What’s the difference between a cheap gift and a frugal gift?
- The love the new owner gives it, shown by how much they use it
- How long it will last
For example, my Moby Wrap was a gift, and it’s a pricey item, around $50 at the time. But I used it every day of the first 6 months of 3 babies’ lives = less than 10c/day.
But that electric chair massager thingy that I also received as a gift, similarly retailed at about $50, most certainly 40% off with an additional coupon at Kohl’s for a total of $18 or so – a GREAT DEAL! <<<said with much enthusiasm
I used it about twice, for $9 per use.
It sat in my way and stressed me out many times, and I finally had to carry it to Goodwill feeling guilty all the way = further opportunity cost, so to speak, decreasing its value even more.
I’d rather have one single gift in the former category for my birthday and Christmas combined (frugal gift) than 10 of the other kind from one person for Christmas (cheap gifts).
Give me joy, not guilt!
I’m ruthless about it, so you know my gift guide will be filled with only the cream of the crop, the items that last, the lasting use tools.
Since the mission of Kitchen Stewardship is to keep you healthy without going crazy, I’ll help you find items that will make real food easier or more fun, protect your family from environmental hazards, save you time or use your hard-earned dollars well – most of the time more than one of those!
Whether you use this list to tell other people what to buy for you or to get inspiration for those who appreciate the practical, I hope it’s a gem for you. I truly believe these are the best basic kitchen tools & appliances that are actually worth the money.
Top Ten Kitchen Gadgets for the Make-From-Scratch Life
It’s not that I’ve gotten worse at meal planning over the years, it’s just that I’m so much busier!
Total excuse. I’m SO much worse at meal planning than I used to be and it’s just that I’m not prioritizing it – but the Instant Pot saves me over and over again.
It’s a 7-in-1 electric multi-functional cooker best known for its pressure cooking functionality, but it’s also a slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker, steamer & it can even saute or warm food. Phew!
Besides saving me on slow cooker recipes that I think of at 3:00 (here’s how to adapt slow cooker recipes to the Instant Pot), my Instant Pot has done meats, gorgeous (and super duper fast rice, 3x as fast as my old rice cooker), and steamed veggies. I even leave rice in it overnight (off), poured in some milk in the morning and turned on a quick cycle and rice pudding, easy as could be.
In fact, it’s so easy you have to see this video of my 5yo son making dinner with it (and grab the GF mac and cheese recipe too!)
The best part perhaps is that the interior bowl is made of stainless steel, and if you’ve looked into materials for slow cookers or rice cookers lately, you know that there’s a lot of nonstick and ceramic (the question of leaching lead with ceramic is a big one). So for materials safety, functionality (did I mention it can even saute!), and pure efficiency, this baby quickly became a favorite thing of mine (see all my recipes here). The world’s largest retailers now also carry Instant Pot, but YOU can get the best price today on Amazon.com.
Hint: Amazon usually puts the IP on “deal of the day” once during December as well as during Black Friday time and 1-2x during the year for Prime Day. Set an alert using this handy free site and you’ll get an email when the price drops.
Make your Instant Pot work for you!
The Instant Pot has gotten a lot of hype over the last couple years – for good reason. It really can do just about anything.
Although it can seem a bit daunting to use at first, it really becomes quite simple once you give it a try.
Use the techniques, tips and simple recipes from the Instant Pot Guidebook to get started, and before you know it, your Instant Pot will become indispensable!
Would you believe we received a big stockpot as a wedding gift and took it back? I had registered for it and everything but had second thoughts: “I’ll never make that much soup often enough for the size…”
Oh, how I wish I would have kept it! I’d use it all the time for bone broth and soup. My husband had to fix my mistake 10 years later with a new gigantic pot for Christmas. It’s certainly not something I use every day, but I do love to make a huge pot of broth or a triple or quad batch of certain soups or chili.
In the winter I’ll just take the whole pot into the garage for storage, then put it back on the stove to heat up a day or two later! You can also make a load of corn on the cob for a crowd for a summer party – or let a toddler climb into it to play a game. 😉
Bethany, a contributing writer here at KS, loves her 10-quart Cuisinart stock pot (recommended by America’s Test Kitchen) which she uses for boiling noodles, making soup, and making large-scale mashed potatoes for holidays.
I am definitely not kidding when I say this is my favorite kitchen gadget with a plug – and it’s one of the least expensive ones I own!
