So...you're over thirty (forty? fifty?), divorced (or never married,), or just simply inept, can't cook worth a damn and can't get a date? Well, you can either go out to dinner a lot, or you can learn how to cook. To cook, you need stuff. Here are some suggestions borne out of some experience (as versus formal culinary training).
I am going to assume you have sense enough to buy plates, glasses, forks, spoons, etc. If your stuff is all cracked and stained, spring for some new stuff. It might help. You shouldn't leave the new stuff in the sink with cat food cans and beer bottle caps.
Knives It's hard to do this without knives. Cheap and crappy knives are worse than useless, they are damned dangerous. Do yourself a favor, if you are going to spend a bit extra on anything, make it the knives. Oh, BTW, make sure the handles are made of something which won't slip out of your grip when your hands are wet or have oil or grease on them.
Paring knives: you can get a decent set of three knives (straight blade with a down rounded end, a bird's beak, and a regular paring knife) for about ten or fifteen bucks. I actually have about twenty paring knives -- always finding a new one, it seems.
Chef's knife: You need one with a decent blade length. (I actually have four or five, but that is probably too many.) Cost varies wildly, from fifteen to more-than-you-want-to pay. Get one that fits your budget, your hand (very important !!!), and has some decent weight to it. A light knife is just as dangerous as a dull, cheap one, IMHO.
Bread knife: Something with a serrated edge. Very versatile. You can use it on all sorts of things beside bread. Also, most knife companies are making small, serrated edge knives, sold as utility knives, for tomatoes and things. I have about three and they are very useful.
Slicing knife: Something with a long, thin, straight blade. For doing things like slicing tomatoes. I found one in a junk shop...spent ninty cents on it, some of the best ninty cents I ever spent.
Japanese-style chef's knife: One of my favorites. Very versatile. Chopping and slicing are done a bit differently than with a "French knife", and take an adjustment, but it is worth it. You can pick up a decent one for about ten or fifteen dollars, although you can spend more.
Chinese cleaver: If you are really good, this may be all you need. If you are like me, it's a good addition to your tools. Get one (or two) and learn how to use it. I would recommend getting one with full-tang construction...they are sturdier.
Utility knives: Basically, I am thinking of knives with some length rather than width, eight to ten inches on the average, with a bit of weight.
Odds and Ends: Sometimes you find an odd knife that is useful. I have a Japanese sushi knife and a Japanese vegetable cleaver (lighter and thiner than a Chinese cleaver), and some knives with odd shapes.
Sharpening: If you don't know what you are doing, get some one to show you who does know. Otherwise, you will ruin your knives. It's better some one show you than I try to tell you. Or, you can have the professionally sharpened.
Pots and Pans: You can't cook without them, but there are a lot of things on the market that are probably not your best choice. Everyone has their preferences, and you are entitled to yours; the following are mine.
Cast Iron Stuff: Frankly, I don't think you can do without cast iron, and were I restricted to one type of cookware, this is what I would choose. Hell, I make white sause for souffles in a cast iron skillet, and they come out perfectly. You season them right and treat them right, and they will literally last longer than you will live. I have skillets that are more than a century old, and I expect to pass them on.
Skillets: I have two with wooden handles (since I am absent-minded and burn myself). I have three (various diameters) without wooden handles, so that they can go from the stovetop to the oven and vice versa. I have one small one which is unseasoned, for toasting spices and herbs.
Woks: I have two cast iron woks (and two carbon steel woks). One is about sixteen inches across the top, with wooden handles, and is Korean. The other is smaller, about twelve inches across the top, no wooden handles, and is "Japanese".
Dutch Oven: You need one of these for braizing and for deep frying, in fact, you need your head examined if you fry in anything else, unless you have a dedicated deep fryer. Also, if you live in cold country, have a fireplace or a wood stove,and the power goes out, you can have hot food.
Grill Skillet: Great investment, maybe twelve bucks or so. Can be used on the stove top or in the oven, and you can cook losts of things in it, if you want the cooking grease to flow off of the food. I use mine all the time. They come in the sort of standard, large/round skillet style and a square style, also useful.
Grill-Griddle Combination: You've seen these. Big, flat pieces of iron, designed to cover two burners. Mixed feelings about these, but if you have gas, rather than electric, they might be useful to you.
Cast Iron covered with Enameled Colors: You know...that French stuff. Great, if you can afford it. I apparently bought a whole set of it once when my ex-wife charged a bunch to one of my credit cards she hadn't surrendered. Never saw a single piece of it, though.... Oh, well....
Odds and Ends: See what you find.
Seasoning the Cast Iron This is the FIRST thing you need to do with any of the "bare" cast iron. Otherwise, it won't cook very well. Everything will stick and tear up.
First, wash the skillet (or whatever) in hot, soapy water. Dry it and then coat the inside, cooking service with either Crisco or cooking oil. Put the skillet in an oven set about 350 degrees, and leave it for about an hour. Take it out, wipe out excess oil. It will season more each time you use it. DO NOT wash in soapy water! (I'll never forget when I was 12 and decided to clean all my mother's skillets.) If you are careful, you can clean off residue with warm water, while the skillet it still hot. If you need to scrub it, wait until it cools and use salt as an abrasive.
Non-Stick Stuff: Ugh! Not my preference. I don't think you can get them hot enough when you need to, and most are made of aluminium, which I hate.
Egg, Omlette, Crepe Pan: I make one exception...an egg, omlette, and crepe pan. I looked forever for one which was high-carbon steel, rather than aluminium. They are hard to find, but a real treasure.
