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Wondering what to buy for the frugal cook in your life? Maybe your best friend just loves to cook for the freezer once a month. Maybe your sister enjoys couponing and cooking in bulk. Or maybe you have someone who just likes to see how low they can get that grocery budget to go. But even the most wallet-conscious cook can appreciate a few tools to make the job easier. This gift guide for the frugal cook is intended to give you some ideas for that friend (or for yourself!) – items that will actually be worth having around and that will help reduce food costs more by increasing efficiency.
I’ve included options with a wide range of price points, and a variety of interests within frugal cooking, so you can find the perfect gift! Enjoy shopping!
- A large cutting board (or two). There are few things more frustrating than trying to chop and prep on a surface that’s too small, and most people don’t even realize how frustrating it is until they’ve had an adequate workspace. A large cutting board is an amazing thing. There are a few directions you can take here. Personally, I use plastic boards, because that’s what I used when I worked in restaurants – so, basically, it’s habit. They can go in the dishwasher if your recipient has one that’s large enough, and they can be wiped down effectively with bleach. Wooden cutting boards (this one is handmade in Pittsburgh!), on the other hand, are more attractive but obviously can’t survive the dishwasher.
- Kitchen towels. The side towels of the home cook, these are useful for everything. A damp towel can hold a cutting board securely in place. You can use them to dry bigger produce like potatoes and cucumbers after washing. And they’re invaluable for cleaning as you go, which makes everything easier. That’s all a long way of saying that a big stash of lint-free towels is a cook’s best friend. Grove Collaborative sells nice ones, and you can get a $10 credit when you sign up – or check out “flour sack towels” at Amazon, Target, or your favorite kitchen store.
- Instant pot. This electric (and electronic!) pressure cooker is the appliance du jour, taking the place of the Crock Pot in many homes. Basically, anything a Crock Pot can do, an Instant Pot can do better – partially because it also has a slow cook function.But if you use the pressure feature, you can prepare dried beans, tougher cuts of meat, and more, all in far less time than it typically takes with other methods. Our grandmothers were on to something with those terrifying stovetop pressure cookers. These are a lot less scary, though! Bonus: You can also throw in frozen chicken and some sauce from a bottle or jar and have dinner in half an hour, so it can save you from takeout on a really bad night.
- FridgeSmarts. Full disclosure here: I am a Tupperware consultant. But even before I was, I loved and used FridgeSmarts. These extend the life of produce by maintaining the proper level of humidity with an adjustable vent. They’ve also got a “footed” bottom that allows cold air to circulate around the entire container, and it keeps most produce up and out of any moisture it might shed. They’re attractive, and they save us (possibly literal) tons of wasted food, which is wasted money. You can order FridgeSmarts from me here.
- Tongs. Many people have gone their entire cooking lives without using a pair of tongs. That’s a shame, because they make everything easier. They basically serve as an extension of the hand for flipping hot food, lifting pot lids, placing raw meat in a pan, and more. I can’t imagine cooking without them.Even if your intended recipient already has tongs, you really can never have too many; if you’ve got a few things going at one time, as is likely with freezer cooking, it’s great to have an extra pair to avoid mixing flavors unintentionally.I love the Oxo 12″ tongs and have had excellent luck with their durability. The 9″ tongs with silicone heads are also nice to have. The silicone coating means they won’t scratch nonstick pans, but it also makes them slightly more difficult to edge under things like crepes sometimes.I also like the locking feature on the Oxo tongs; space is more limited in a home kitchen so keeping the profile low is helpful when they’re not in use.
You can also pick up stainless steel tongs at a restaurant supply store. Just check to make sure that the heads (the part you use to pick things up) line up well and don’t wiggle too much, or they’ll be miserable to use. Some of the cheapest tongs suffer from shoddy craftsmanship.
- FoodSaver. A FoodSaver lets you vacuum seal food, which is a huge boon for buying in bulk. For example, Zaycon Fresh is offering chicken breast for a mere $1.49/lb – the lowest price I’ve seen in at least a year – but you have to buy 40 pounds. Without proper storage, that would be freezerburned long before we’d ever eat all of it. Vacuum sealing helps preserve freshness. Target often runs kitchen sales and you can score larger appliances like this at a good price! This is a relatively simple model, but they make quite fancy ones as well with on-board bag storage.
- Salad spinner. Especially if your favorite frugal cook also keeps a garden, a salad spinner is essential. Even if she doesn’t, it’s often less expensive to buy not-pre-bagged greens, and many people prefer to wash them again at home. You can also use it to drain pasta or wash berries (don’t spin the berries – just let them soak in the basket then pull it out to drain the water off). And – this is really cool – you can remove the seeds from canned tomatoes with a salad spinner. Pretty nifty, huh? I’ve used a lot of salad spinners and the Oxo Good Grips is still my favorite.
- Silicone spatula. One or ten, really. These are handy for everything, from folding liquids into a batter, to scraping down the sides of a bowl while mixing, to getting the last bits of peanut butter out of a jar. The Rubbermaid High-Heat Scraper is what you’ll find in most commercial kitchens, at least in my experience, and they’re durable and sturdy and work really well. I like the 9.5″ length for most home uses, although if your giftee likes making big batches of stuff, a 12.5″ length might be handy, too! The spoon (“spoonula”) also comes in handy but isn’t nearly the workhorse that a regular paddle-shaped spatula/scraper is.