I use it all. the. time. To make homemade guacamole, blend refried beans, soups in the pot, homemade applesauce, puree pumpkin, make homemade mayo, whip up pancake batter (especially this grain free pumpkin pancake recipe, which I’ll make right after pureeing the orange vegetable)…I could probably use two!
It’s so easy to clean – just a quick rinse if you’re going from one food to another and then toss the business end in the dishwasher at the end of the night. Compared to a big blender with its many parts, this is child’s play. Speaking of – my kids of course adore it as well.
Plus, I love that you can get a decent one for well under $50, and it doesn’t take up a ton of space. If you can get one with a little mini food chopper, I guarantee you’ll find things to do with that too! (Chopping a small amount of nuts for a recipe, whizzing a bunch of garlic for homemade dressings, making a small batch of homemade dressing and more are some of my favs.)
When you’re talking frugality, something you could actually pass on to your children through generations takes the cake, no matter how much it costs at the outset.
We use our cast iron so much, they don’t even have an “away” place to go because they’re always out on the stove.
The skillet is where we saute everything and make recipes that can go from the stovetop to the oven, but the griddle is really the thing that gets used multiple times daily. On the stovetop, we cook:
- fried eggs
- egg scrambles
- fried potatoes
- sausage patties
- salmon patties
- chickpea wraps
- sauteed veggies
- strips of meat
- even reheating leftovers for lunch!
If you get one, be sure to get at least one metal spatula as well, because it’s not even worth using an old plastic spatula on this. To clean it, we honestly just scrape off any remnants of food as we’re heating it up, and if it’s really messy, we pour a little water on it when it’s hot, use the metal spatula to scrape and an old dishrag to wipe up messes and then carry on with our cooking. The 5-minute preheat time will kill any bacteria sitting around, and you shouldn’t use soap on cast iron anyway. (Care and cleaning of cast iron)
Mine is nothing fancy and gets a lot of heavy jobs done – it is a Cuisinart like the one linked to on Amazon (image above), but I bet this larger 10-cup Hamilton Beach number can do a great job for less money.
I reviewed a massive 14-cup Magimix, and you know what? For 4-10x the cost of the other ones, the only thing it really has one them is size. So whatever – get a basic one for making blended bean dips, cauli rice, date-and-nut bars and more! (I admit bigger is nice if you have a large family though…)
One tip: you MUST get one with a slicer and shredded blade, because that truly triples its functionality! I would not survive some meals without my shredding and slicing being automated, and my kids LOVE to feed stuff in the top. Even a two-year-old can actually be helpful on that task instead of just feeling like he is while slowing me down…
Blendtec (or any blender)
Gasp! Did Katie really just insinuate in that heading that a Blendtec is on an equal playing field with “just any old blender???” Yeah, kind of. We’ve had a Blendtec since 2012, and in my initial Blendtec review I wasn’t incredibly glowing. After years of using it a few times a week, I really do like it. It holds up. It does an incredible job with smoothies, so much so that I’m probably spoiled and wouldn’t be able to go back to a regular blender.
But is it $500++ worth it? That’s where you have to ask questions.
I don’t think you necessarily need a high-powered blender for $500 and up, unless you feel you must make homemade nut butters, grind up lemon peels in your smoothies or grind flour. Truly, there are some recipes that can only happen in a high-powered thing like Blendtec or Vitamix, and some people swear by them. Personaly I haven’t found it to be a necessity, especially if you want bang for your buck.
Otherwise, just grab a blender of some sort (I’m just linking to the whole search for the word ‘blender’ on Amazon for this one, because I don’t know what to recommend). If it’s not even something you have yet, you’ll want to find out how often you might use it for normal, non-high-powered needs before considering investing in a big dog.
In 2017 the most-mentioned kitchen tool as a FAVORITE of big food bloggers was a high-powered blender. Tip from The Blender Girl, who would know if anyone does – the KitchenAid Pro Line Series blender is now the most powerful blender on the market.
I have Pampered Chef brand stones and vouch for amazing quality. A few years ago I read up on Amazon’s offerings and wasn’t impressed, so I bought another PC brand stone.
Now there are a wider variety of options with better reviews and even some Pampered Chef options via Amazon, so they’re worth perusing.
Good Knife and Cutting Board
When I talked about how to clean wooden cutting boards, I mentioned how often I use these items. Probably more than any other in my kitchen. My knife is the ONE ITEM that I use every day, 50 times a day. I’m constantly chopping vegetables, and I’m never without my big chef’s knife (unless my son is snatching it to chop veggies; it’s his favorite too!).
