Salt (table and kosher) and pepper (or peppercorns for a pepper mill) 
  • Short and long pasta 
  • Rice 
  • Quinoa or couscous 
  • Coffee and tea 
  • Nuts, nut butters, preserves, and sweeteners 
  • Honey and/or agave syrup 
  • Onion 
  • Garlic 
  • All-purpose flour 
  • Baking soda 
  • Baking powder 
  • Light brown sugar 
  • Granulated sugar 
  • Vanilla extract 
  • Almond extract 
  • Semisweet chocolate chips 
  • Cocoa powder 
  • Oats 
  • Parchment paper 
  • Condiments 
  • Avocados 
  • Lemons and limes 
  • Ginger 
  • Eggs 
  • Plain yogurt 
  • Butter and cream cheese 
  • Frozen necessities 


For your starter kitchen, it’s always great to have a bottle  of olive oil on hand. Find a kind that you like, whether it’s buttery, grassy, or spicy (I suggest trying a few to discover the one that suits you), and you’ll likely reach for it often when you start cooking—whether you’re dressing salads or drizzling on raw and cooked foods as a finishing touch.

Nothing beats a drizzle of assertively flavored extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of salt on grilled steak or a platter of sliced fresh tomatoes! You will also need a neutral-flavored oil in the pantry; Ideally one with a high smoke point, meaning it can handle high heat without starting to smoke. This is an oil you can use to sauté green beans or fry chicken, as well as use in combination with olive oil to make a perfect vinaigrette (see page 58). Good options for this kind of oil are canola, grapeseed, and vegetable. Regardless of what kind of oil it is, always store oil in a cool, dark place, and check it for flavor and smell before you use it. After about a year (sometimes more, sometimes less), oils can turn rancid, so trust your nose or tongue to tell you if the oil’s gone bad. This is also a reason not to buy oil in large bottles unless you’re sure you’re going to use it.

Last but not least, keep a can of nonstick spray (or oil spray) on hand, too. It can help you use less oil when cooking, if you’re trying to cut down, and can conveniently deliver a spritz to that one exact spot where you need it.


Red or white wine vinegar is a good all-purpose choice for salad dressings, to use in cooking, and for drizzling at the end of cooking. Try this: just before serving a pot of lentils, beans, or a hearty soup or stew, swirl in a dash of vinegar.  All the flavors will brighten and come into focus. Distilled white vinegar is good to have on hand as well for pickling, slaws, and even for cleaning up. You can keep a spray bottle of half vinegar, half water handy for cleaning kitchen countertops and spills.  

Canned and Jarred Essentials 

If you enjoy tuna, it’s always worth keeping a few cans in the pantry (Spanish or Italian tuna in olive oil is especially good when drained and mixed with fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar and freshly ground black pepper and salt). Additionally, I recommend keeping a few cans of your favorite beans or chickpeas, a can of whole peeled tomatoes, plus a tube or can of tomato paste in your pantry. If you’re a fan of capers and pickled jalapeños, keep those around, too. Any two or three of these items plus a few spices and rice or pasta equals a simple and delicious dinner!

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Amy Schulman is an associate editor at Chowhound. She is decidedly pro-chocolate.
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