Things I recommend you buy and use.
Inspired by similar posts by Rob Wiblin, Sam Bowman, Michelle Hutchinson, Megan McArdle, and others, I have compiled some of the things that I recommend you buy and use into this blog post. I’m a frugal and a savvy shopper — frankly, I probably spend a bit too much time researching things before I buy them. But let my pain be your gain: almost all the things recommended below are those that I have researched and use myself (though in some cases the original item I bought is no longer available so I found a comparable or updated one). Disclosure: If you purchase some of these products by clicking on the affiliate links I will get money which I will donate to GiveWell’s recommended charities. (Cross-posted here).
Home / Kitchen
Cast Iron pan/Dutch oven combo (or more expensive name-brand Lodge version). Cast iron pans are great — they’re extremely versatile and non-stick if properly seasoned without Teflon or other toxic nonstick coatings. Dutch ovens are also very useful. This is a clever combination of the two where the lid of the Dutch oven is itself a cast iron pan. Great for baking no knead bread (ungated recipe). The whole combo costs only $30 but a fancy Dutch oven can go for $250!
Carbon Steel Pan. Carbon steel pans have many of the benefits of cast iron, except they are lighter and heat up much more quickly — so easier to use for quick frying or sautéing. Carbon steel is also more conductive than cast iron and heats more evenly. Like cast iron, if properly seasoned carbon steel develops a non-toxic non-stick layer with use.
Rechargeable kitchen scale. Precision is crucial for some recipes, especially for baking. Scales are far more accurate than measuring cups — particularly ingredients like flour can vary significantly in volume. You’ll get more consistent results and won’t have to wash as many measuring items when you use a scale. This scale is great because it is USB rechargeable (so you don’t have to worry about replacing batteries), waterproof, and has a pull out display so that it isn’t hidden by the pot or bowl on top of it.
Instant Pot. You’ve probably heard of the instant pot so I won’t do an in depth review (here’s one, here’s a video) but if you’re on the fence you should go for it. I use mine multiple times per week. Pressure cooking is faster, more energy efficient, and gets a better result especially for beans, rice, and whole grains which are some of the best foods (see diet section below). There’s also a big instant pot community so lots of good recipes and accessories out there. Some of my favorite IP recipe sites are Ministry of Curry, Piping hot Curry, and Plant-Based IP.
Combination Instant Pot + built in air fryer (or lid add-on). An air fryer is basically a convection oven, so if you already have that (or a convection toaster oven like this) you don’t need this. But if you don’t, you can get the instant pot with a built in air fryer, or, if you already have an instant pot you can get the air fryer lid addition. (Cheaper version). It is great for making things crispy without much oil, and also for dehydrating fruits or veggies.
Misto oil sprayer. Speaking of oil, instead of pouring it directly into a pan or on your food you can get better results — and use less — by spraying an even nebulized layer of oil. You can buy products that do this like Pam (78 cents/ounce) but a better option is to get amazing quality blockchain-traceable olive oil for less (22 cents/ounce) and add it to the Misto. Misto is a better sprayer than a simple one like you would use for water — you pump to pressurize the oil so it comes out as a very fine spray.
Magnetic spice tins for the side of the fridge. If you have an unused side of the fridge, stick these magnetic spice tins on there and you’ll always have them handy.
Snap lock glass storage containers (or more expensive name brand version). These are watertight and unlike plastic do not retain smells or tastes, or leech chemicals and microplastic. They are nesting without lids and so take up less space in storage. The only downside is they are heavier than plastic and, since they are glass, breakable.
Home / cleaning & misc.
