So you (or someone you know and love) is headed to college. What college kitchen basics does today's college dorm or apartment need? It's been about 10 years since I graduated with (my very useful, lol) B.A. in Film and Video, but I remember being so excited to move out of my dorm and into my first real apartment with a real kitchen.
I didn't actually cook or bake a lot in college. My cooking was mostly limited to angel hair pasta with chicken and tuna newberg. But some of the stuff I bought for my college kitchen is still in my kitchen today!
Okay, it's one thing. I have one skillet from college.
But it's a great skillet. I use it all the time.
Mostly, still, to make angel hair pasta with chicken and tuna newberg.
There's a lot of kitchen gear out there packaged into handy "starter sets" for college students. The thing is, a lot of times you don't actually need all of the things in those sets, or you'll find yourself replacing them mid-year because they're not designed for long term wear and tear.
So to help save you the headache of combing through every store's list of recommended college kitchen gear, I've gone ahead and done it for you. This is my roundup of what you ACTUALLY need in a college kitchen.
- What to look for in college kitchen gear
- What kind of college kitchen gear you don't need
- College kitchen cooking tools and utensils
- Pots and pans for your college kitchen
- College kitchen appliances
- BONUS! — What The Practical Kitchen readers recommend
What to look for in college kitchen gear:
- Things that are dishwasher, microwave, oven, and freezer safe
- Kitchen tools that are budget friendly without sacrificing quality
- A mix of things that will last a year and things that will last at least until you graduate
- Things that are easy to clean and don't require complicated care (e.g. no cast iron)
- Things that can accomplish a lot of different tasks
- Tools ideal for cooking for one but with some room to cook for roommates or friends too
What kind of college kitchen gear you don't need:
- Unitaskers that take up a lot of space and rarely get used
- Massive "convenience" sets that really only have a few things you'll actually use (and break/melt/fall apart when you do)
- More than 4 knives
- A spaghetti spoon/fork (just use tongs)
- An air fryer — they're just ovens!!! They're! JUST! OVENS!*
- Silicone baking mats — they're annoyingly hard to clean and store, just not worth it in a small kitchen
*This is my own personal dislike of air fryers talking. If you love an air fryer or your college kitchen doesn't have an oven by all means, go for it. I just can't tell you what to look for in a good one because I don't use them myself. Personally, I'd buy a toaster oven before I bought an air fryer for my college kitchen, but that's just me.
Here's how I'm breaking things down by price:
College kitchen tools and utensils
OXO is a popular brand for a reason — their kitchen utensils are well designed, last a while, and they're very affordable. I've combed through hundreds of large and small college kitchen tool sets at this point, and while there are sets with more tools in them, this combo truly gives you just about everything you need.
I like the combo of these two sets because you get a good mix of nylon, silicone, and stainless steel tools. It's always good to have more than one spatula. If you're using mostly non-stick pots and pans, you may also want to get tongs with silicone tips so you don't scratch the surface. These aren't the kinds of tools you're going to have for a lifetime, but they will for sure last you through college easily.
2. A serving spoon and square turner from Target's Room Essentials line
For just $1.50 each, Target can fill in the only items missing from the OXO sets I just mentioned. And because they're nylon that means they're safe to use with non-stick pans. These definitely won't last you forever — they might just last the year. But for $1.50 that's all you really need from them!
3. A set of wire mesh strainers, aka multi-purpose tools that can fill the role of so many other unitaskers
If you have a wire mesh strainer you don't need a colander, a sifter, or a powdered sugar duster. This handy multi-tasker is a great addition to any college kitchen. Use it to drain pasta, rinse berries, create smooth soups, sift flour, dust powdered sugar, and more.
I recommend getting a set of three — they nest inside each other for easy storage and the small one can even be used as a looseleaf tea infuser!
4. A chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife will really cover all your cutting, slicing, and dicing basics
I know those colorful, cheap knife sets are super popular in college kitchens — I even had a pack when I was in college. The only nice thing I have to say about them is that they're pretty and come with knife guards so you can safely store them in a drawer. But the cons far outweigh the pros: they're hard to sharpen, the color chips off easily, and their blades have this strange beveled edge that actually makes them worse at cutting things.
You really only need three knives in your college kitchen: A chef's knife (6-8"), a paring knife (4"), and a serrated bread knife. I recommend this 3-piece set by Henckels (the budget friendly brand under the Zwilling umbrella) which is often on sale at the same price as the colorful sets, but is much higher quality.
You'll need a knife block to keep the blades covered when they aren't in use (I like this universal countertop block and this in-drawer one). But it's far better to have 3 safer knives that are easier to use and sharpen, than a set of 5 mostly useless, annoying knives that you're more likely to hurt yourself with.