I realize those don’t seem frugal, but when I consider how blissfully happy they make me and how darn much use they get, I can’t imagine not having either.
There is a much more economical option for knives though – the Victorinox brand is very highly rated by America’s Test Kitchen and also members of the staff at KS. They sell a small-ish chef’s knife that is perfect for little hands (your kids) and a very inexpensive 4-inch utility knife that is a workhorse in many kitchens. Members of our kids cooking ecourse, Kids Cook Real Food, have grabbed the Victorinox brand from our kids cooking tools resources page (including one 2nd grade teacher using the course with her whole class) and give rave reviews!
BUY A WUSTHOF OR VICTORINOX KNIFE & BOOS CUTTING BOARD HERE
We’ve had two toaster ovens, and both are indispensable for what they do for me, but I have no love for either.
My first, a Cuisinart, had excellent features but was buggy and died too quickly for my liking. The new one, purchased quickly out of necessity when the former died an early death, is an Oster and has some features I absolutely dislike. For example, there’s metal on the door that conducts heat (ouch!) and dials that children aren’t strong enough to turn.
When purchasing a toaster oven, I’d recommend looking for:
- 6-slice capacity
- ability to bake a whole pie/8×8 casserole (at least)
- multiple heights for the tray
- auto-shutoff timer
- easy controls (ask yourself how many buttons or dials you’d have to touch just to make toast, for example)
- NO non-stick on the interior – this one is very hard to find. In fact, a few toaster ovens that I used to recommend have non-stick interiors, and to me, it’s just not worth the potential risk if it gets up to 500F.
This Hamilton Beach toaster oven checks all the boxes and has good reviews and a reasonable price, so I feel pretty confident in saying it would be a good choice!
Sometimes I’m not sure if the dehydrator is worth the space, but I do use it a lot. If you want to have a raw foods lifestyle, preserve a lot of seasonal produce, make crispy nuts, or beef jerky, it’s helpful and nearly necessary. Although you can do a lot of the same things in an oven, many ovens don’t go below 170F and thus will kill enzymes (not “raw” foods), and sometimes you can’t tie up your oven for 12 hours and still survive the day!
And if you do grab one, learn EVERYTHING one can possibly do with a dehydrator, even making shelf stable stock, from Wardee at Traditional Cooking School (a membership makes a sweet clutter-free gift!).
Stocking Stuffers for Yourself or Others:
Every year I make orders from:
- MadeOn hard lotion (read my glowing review of this awesome company)
- Plant Therapy essential oils (their 25 days of Christmas sales are the BEST)
- Hobo Beard Oil for my hubby from my friends Donielle and Todd
||From basic baking to pulling my yogurt jars out of the boiling water and managing to can tomatoes without killing myself, these babies are constantly busy around here! The versatility of having all your fingers available is priceless, and we found that these are much safer for kids’ hands than the big “mitten” style mitts too.|
||Easy to find, if you want to buy real lettuce in bulk, this little baby is indispensable. You can cut lettuce fast to store for a few days and prevent brown edges. Pair with a Salad Spinner for maximum output! Here’s my ode to salad prep.|
|A darn good Knife
||This one was a late addition to the list, but when I thought about the ONE ITEM that I use every day, 50 times a day, it’s my favorite knife. I’m constantly chopping vegetables, and I’m never without my big chef’s knife. I’m considering asking for a fancy brand like Wusthof that friends who really know how to cook have recommended to me, and I saw this Wusthof Classic 6-Inch Cook’s Knife or Wusthof Grand Prix II 6-Inch Cook’s Knife.|
|Microplane Zester Grater
||I never thought I wanted one of these, but when I got a hand-me-down from my grandma, I realized a few things. (1) it’s the best way to zest citrus ever created, (2) it really is kind of fun to have freshly grated cheese at the table, and (3) it’s super easy to clean, a major bonus! We end up using it a lot, which was a surprise. I highly recommend having one in your gadget drawer. 🙂|
||My sister-in-law found this fun toy for my birthday this year. I’m sure it’s mainly for making drinks, but I’m telling you: I can now make my homemade Italian dressing in about 2 minutes. I store it right in this baby and love it! The best part is that it’s glass, so it’s really easy to wash the base in the dishwasher.|
||This item made the list because my
blender is pretty junky – the blades are not sharp at all – and I wish I had a new one. I use mine a ton for homemade tortillas, homemade biscuits, and homemade crackers. It even is a great tool to help kids make egg salad!