Roomba (or knock off). I am a big fan of Roombas and have been using them for years. I currently have this 600-series Roomba which has been going strong for more than six years. (I have replaced the battery once in that time; this costs about $15). This model has all the key features — it does a great job of picking up dirt and dust (especially in areas I wouldn’t otherwise clean often like under the couch) and it returns to its home base to charge when it is done. It lacks some of the fancier features available in the 675 model including wifi connectivity, scheduling, alexa support, etc. And it does not empty itself like the pricier 3000-series model, but I don’t think those are worth the added cost. Like with any cordless vacuum, you’ll periodically need to clean the brushes and after a few years of use you’ll need to replace the battery. Some Roomba owners are either too lazy to do this or don’t realize what’s wrong and so a bunch of Roombas end up on craigslist for cheap or free. (That is where I got mine). Bonus: here’s a great article about how the Roomba was invented.
3-tier clothes drying rack. This drying rack makes great use of vertical space — it creates over 48 feet of drying space with a small footprint, so it’s great for a small apartment. It also folds flat for easy storage. Drying clothes on a rack is easier on your clothes, saves money, and is better for the environment.
Cascade powder dishwasher detergent (or similar powder — just not pods). There are at least two reasons not to use dishwasher pods: (1) you can’t put them in the “pre wash” area and (2) they take time to dissolve and start working. In my experience pre-washing with powder detergent does a better job. See this youtube video for a discussion of why the “pre wash” detergent is important and pods are bad. If you do want to use pods (or have some you are still using) get additional powder or liquid detergent to put in the “pre wash” area or just toss it in the dishwasher itself. Powder is the vest value compared to liquid or pods.
Barkeeper’s friend. This is my go-to for hard-to-clean stains particularly baked on grease or gunk on pots and pans. It is slightly abrasive and acidic so it really really cleans stainless steel and other metals remarkably well.
Winix Air purifier and an Indoor Air Quality monitor (or this cheaper, non wifi-connected version. Air pollution — including inside your home or office where you spend lots of time — is a surprisingly large problem, particular if you have a gas stove. In addition to being linked to all manner of diseases, evidence is mounting that air pollution makes you stupider as well (see this compilation of studies by Patrick Collison). To combat this get one or more air purifiers and an air quality monitors. This winix Air purifier uses HEPA filters and is energy efficient, costing only around $10 in electricity costs to run for a year. It also has a light that indicates if the air quality is bad. Simply fart near it and watch the light turn red or orange to know it is working!
Home / bathroom
Cordless Rechargeable Water flosser or more expensive WaterPik brand version. Studies suggest water flossers are 29% more effective at removing plaque than regular floss, 51% more effective at reducing gingivitis, and twice as effective at reducing gingival bleeding. If, like me, you don’t like flossing you might actually use a water flosser more, too.
I like this YaFex water flosser because, first, instead of just a “low” or “high” setting like most portable models, it has adjustable pressure in DIY mode, from 40 to 120 PSI; in comparison the regular WaterPik flosser goes from 10–100 PSI. Second, it has a portable design making it easy to travel with, and third it has a steel tube instead of a plastic one in the tank, which is less prone to gunk buildup and easier to clean. Finally, it is fully waterproof. If only it had a head you could buy that flossed the front and back at the same time like the instafloss this would be perfect!
Better toothpaste: either one with Nano-Hydroxyapatite or Stannous Fluoride. The active ingredient in most toothpaste is sodium fluoride. But there are at least two other ingredients that are even better at preventing cavities and gingivitis. One is another ion of fluoride, Stannous Fluoride. Check out this article about it that discusses the benefits (h/t Rob Wiblin) or see this review of the science. Another exciting option is Nano-hydroxyapatite (Nano-HAp) which is an artificial version of the calcium phosphorus that makes up most of our enamel and studies suggest it is more effective than fluoride. Particularly if you are prone to dental problems you consider switching toothpaste for six months or a year in between dentist visits and seeing if there’s a difference.
4-in1 Razer/Beard trimmer that vacuums up hair as it is clipped. I used to have to laboriously clean up hair out of the sink and counter when I shaved or trimmed my facial hair. No more! This razer ingeniously has a built-in vacuum that captures the hair as it is clipped. Brilliant
Bidet. If you got shit on your arm would you wipe it off with paper or wash it off with water? Similar logic suggests you should get a bidet. This is the basic bidet I got and it was easy to install and use. Also environmentally friendly since using a bidet allows you to use significantly less toilet paper, which has a surprisingly large environmental impact.