You know I'm Team Kitchen Scale all the way, but when it comes to college kitchen basics I will make an exception. This colorful 19-piece set of measuring cups and spoons is literally every measurement you could possibly need.
I like it in particular because it has super unique measurements (2 teaspoon, 1.5 cups, etc) which means you don't gave to keep washing your measuring spoons between uses. It's also just the right amount of durable and disposable to get you through college. I bought this set a few years ago and still have most of it!
6. A set of liquid measuring cups that nest for easy storage
The most important thing to look for in liquid measuring cups other than accuracy is that they're microwave safe! This is a great set — I like that it has lots of markings between the cup measurements and that it's tall and narrow rather than short and squat. Much easier for storing in a small kitchen!
7. A set of nesting mixing bowls with lids and rubber bottoms
This set of stainless steel mixing bowls ranges in size from 1.5 to 7 quarts, which should cover just about all of your college kitchen mixing needs.
Yes, you can find cheaper sets of bowls out there but it's worth the extra few dollars to get a set with lids and rubber bottoms so you aren't constantly wrestling with plastic wrap, and don't have to worry about the bowls sliding around everywhere.
8. A set of cutting boards that can be stored out of the way
Finding somewhere to store cutting boards so they aren't in the way when you have a small college kitchen is tricky! That's why I love this set of two double sided cutting boards with gripper feet by cult-favorite kitchen brand Joseph Joseph. It comes with a storage case that can stick to the inside of a cupboard door! So easy.
9. A pair of Bluapple produce drawer fresheners to keep your veggies fresh longer
Ah, college. The first time you truly understand the eternal struggle of buying fresh produce only to have it go bad before you get to eat it. These Blue Apple drawer fresheners absorb the ethylene gas naturally produced by fruits and vegetables (which causes them to spoil!) so they last even longer.
Each one lasts for about 3 months, and you can get filter refills online. (That way you don't have to spend your beer money buying more vegetables, hahahahaha.)
Pots and pans for your college kitchen
10. A small non-stick skillet for frying eggs and making grilled cheese with minimal clean up, etc.
While I generally advise against non-stick pans because the surfaces are easy to scratch and they make it hard to get a good sear on your food, I do think every college kitchen needs at least one. The non stick surface is ideal for things like frying eggs and making grilled cheese — anything that has a tendency to stick when you're in a rush.
Pro tip: Just remember not to use any metal tools on it (and don't use it over super high heat) and the non-stick surface will stay as sleek and shiny as brand new car at least until you graduate (and even if you don't).
11. A large stainless steel sauté pan or frying pan (with lid) is great whether you're cooking solo or for a group
This 10" 3.5 quart high-sided skillet is a great multi-purpose skillet. It's small enough that it doesn't feel outrageous if you're just cooking for one, it won't take up too much space in your college kitchen, but its also roomy enough that you could cook enough for your friends or roommates too.
While there are lots of other skillets out there, my personal rule of thumb when buying skillets is to always buy a skillet with a lid. They're weirdly hard to find, and when you're following a recipe that suddenly tells you to "cover and simmer" there's really not much else that can fill in for a properly fitting lid in a pinch. Trying to buy a lid separate from a pan is a sizing nightmare, so better to spend a little more money up front to get a lid included.
12. A medium sized stock pot for soups and large batches of pasta or sauces
I first shared this brilliantly designed stock pot in my post of kitchen tools for clumsy people but knowing how cavalier I was in my college kitchen... let's just say it would have been good for everyone (and my security deposits) if I'd had one of these.
5-quarts is the perfect size for a college kitchen. It's big enough that you can make a large pot of spaghetti sauce or soup to eat all week long. But it's not so big that you feel like it's taking up too much space in your cupboards either.
13. An inexpensive sauce pot with a lid for making pasta and soups
You do not need to splurge on sauce pots. It's great to have two of them — a small one (1.5-2.5 quarts) and a medium sized one (3-4 quarts). That way you can make sauce in one and pasta or rice in the other.
My rule of thumb for buying skillets applies here too: make sure you get pots that come with lids! That's why I like these Made by Design sauce pots from Target. They're affordable, have vented lids, and come in two sizes perfect for a college kitchen. With all stainless steel construction, they're also oven safe!
14. A sheet pan with cooling rack from that can handle sheet pan dinners and cookie bakes
USA Pan makes the BEST sheet pans, imo. They're easy to clean, rippled for air flow, very sturdy and won't warp, and they're super reliable too. In college you really only need one sheet pan — it can handle everything from chocolate chip cookies to sheet pan tacos to chex mix popcorn.
