Knives matter but most kitchens have at best mediocre knives that may be dull and have never been sharpened. For most people, this is probably fine, as few people really love food and cooking. There is a big difference between being into food and loving to eat! My family kitchen growing up had perfectly adequate knives for family meal preparation, but for example my Uncle Charlie, a restaurateur, hated them and would sharpen them every few years when he visited, shocked at how dull they were. If you love to cook, a good set of knives certainly add to the pleasure and remove frustrations you might not even know existed!
You can buy individual knives, but most people buy a knife set, usually with a wooden block to store them in. This gives you most of the knives you may ever need and is convenient. There are many knives that are typically included.
The most popular is called a Chefs Knife and is an all around utility knife that you may use for most of your cutting. It has a broad and relatively heavy blade and lengths vary but 7 to 10 inches is the most common. You want a chefs knife that feels good in your hand as it'll be in your hand a lot!
A paring knife is like a small version of a chefs knife. It's great for small and more delicate cutting, for example peeling and so forth. I use my paring knife a lot. As it's smaller, it is less tiring to use and more appropriate for smaller and delicate work.
Some knife sets may have a Santuko knife, perhaps in addition to a chefs knife or sometimes instead of one. It is essentially a Japanese version of a chefs knife. It's lighter and great for cutting boneless meats, fish, vegetables and poultry. I use mine for sushi, most seafood, and Asian cooking.
Kitchen shears or knives are also often included. If you've never used a pair you may be shocked at how much easier it is to cut some thing with scissors than a knife. I'm amazed at how often I use mine, for everything from cutting chicken tenders to pizza to herbs!
There are two basic styles of knives as well. The ones you probably grew up with are German style knifes, which tend to be strong and heavy like a German tank. These are traditional style knives and good ones are made of high carbon steel, stay sharp for a long time, and also are prone to rusting if not well cared for. They are very strong knives as well. Wustofs are one example of well known German style knives.
Japanese style knives have also become very popular, and these are typically made of various types of layer stainless steel. For example, Shuns, a popular brand, have 33 layers of steel per blade, much like Japanese swords (think Ninja swords for example). These are delicate and precision instruments, and are much more like a sports car than a tank. They are strong and sharp yet brittle, and they can break or chip is abused. For example, you do not hack at boned meats with these.
Which type of knives you prefer is a matter of preference. Many chefs, as well as kitchens, use and have both types. I use both types for example and which I use depends on what I am cutting and what I am preparing.
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