I am working on a more in depth discussion of health tips that I will link here when it is done but in the meantime here are some recommended books about health, food, and diet:
How Not to Die. There is persuasive evidence that the biggest single cause of death in America is the Standard American Diet which contributes to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. How Not to Die is an excellent, evidence-based discussion of what to eat for optimal health written by a doctor (of medicine) that isn’t profiting from the book; all the proceeds go to charity. The book shows how the diet most associated with good health is one consisting primarily of whole plant foods including whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruit, (esp. berries) and pretty much as many vegetables as you can eat, specifically dark green leafy vegetables, and green tea. Here’s a short video summary.
This is approach is also consistent with other evidence-based diet information like that collected from the communities that have the highest longevity (ie “Blue Zones”) described in the eponymous book. See the Blue Zone diet recommendations here. It isn’t far off from the Mediterranean diet that also seems to have evidence to support it.
How Not to Diet. If like most Americans you are looking to lose weight, I recommend this book, a follow-up of sorts to How Not to Die. Here’s a video that gives you a decent overview of the author’s approach, which is essentially to avoid any short term “diet” (ie, calorie counting, low fat, atkins, etc) which is unlikely to be sustainable and instead eat ad libitum (i.e., as much as you want) so long as you’re eating filling whole plant foods and no C.R.A.P. (Calorie-rich and processed food). If you do this your body’s natural satiety and homeostasis mechanisms should keep you at a healthy weight. The level of scientific detail in the book is astounding and it also has some intriguing evidence-based tips / hacks for accelerating weight loss including blunting insulin response with small amounts of vinegar, and spices that have been shown in double blind placebo-controlled studies to help safely reduce weight: Black cumin (1/4 tsp / day) (Cheapest price per gram, 5lb bag; slightly more expensive per unit 2.2lb bag); Regular cumin (1/2 tsp with lunch and dinner) (Cheapest price per gram, 5lb bag; slightly more expensive per unit 24oz bags); Garlic powder (1/4 tsp / day); Cayenne Pepper (1/2 tsp / day), and Green tea.
How Now to Die Cookbook and How Not to Diet Cookbook. Healthy plant based recipes in line with the recommendations from How Not to Diet and How Not to Die. I also really enjoy the recipes from Salad Samurai and Viva Vegan.
The Hungry Brain. If you want a deep dive on why so many people are overweight and why it is so hard to resist junk food and weight gain this book has a simple compelling thesis. The author, a neuroscientist, argues that there is no single ingredient or macronutrient that is too blame for weight gain; rather the ultimate problem is a food environment filled with calorie-dense delicious foods that hack our brains’ food reward circuitry and weight set-point. This helps explain how study after study after study concludes that all diets (high carb, low carb, etc etc) are equally effective in the short term, but over time almost everyone gains the weight back so long as they live in an obesogenic food environment.
Eat Stop Eat. Most animals — including humans — evolved in an environment where they occasionally lacked food, and so our bodies don’t work optimally if they are constantly in a fed state. Many cultures historically had many periods of fasting, and to this day the healthiest and longest-lived people in so-called “blue zones” fast. Eat Stop Eat. is a great overview of the science of how fasting works and how to implement it in your life. Here’s a related Examine article.
Health / Supplements
Generally the best way to get the nutrients you need is through eating whole food (see How Not to Die, above). However there are a few supplements that I think make sense for most people.
Vitamin D is one of the few supplements that is probably worth taking for just about everyone, particularly now given its link to COVID-19 outcomes (see this and this study). However, getting sunshine is likely superior on some metrics. See also this article. Here is Examine’s take on Vitamin D.