|Mini Spiralizer||This tiny, very affordable spiralizer makes it a cinch to “zoodle” a zucchini or 2 for dinner, and kids can handle it too. I tend to reach for this one a lot more than my big spiralizer! One note: Clean it up right away so food doesn’t dry on.|
|Stirring things for Lazy People
||When a stirring tool gives me permission to leave it in the pot without worrying about it melting, I’m a happy girl. I love my wooden spoon, but I also love my spoons that can’t stain with tomato sauce. I have two High Temp Solid Silicone Mixing Spoons that are always in business.|
Definitely browse for more options; this is just one basic example…
|You can get a garlic press easily. If I did it again, I would maybe go for one with an attachment that pops the garlic peels out. It’s another item that is in the “dirty dishes” pile almost daily! (Use garlic often to fight sick bugs!)|
||Tongs are such a simple pleasure. I thought I liked the ones we got for our wedding – until this set arrived. NO pinching fingers in the hinges, NO burnt hands because there’s silicone on the handles if you’re smart, and NO big mess on the counter when people don’t use my spoon rest. Plus they’re dishwasher safe with no sign of rusting after more than a year of heavy use. I love the 2 sizes as well! Note: Sadly the exact brand I have is unavailable this year, but I’m 99% sure the ones I found are exactly the same. Here is another color or a 3-pack.|
|Fold-up Shopping Bags||I cannot even begin to tell you how often I pull this out of my purse! A quick dollar store run, when I don’t bring enough reusable bags from my van for a grocery trip, to hold kids’ stuff that they didn’t bring a bag for, and especially when we travel by airplane, for towels at the pool and just about everything else we carry once we’re at destination! Tons of styles in the brand I have, plus see some others in this “take your own food to Disney” post.|
|Reusable Snack and Sandwich Bags
||It’s so exciting to see reusable snack and sandwich bags becoming more mainstream for packed lunches and snacks! Check out my full review for all the details on over a dozen brands, but this one is our favorite because it has zippers (multiple styles on that same product, look at the right hand side), plus this brand is the second favorite, with Velcro. Kids love it when containers for food look fun!|
|Stainless Steel Lunch Containers
||We use containers like the ones in the photo every single day for all of our kids, plus bento boxes too. the stainless steel lasts forever, so it’s a very worthwhile investment. The easy lock watertight containers are amazing! Read more about why we love these and our other lunchtime favorites at the full bento box review!|
Gifts for Families
These are a few of the gifts that I keep going back to over and over for young families, and I can’t leave them out of a gift guide!
- Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas :: We’ve had quite a few years enjoying this book now, and I don’t think our oldest will ever be too old to enter into the magic and joy of Benjamin Bear. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
- What’s Eating Your Child? by Kelly Dorfman :: I can’t stop recommending this book to anyone whose child has unexplained behavior and attention problems and/or picky eating/digestive issues. It’s easy to read and ground breaking for most people, especially those eating a Standard American Diet and not connecting food with health automatically. Get a copy for yourself so you have it to lend out. I broke it down and interviewed the author here.
- Organic crib sheets and organic mattress pad :: Boring, I know, but they’re oh-so-soft, and it makes me happy to know my babies are sleeping on organic – Leah and John both have these sheets.
- Happiest Baby on the Block book or DVD :: Saved our sanity having watched this DVD when we were expecting our first. We have an hour-long CD of a hair dryer that we use all. the. time.
- Aden & Anais swaddle blankets :: Also sanity savers, and so thin and nice for nursing covers in the summer. We still use these as sheets for our 1 and 4-year-olds.
- Moby Wrap (Also in organic) :: If I only had one baby item in the world, it would be this one. You’ll see how much I love it in my how to wear a Moby Wrap videos.
Books, Books and More Books
In a world where hundreds of books are published every day (maybe thousands?) it can be overwhelming to find the simple ones.
A while back on Facebook I shared a reader question about great basic cookbooks to buy for college students and newbies to real food, and when I asked others’ advice I got such a great list of books and had to share with you, along with my personal favs!