A Second Possible Exception: If you can find a big, electric skillet, with high sides -- which isn't aluminium -- you ought to think about it. It is good for making French Onion Soup and other odd sorts of things. Don't actually use it as a skillet, however. The food is liable to turn out really crappy.
Steel Stuff: You need some steel stuff, either high-carbon or stainless, for things like tomato sauce. Steel won't react like cast iron would.
Woks: Carbon steel woks, kick ass. You can get them fairly hot on a domestic stove and they are pretty durable. You might want to consider one with a larger flat bottom than traditional woks, they fit electric burners better and you don't need the heat-ring. Also, if you don't have a Dutch oven for deep frying, they will make a good substitute. DON'T get an electric wok....they're worse than useless, at least for Asian food...although I suppose you could use it browning onions (etc.) for French onion soup.
Skillets, et. al. I have picked up some great skillets and odd sort of pans made of stainless, with a copper sandwich in the bottom, at T.J. Max, thrift stores, and GoodWill. They are usually either over-stocks or seconds. If they are seconds, it is often only a scratch, but look carefully. Some were made in Indonesia, Brazil, China, etc. Most are really great. Pick them up and hold them in your hand for a minute or two. If they are uncomfortable, then don't buy them. Some manufactures put the handles at a crazy angle. Forget them.
Sauce pans: I would avoid the ones with a thin layer of copper on the outside, although I have them and use them for boiling water. If you want serious sauce pans, spring for something with the sandwich bottom.
Stock Pots: I have both the stainless steel kind and the enameled (blue, with white spots) kind. You need at least a couple for making soup and for boiling pasta, which requires a generous amount of water, otherwise it will stick together. Too big is better than too small. You can always put less in a big one.
Paella pan: I have one that is enameled, carbon steel (blue, with white spots) -- great for paella and you can use if for cooking clams, mussels, etc. on the stove top, since it is so big.
Bowls and Things: You need them to mix stuff up in and cook stuff in.
Glass Bowls: Good.
Stainless Steel Bowls: Good.
Plastic Bowls: Don't put hot stuff in them.
Ceramic Bowls: Good for serving stuff.
Wooden Bowls: Good for salad. Good for making fresh pasta or bread. If you are using eggs in your bread mix, wash thoroughly with a mild soap and let dry. You may need to use lemon juice or a mild bleach solution to keep from getting salmonella.
Souffle Dish: If you want to be impressive and do a souffle, you better get one of these.
Quiche Dish (or Pie dish): Good.
Blender: Great, versatile.
Food Processor: Okay, but if you have a blender and good knife skills, it is redundant.
Mixer: If you can afford it, but not essential.
Coffee mill: YES! Two!! One for coffee and one for spices. Don't get them mixed up.
Coffee Maker: Optional, but if you or your intended likes coffee, necessary. Alternative: either a French press or an Espresso machine.
Toaster: Sure. For toast and bagels.
Hand-Held Blender: Very convenient.
Veggie Peeler: Find one that is comfortable
Whisks: You are going to need these. Get two or three, different sizes. Don't get plastic ones. And don't get ones with wire handles. Spend a couple of extra bucks on good handles. You want at least four wires (eight "sides") in the whisk. Some are round, some more elongated. Get what suits you. There are also some special whisks, designed for particular purposes, resembling a big sort of spring or individual wires with weighted ends. These are useful, if you need them.
Wooden Spoons: A bunch of them.
Garlic press: Optional. Use the flat of your chef's knife or a chunk of wood.
Mortar and pestal: At least a couple for grinding spices and herbs. The Japanese-style is particularly useful for grinding things like garlic, horseradish root, and so forth. Wooden types are useful for garlic and herbs, but the wood will retain the oils. Glass is interesting, but you could probably do without it.
The usual stuff: Spatulas, forks, sieves, wire spiders (for taking things out of hot water or hot oil), ladles, tongs, skimmers, bottle openers, cork screws,....go look at the utensil section and see what you need...
Cutting Boards: Wood, glass, plastic. Up to you. I prefer wood, but you have to keep it clean. Get several. Use one for meat (if you eat meat). Another for veggies. Just exercise good hygiene and good judgment.
Pepper Grinder: Good. The kind with the clear plastic ball and a squeeze handle is good, or the traditional grinder.
Herbs, Spices, and Stuff
Hot Sauces: Can't do without them!!!
Herbs: If you have a health food store or farmer's market, buy them in bulk....or you can grow them yourself. Basil, rosemary, marjoram, thyme, dill, cilantro, celery seeds, fennel, mint, the usual.
Spices: Allspice, cumin, mustard seeds, Coleman's dry mustard, wasabe powder, coriander, nutmeg and mace, cinammon, chili powders, pepper (black, white, green, and red), cayenne pepper, garlic powder, mixed Cajun seasonings, file powder, curry powder (or make your own), garam marsala, etc.
Salt: Regular salt, sea salt, and kosher salt.
Garlic Keeper: Ceramic, with air holes. Better yet, get two and keep your shallots in the other.
Wicker Baskets: Get a few wicker things...flat shaped, bastet shaped, etc. Great for drying things or keeping them on the counter where you can get to them.
Wire Cake Racks: Good for drying stuff on or you can put them in your baking dish to keep the chicken (or whatever) out of the grease. Or you can use them for cake, I suppose....
Pasta Machine: Traditional Italian pasta makers aren't cheap, but if you use them a lot, also not too expensive. Think about getting one.
Rice Cooker: Perhaps not necessary, but it you can't do rice, a reasonable investment.