I like that this one comes with a cooling rack that fits perfectly inside — it makes them both much easier to store in a small college kitchen.
College kitchen appliances
15. A clear electric kettle for tea, hot cocoa, coffee, and yes, of course, instant noodles ($$)
Sure you can boil water on the stove, but you're probably studying. (Right? You are studying?) An electric kettle with a keep warm feature makes it super easy to heat water quickly without worrying about anything boiling over or boiling away while you're buried in a book.
I like this electric kettle for college kitchens because it has 5 different temperature settings (including hot cocoa and instant noodle) and automatically shuts off if there's no water inside. While the base plugs in, the pot itself is cordless, and it has a wide mouth which makes it easy to clean inside.
16. A magic bullet blender for single serve smoothies and so much more
There are a ton of mini blenders on the market these days, but for a college kitchen I recommend the good ol' Magic Bullet. A lot of other mini blenders are designed solely for smoothie making and only come with smoothie cups and blades. The Magic Bullet can do a whole lot more than that. Unless you're making big batch margaritas (which, maybe you are) you don't really need a full size blender taking up space in your college kitchen.
The Magic Bullet is small, but can do a lot! It comes with three different cups (including one for smoothies) which means you can use it for making so much more. It also comes with two resealable lids so you can store your hummus, pesto, or salsa for later.
17. A breakfast sandwich maker for early mornings and hangovers
I made a lot of breakfast sandwiches in college. I like a hot breakfast! I was skeptical of this breakfast sandwich maker at first, but I can personally vouch for it making excellent breakfast sandwiches quickly and reliably. Just pop everything in the breakfast sandwich maker while you get dressed or pack your bag for the day and it'll be ready when you are.
It does need a little time to preheat, but once it's hot it can make a sandwich in about 5 minutes.
This is the only true uni-tasker on this list, and the reason I included it is because it's really good at what it does. It also reduces the number of dishes you'd need to use to make a breakfast sandwich otherwise, and it's easy to clean. The removable pieces are dishwasher safe. And that's a real win when you're a busy college student!
18. A small 3-qt Instant Pot which can handle slow cooking, pressure cooking, rice making, and so much more
I loved my slow cooker in college. I could set it up in the morning or before my afternoon classes and know that dinner would be ready when I got home at the end of the day. But if an Instant Pot had been an option back then I would have been all over that ish.
You can use the Instant Pot for slow cooking, pressure cooking, rice making, batch hard boiling eggs, steaming, and sautéing food too. It definitely helps cut back on dishes, and it's great that it doesn't require leaving the stove on while you're not there to watch it.
A mini 3-quart instant pot is definitely college kitchen appropriate — it has plenty of room if you're cooking for two or three people (or just cooking for yourself with plans for leftovers). If you're planning on doing more bulk cooking or week-long meal prep, a 6-quart Instant Pot is much bulkier, but probably a better fit for you.
19. A mini rice cooker with steamer basket
The great thing about Instant Pots is they can do SO MANY THINGS. The downside is sometimes you need to use two of their functions simultaneously. What happens if you're using the Instant Pot to make a sauce to go with rice? That's where a mini rice cooker comes in super handy.
I know I've said not to bother with uni-taskers, which is why I recommend getting a mini rice cooker with a steamer basket. Fill the bottom basin with rice and the steamer basket with broccoli or other fresh veggies. They'll all be done at the same time.
You can also use the steamer basket on its own to steam fresh veggies! Add a bit of lemon juice or herbs to the water to flavor the veggies as they steam.
I like this model because it has an automatic keep warm setting and the bowl, steamer basket, and lid are all dishwasher safe. Oh and that 3-cup measurement? That's 3 cups of dry rice, which is about 6 cups of cooked rice. Believe me, that's plenty.
I polled my Twitter and Instagram followers to ask them what college kitchen gear they were most glad to have. Here's what they said:
- George Foreman mini-grill and panini press with drip tray
- A big slow cooker or crock pot
- Single cup coffee maker with reusable filter
- Big stainless steel mixing bowl
- Good knives (worth the extra price)
- A few good large potholders to put under bowls for eating things hot out of the microwave
- A casserole dish with a lid
- One really good, proper chef's knife
- A toaster oven
- One small serrated knife
- A cheese grater
- An air fryer because the oven never worked
- An extra large plastic bowl
- A food processor (or mini food processor)
- A nice set of spices
- A nesting saucepan and skillet set that shared lids
What else would you add to this list? Is there anything I missed? Let me know in the comments!