We suggest what most experts in kitchen cutlery recommend -- everyone needs three basic kitchen knives:
Chef's knife: This will be the most important knife in your kitchen. Start with a European-style chef's knife (or, if you prefer Japanese patterns, a Santoku) of eight or ten inches, and it'll become your go-to blade for virtually all food-prep tasks -- slicing and dicing, including fruits and vegetables, meat and fish.
Paring knife: This will be the blade you'll reach for when you want to slice or mince berries, garlic cloves, or any food too small for your chef's knife. The typical paring knife will be between three and four inches. (As an alternative to a parer, you might consider a kitchen pattern called a "petty.")
Boning knife: More precise than a chef's knife but longer and sturdier than a parer, you'll use a boning knife for cutting and boning meat, fish and poultry. The blade will flex a bit, and you'll find that quality useful in a variety of tasks.
Now we'd like to add one more recommendation.
If you buy un-sliced bread (or even bagels) from your local bakery, you need a great bread knife. And the best bread knives we know of, by far, come from Shun. You'll find yourself using it on much more than bread, too -- flatiron steak, tomatoes, and other ingredients that yield better to its serrated edge.
Yes, professional-grade kitchen cutlery costs more than the knives you'll find at your local mega-mart -- but if you're a knife lover, you understand that you get the quality you pay for.
If your budget is tight and you can't afford your dream set of kitchen knives right now, start with a small blade -- like a parer, petty or utility knife -- and then move up to a boning knife, a carver, a chef's knife or a Santoku.