If you don’t love the look of the Rubbermaid, Tupperware also makes excellent heat-resistant spatulas. I have two and they see heavy use at home and still look great.
- Kitchen scale. Baking by weight is life-changing. I’m not even exaggerating. It’s so much more accurate, and gives consistent results for cakes and breads. It also helps with cleanup – no more washing five measuring cups, no indeed. Just tare for each ingredient and measure directly in the mixing bowl. I haven’t actually tried this scale from Etekcity yet, but the one I use is discontinued and I’ve heard many, many good reviews of this. It’s also great for weighing food for someone who watches portions or macronutrients closely!
- Measuring cups and spoons. I know I just said to measure things by weight, but particularly for liquids, sometimes a measuring cup is just easier. I love these top-view measuring cups from Oxo. No need to crouch down to get an accurate measurement! Seriously, it’s great. The only drawback is that the measurement ridge makes it difficult to stir things in them – which I actually do frequently, like when combining liquid ingredients for a cake. You can tip them a bit towards the spout and make it work, it’s just not optimal.
For dry measures, I like the measuring cups and spoons from Tupperware, of course. The spoons are particularly neat because the handles are angled so they can be set down on the counter and not tip your carefully-measured cinnamon everywhere. I’ve found them to be accurate as dry volume measures go. Even when baking by weight, some small quantities (like salt, spices, and sometimes baking powder) are more easily measured by volume in a measuring spoon.
- Mixing bowls. You may think this category would be dominated by Tupperware, but I do like some other options, as well! Of course, the Thatsa Bowls from Tupperware are fantastic; I love the thumb grip in the handle and I love that they have seals so I can make, say, pasta salad or coleslaw and store it right in the same bowl. The design is aesthetically pleasing and totally classic; there’s a reason Tupperware bowls are in museums! Plus, they carry a lifetime warranty.
That said, I also like stainless steel mixing bowls for being light and easy to clean; you can also use them to create a double boiler by setting them over a pot of simmering water. Technically you can bake in them, too, though stainless is not a great material for even heat conduction.
Glass bowls can also do this, though I’ve seen a few too many pieces of exploding Pyrex to get excited about exposing them to thermal changes. Especially if you use an electric mixer in them, they can develop invisible stresses.
I also don’t prefer melamine bowls. I used to love them; they look so cheerful and retro. However, melamine is not microwave safe at all, and my experience has been that they crack and break after several years of heavy use.
- A bevy of thermometers.
A meat thermometer allows you to check whether something is done without having to cut into it. Even high-flying chefs use them these days; they’re a boon to food safety and help prevent overcooking, too. The Thermapen is the gold standard for nearly-instant readings. No standing around waiting for the dial to creep up, and the digital display leaves no question as to the temperature. There are knockoff versions; I have one and it works well, is accurate, and comes in a bevy of colors to match your recipient’s kitchen.
An oven thermometer is essential, too. It’s practically a guarantee that every oven runs either hot or cold. It probably also has some hot spots. Having this information can really help when baking or roasting. It’s not a direct money saver, although it might save a few batches of burnt cookies. Still, it’s something that makes cooking far more pleasant and far more efficient, and that makes it a great gift. The Rubbermaid commercial one has held up well for us and seems accurate.
And finally and perhaps most obviously, a fridge/freezer thermometer (or two) helps to maintain the proper temperature for food safety and optimal food quality. No more wondering if the meat’s been held at a safe temperature; with a fridge thermometer, you can know for sure. Again, I like Rubbermaid commercial; they can take a beating and keep working.
- Disher or “ice cream scoop”. What? Well, not only do they work for ice cream, they’re also great for making uniform scoops of anything, from cookie dough to meatballs. They make bulk baking and cooking just a little faster and more pleasant. The dishers from Oxo have great reviews, and will likely be my choice when I need to get a new size. (In general, Oxo seems to make excellent home versions of commercial kitchen staples.)
The Vollrath model can be found at restaurant supply stores or on Amazon, and are restaurant kitchen standard. They hold up well to lots of use and are also a fantastic choice, plus the color-coded handles (by size) come in handy. They also offer more sizes than Oxo, in case you need to make REALLY BIG meatballs. (Or dish up even portions of mashed potatoes to a whole lot of people.)
- Sheet pans. These are a kitchen necessity. Heavy aluminum sheet pans are versatile – you can use them for cookies, cakes, baking, roasting… there are even cookbooks about making entire dinners on a sheet pan. Technically, the size I use most at home is a half sheet; a full sheet pan is pretty big and unwieldy for home use. They don’t fit in my dishwasher and they take up the whole oven. Half sheets are perfect, though! You want one that’s heavy, and aluminum is a great heat conductor that will help with even cooking. These Nordicware half sheet pans are great. Use them to roast veggies, too.
You can also find these at restaurant supply stores – the brand will probably be Vollrath, which is good too. The Amazon price is about the same, though!