Melatonin. Particularly if I’m traveling or adapting to a new time zone I use melatonin, which is a hormone produced in our bodies that among other things regulates the sleep–wake cycle. They key is to get the dosage right — ~0.3mg. Larger doses as are often sold are counterproductive! Here is a very in depth SSC discussion. There is even greater reason to take melatonin given its role in regulating the immune system and the evidence that people taking it had significantly lower odds of developing COVID-19.
Caffeine + Theanine pills. Some days you just haven’t gotten enough sleep or need to focus more than average. Coffee varies wildly in how much caffeine it has so you can end up too wired or not wired enough. A pill always has the same amount. There is some research to suggest taking caffeine and theanine together produces increased alertness. Examine article.
Health / Exercise
I am working on a more in depth discussion of health tips that I will link here when it is done but in the meantime here are some recommended books about exercise:
Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding. The author is a professor of human evolutionary biology discusses how we did not evolve to exercise (ie, do physical activity for the sake of health) but nonetheless how we can and should incorporate it into our lives.
No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. This book is written by a Ph.D. psychologist whose career is focused on the science of motivation and behavior change. It has some practical tips for motivating yourself to exercise, particularly in terms of how you frame exercise to yourself.
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. Barbell resistance training is an efficient way to build muscle. This book is an excellent introduction but it is hard to learn proper form from a book. So if you’re a beginner you probably want to find a more experienced friend or coach to help. Nonetheless, it is a classic.
Health / Exercise / Workout clothes and accessories
No-tie stretch shoe laces (or this cheaper version). I put these on my workout shoes and I can now slip them on in a second (literally), they are always snug, and they practically never come untied. Think of the wasted hours or days you’ve spent tying your shoes! I bought a second pair for my converse sneakers as well.
2-in-1 Workout shorts (or this version with two pockets). I tried many workout shorts and these were the best. They are extremely stretchy and don’t restrict my movement at all. They also have built in compression underwear so you don’t have to purchase/put on/wash underwear and workout shorts separately (that’s the 2-in-1 part). They are also a good length — they sit above the knee which also helps in not restricting movement.
Extremely reflective waterproof vest (or jacket) for cycling or running. I commute to and from work by bike, and generally bike when it is dark. This reflective vest or jacket makes you pretty much impossible for a car not to see at night. When any light hits the amazingly reflective material (e.g., streetlights, headlights) it reflects so much of it back you basically look like you are fully illuminated — check out this video. It really is amazingly reflective at night.
Bone-conducting open-ear wireless headphones: Aftershokz or knockoff. If you’re biking or running and you want to listen to music or podcasts, you don’t want your ear canal blocked by an earbud or covered with an over-hear headphone dangerously stopping you from hearing traffic. These headphones conduct sound through your skull itself into your ear drums, leaving your ear canal open so you can hear what is going on around you. The sound quality is not comparable to nice headphones but I find it perfectly fine for listening to podcasts or workout music. The main downside is I haven’t found any that are adjustable, so it can be a bit tricky to get them to fit perfectly.
Health / Sleep
Why we sleep . Turns out we don’t really know the answer to the question posed in the book’s title, but the book provides a lot of interesting information and reinforces how important sleep is to heath and the impacts to being even slightly sleep deprived. [Update: RavenclawPrefect pointed out that the book has been credibly criticized as “riddled with scientific and factual errors” in a blog post by Alexey Guzey here. The author appears to have indirectly responded here. I’m not enough of an expert to adjudicate this but from my initial review it does seem the book may have been sloppy and/or misrepresented at least some information so I’m removing my recommendation until I can dig in more deeply.]
Blue light blocking glasses. Our bodies evolved to use lack of light and particularly blue wavelength light that is most present during the day as a cue to start going to sleep. Exposure to blue wavelength light at night has been shown in some studies to be harmful to sleep through numerous mechanisms including reducing naturally produced melatonin. I found that dimming or turning off lights at night and wearing these helped me get better sleep. A lot of the blue light blocking glasses that are marketed these days don’t block all that much of the blue light both because of their shape (letting light in from the sides) and from their materials. These block 98% of blue wavelength light and cover your full eye, including the side.