Katie’s Favorite Cookbooks
I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but truly truly, my own print books are the ones I grab the most of all. I suppose it makes sense since they’re a compilation of almost all of my family’s favorite recipes, which we continue to love! You can get them in print on Amazon Prime:
- Healthy Snacks to Go (or eBook + Kindle for free)
- Better Than a Box (or eBook + Kindle for free)
- The Everything Beans Book (or eBook + Kindle for free)
You’ve probably heard me reference a recipe from my well-worn copy of the Nourishing Meals cookbook if you’ve been around KS long enough, and now Alyssa has come out with a new edition: the Nourishing Meals Cookbook deserves to be a staple!
The Wellness Mama Cookbook from my friend Katie is an incredible value, so many family-friendly, 100% real food recipes that we use and share often.
A New Find! From Freezer to Table is the perfect real food answer to freezer cooking, and I’m already putting Post-Its on a lot of pages of my review copy. Rachel and Polly came to freezer cooking out of desperation and have made it into an art form, and their popular blog is a testimony to their down-to-earth style that I know KS readers will appreciate.
Crock On! has just been one of those books that comes out at least twice a month, and in a world of online recipes, that’s saying something!! It’s sadly only available in Kindle now, but it’s worth it!!
New Favorites for New Cooks: This cookbook is written by a chef who is the founder of Charlie Carts, an amazing real food cooking program for kids – one of my team members has been lucky enough to experience them at her local library and was very impressed. I love that there are 50 recipes, all whole foods, and every one we have tried has been incredibly delicious!!
Anise Loves GREEN Food is a kids’ picture book about a little boy who loves to draw and his sister who loves to cook, a lovely story with interesting recipes too! Leah has made almost every recipe in the book, we love it so much!
Simple Green Meals has been helping us get more vegetables in our diet, and these recipes are so unique and flavorful, plus gorgeous photos make us want to eat every one!
100 Days of Real Food on a Budget is a new favorite, especially because Lisa’s girls have recipes in the book! She’s a big proponent of kids cooking and yours will be inspired by these photos and simple recipes (and you’ll be happy to save a few bucks per meal!).
Not a cookbook, but vital for anyone in your life who is expecting:
The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth is truly the crunchy answer to “What to Expect” – my friend Genevieve is an amazing researcher and storyteller, and every topic you could imagine is covered in this comprehensive resource. There just aren’t even enough words to use to tell you how incredible and necessary this book is!
I bought 5 for our midwife’s office the second it came out, just to give you some small idea. The 4.9 star rating from 464 people (as of 11/21/17) gives you another idea!
KS Community’s Top 6 Best “Basics” Cookbooks
These are listed in order of number of people recommending them! (Note: I haven’t read or used most of these, but I’ll include reader notes about how compatible they are with 100% real food when I have them.)
- Reader notes: “One of my personal favorites!”
- “Keeps things simple when they can be.”
- Katie note: Mark Bittman is great, has a blog, wrote for the NY Times and has tons of books. A newer book, VB6, is kind of intriguing. This book is also available on Kindle.
- From the KS team: One book on my Christmas list is a newer but similar title: How to Cook Everything Fast. Can’t beat using fresh ingredients to get a meal on the table quickly!
Reader note: “Not that it’s terribly real food based, but I bought myself “Where’s Mom Now that I Need Her” when I was in college. It had basic cooking info, how to do laundry, 1st aid info.”
Reader notes: “Recommended to find an older addition; didn’t rely on microwaves then.”
- Reader note: While not always entirely real-food, there are helpful substitution lists, conversions, etc.
- Katie note: Yep! I have this one, too, same old red plaid, although my version is older. It’s good to have a “basic” like this on hand…but I’m so curious to try the Mark Bittman book and the next one below…
More Recommendations (Honorable Mentions)
These below each had just a single recommendation from readers, but all had many and solid reviews…
- Note: Using just 20 organic, non-processed ingredients per week, home cooks can create 5 wholesome, delicious meals in just minutes. Includes shopping lists, prep tips and more.
- Katie note: I’ve had the pleasure of working with Melissa Lanz, the author, and you can be assured that this cookbook is 100% real food and doable. Gorgeous recipes and what a cool concept to help streamline shopping!
Reader Note: Even breaks down how to boil an egg!
Reader note: Important recipes/techniques that used to be handed down but aren’t any more. Pioneer Woman LOVES her books.
Reader Note: Geared toward beginners. Author of Moosewood Cookbook
Note: NYT Top Ten Best-Selling Cookbooks of All Time
Reader note: A great cookbook for people who are just starting out and want to make good food. It really helped me to gain confidence with my cooking. I always buy this as part of my wedding gift or bridal shower gift for someone. I really think it’s excellent!