Manta sleep mask (or knock off). If you’re traveling or otherwise need to sleep in a bright environment having a good eye mask is really helpful. The Manta sleep mask (or knock off) is a really innovative sleep mask that has a series of cups that fully surround your eyes so you can open them without your eyes touching the fabric. They are also adjustable so you can move the cups to fit your particular face.
Blackout curtains. Like a sleep mask but for your room.
Silicone ear plugs. I had a really noisy neighbor for a while and tested just about all the ear plugs on the market. These were way more effective and comfortable than the foam ones.
White noise machine. Since one of the things that can interrupt your sleep is noise, unsurprisingly some studies show white noise can help you sleep. I have the this white noise machine that isn’t a recording, it’s actually a small fan in there making the noise. I prefer this to the ones that just play a recording of white noise (you might as well use a multi-purpose speaker you already have for that anyway!). There is a smaller also fan-based version that is slightly cheaper, one or you can use any speaker and a free app or mp3 file.
I have not personally tried them but the Bose Sleepbuds IIalso seem like a good option for light sleepers like me, though they are expensive.
Non-wrinkling suit duffel bag (or better backpack version). If you travel and need to bring a suit or other wrinkle-prone clothing then check out this duffel bag. It has a really clever design — the suit lies flat as in a garment bag, and then the garment bag folds to become the sides of the duffel bag itself! Check out this video to see how it works. This is a great use of space and prevents the suit from wrinkling. I have the one with the shoulder strap and typically slide it on top of another suitcase or rolling laptop bag / briefcase. However if you’re planning to travel with just this bag I would go with the backpack version.
FaceCradle travel pillow. This is a lifesaver for me on long plane trips where you want to sleep. It has several innovations that set it apart. The best one is the straps that allow you to loop it around the back of an airplane headrest (#4 and #5 in the pic). You can then stick your face into it, and fully relax — it completely supports your head. Does it look a bit strange? Yes, yes it does. However, who cares what random other passengers think so long as you’re getting some shut eye. I prefer to use it this way primarily, but I have also used it by putting it on the tray table (#3 in the pic). Check out this video that explains the many ways you can use it.
Noise cancelling ear muffs. If you don’t want to buy expensive and bulky noise cancelling headphones (or if you have expensive ones you don’t want to bring traveling for fear of them getting stolen, lost or broken) I find that these ear muffs do a great job for blocking airplane noise or general background noise. I pair them with regular earbuds, but I expect they would work even better with noise cancelling ones. I also occasionally use them around then house when vacuuming or blending.
Compression bags. If you’re short on space but need to bring some bulky items like sweaters or a down jacket these simple bags can squeeze out all the air so they take up less volume.
USB / iPhone / USB-C multi chargers with retractable chord. This cheap two-pack allows you to charge six devices at once (three devices each) — no matter if they use USB, USB-C or iPhone chargers. They take up very little space when retracted, and can stretch up to four feet. Throw one of these in your bag and never worry about being without a charger for your phone/tablet/kindle etc again.
Shopping / Saving money
Amazon Smile. Smile.amazon.com and amazon.com are identical except if you buy from smile.amazon.com they will donate 0.5% of your purchases to a charity of your choice! Set it as your default on your computer and mobile.
Amazon Warehouse. You can sometimes get the same product cheaper used or with some minor cosmetic defect from Amazon Warehouse. Every time I’ve bought something from Warehouse the product has been indistinguishable from a new one, but YMMV. If there is something actually wrong with it, Amazon extends its standard 30-day replacement or refund return policy for Warehouse purchases so you can just return it.
CamelCamelCamel. This free price tracker allows you to see historical prices of a particular amazon product over time and get alerts when the prices drops.
BangForYourBuck. This free site lets you search amazon for the cheapest items per unit — e.g., the cheapest rice by the pound, hard drive by terabyte, etc.
ReviewMeta. Amazon reviews are really suspect. ReviewMeta is a free site that helps you separate good reviews from bad ones. The site looks for “unnatural” reviews — whether they’re overly positive or negative — that show signs of manipulation. FakeSpot analyzer is similar.
Slickdeals alerts. Slickdeals is a crowd-sourced website where people post deals and up or down vote them. I don’t recommend aimlessly browsing the site looking for deals, but if there is something you’re looking to buy you can create an alert and if a deal matches it you will get an email.
Your local “Buy nothing” group. Before you buy something new, check to see if you can get it for free from your neighborhood “Buy Nothing Group” which is a facebook group for your local neighborhood where people offer things for free, or ask for them. It is similar to craigslist free (see below) except that the level of trust is higher because it is local and you can see the person you’re interacting with is real a bit more than craiglist. Also a good place to get rid of stuff you’re no longer using.
Craigslist alerts. Before you buy something search for the item on craigslist to see if it is available for free or cheap. Even if you don’t immediately get a result you can create an email alert so it will email you whenever what you’re looking for is posted.
Gixen. Gixen is a free “sniping” service for ebay. Sniping services automatically submit your bid to eBay just a few seconds before an auction ends so other bidders have no time to raise their maximum bid. Gixen is the only free sniping service I’m aware of. The real advantage for me is not submitting the bids at the last second (though that can save you some money). The advantage is that you can make “groups” of the same or similar auctions and tell Gixen to bid on each of them until you win one and then stop bidding. That is a big time saver.
CodeNames(available to play for free online here). There’s also a two player version. This is a mentally stimulating game where two teams compete to select all the words (a few of the 25 visible) that are associated with their team and not the other team. Each team has one “Codemaster” that can give one word clues to get their teammates to guess their word. Described this way it doesn’t sound fun but it really is!
AskHole [NSFW] (available to play for free online here). This “game” is a series of cards with thought-provoking, personal, philosophical or downright weird questions. It is a great game / activity for open-minded friends to use to chat and make conversation.
Telestrations (and/or adult /NSFW version), free online version. This game is basically like “telephone” but with drawings. Each person draws something then passes to the next person to guess what it is. The next person draws the word or phrase the second person wrote, and so on. The drawings end up hilariously garbled and people are often laughing out loud by the end.
Secret Hitler (play online free here, print free version here). Secret Hitler is a visually beautiful social deduction game for 5–10 people about finding and stopping the “Secret Hitler.” Players are secretly divided into two teams , liberals and fascists. Known only to each other, the fascists coordinate to sow distrust and install their cold-blooded leader. The liberals must find and stop the Secret Hitler before it is too late.
JackBox party pack one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. Each “party pack” has a bundle of easy-to-learn and fun party games. Only one person needs to own the game and others can join in from any device with an internet browser, be it a phone, a tablet, a laptop, or another PC. Great for social distancing fun. My favorites are Quiplash, Mad Verse City, and Tee K. O.
Eargasm concert ear plugs (or similar knock off). Concerts are too loud. Unfortunately due to the physics of sound as a practical matter they kind of have to be to get sound to all parts of the venue. These ear plugs provide enough decibel reduction so you don’t damage your hearing but you can hear the concert. Once you start using them at loud concerts you’ll never go back.
Test rings in half and quarter sizes. If you don’t typically wear rings and you’re getting married you’ll need to know your ring size to buy or resize a ring. You can find out your finger size by measuring it (several methods here) or you can have a jeweler measure it for you. However you’re likely somewhere in between say a 9 and a 9.25 and having your finger measured for a few seconds isn’t as good as actually walking around with the ring on to see what feels best — particularly in different temperatures and circumstances. A way around this is to purchase 3 rings (e.g., 8.75, 9, and 9.25) and wear each for a few days to see which fits best. This etsy store had the cheapest rings I could find, it is buy two get one free, and comes out to about $5 each after shipping.