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Debra Caffrey is the Education E-newsletter Editor for FredParent. She also writes, blogs, and assists with events. She is the proud mom of 8-year-old Aidan. She is passionate about cooking, meal planning, and smart grocery shopping, and is excited to share her ‘Practical Pantry’ with you.

 

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Practical Pantry

Easy Make-Ahead Breakfast Mini Muffins!

 

Who doesn’t like things in mini form? It’s a food trend that’s not just for kids, although children always seem to adore eating “regular” food items in smaller, fun-size bites. The mini muffin pan can be a parent’s best accessory, as there seems to be no end to the fun creations it can make! Earlier, I shared my recipe for easy lunchbox mini pizza muffins, and today I want to tell you how simple it is to create quick make-ahead breakfast muffins that can be prepped in advance, eaten fresh, or frozen to save for busy weekday mornings. They can really be eaten any time of day, and are even great for a quick, on-the-go picnic meal.

My son is a die-hard breakfast lover, and he could eat it all day long. And in fact, I serve up these breakfast muffins warmed up in his lunchbox for school, as well as for an easy dinner sometimes. And since I am not a morning person in the least, I make a huge batch on weekends and freeze them, so that when it’s time to feed him before the bus comes in the early morning, I can easily take a few out and warm them in the oven without having to think too much!

Best of all, a breakfast mini muffin is the perfect vehicle to get a few healthy items into your children without them noticing too much. I actually successfully tricked my son into thinking that finely chopped spinach was merely some dried basil, and he gobbled it up! You can add finely chopped up peppers or other veggies, as well as lean protein choices like turkey if you want. The possibilities are literally endless. Read on to see my recipe for a super easy Pancake and Sausage Muffin, as well as inspiration for how to do a Make-Your-Own Breakfast Mini Muffin Bar!

 

Pancake and Sausage Mini Muffins

These are sort of a riff on a pig in a blanket. They combine my own son’s two favorite things in the world  - pancakes and sausage – into a cute muffin that can be eaten any time of day.  We love them served with some warm syrup for dipping. We use turkey sausage but you can use any type you’d like.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound pre-cooked sausage links of any variety
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 cups  milk
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Syrup, for dipping
  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Coat mini-muffin cups with cooking spray.
  2. Heat pre-cooked sausage according to package directions and cool slightly. Drain any excess grease or moisture, then slice into 1” pieces.
  3. In a bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Then, add egg, milk, oil and honey into flour mixture. Stir until combined.
  4. Place a 1” sausage piece into each mini-muffin cup, making sure the bottom side is flat. Cover with batter, filling up ¾ of the way.
  5. Bake 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool 5 minutes before removing from pan. Serve warm with syrup or freeze in plastic bags to use later. Enjoy!

Makes about 4 dozen.

 

Design-Your-Own-Breakfast-Mini-Muffin

You can treat this concept as more of a muffin “bar,” where everybody can chose from different fillings to make their own mini “frittata” like muffins. It’s also a great way to have kids help out in the kitchen. Make a ton, bake, and freeze to use throughout the week. Decide on quantity of ingredients based on personal preference.

 

 

Ingredients:

  • Container of Egg Beaters, or several fresh eggs, beaten
  • Fresh spinach, finely chopped
  • Diced or minced red or green pepper
  • Bacon crumbles
  • Cooked and diced breakfast sausage
  • Shredded cheese
  • Diced mushrooms or onions
  • Cubed ham
  • Other “omelet” fillings you enjoy
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and spray mini-muffin tin with olive oil.
  2. Set out individual bowls of all mini muffin ingredients. Have kids create their own favorite combination by sprinkling a few of the filling choices in the mini-muffin tray.
  3. Add beaten eggs carefully to individual muffin cups, covering fillings until full. Sprinkle with salt & pepper.
  4. Bake for 15–20 minutes or until set. Enjoy! 

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5 Ways You Can Cut Food Waste and Save $1,500 a Year

Who is responsible for 43% of the nation’s growing food waste problem? It’s not restaurants, supermarkets, or food-producing factories. It’s us as individuals! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average household loses $1,500 a year on the food it throws in the trash, which, multiplied by thousands of households across the nation, results in the staggering fact that 40% of food produced in the U.S. goes in the garbage. Think about that – nearly half of the food we produce rots in our landfills at the same time we continue to have about 48 million Americans living in food insecure households. It’s an equation that doesn’t add up. Moreover, it’s important to note that when you waste food, you are not only wasting the actual item, but the energy, water, and labor that went into producing it, making it a global environmental concern.

The problem has become so serious that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the country’s first waste-reduction goal, which aims to lower the nation’s food waste by 50% by the year 2030. More than anything else – whether it be my love of cooking, smart shopping, or being frugal – preventing food waste is simply paramount for me. It’s the chief principal that dictates and motivates every other food decision in my household. Whether it’s thinking about all the children in this country that do not know where their next meal is coming from, the people across the globe that don’t even have access to clean water, or my innate penny-pinching tendencies, not wasting the precious food I purchase is something I’m super passionate about. If these statistics don’t scare you enough to start cutting the food waste in your own household, think about the economical importance to your own finances. Imagine what you could do with an extra $1,500 a year? When you toss that container of leftovers you never got around to eating, or the rotten bananas you had planned to use but never did, you are literally throwing your money in the trash. Here are some simple and crucial ways to lessen your contribution to the food waste epidemic and get serious about not wasting your hard-earned money at the same time.

Meal Plan: I cannot stress enough that planning your meals is the most important strategy to saving grocery money – it trumps any other “tips” out there for spending less at the store. It also eliminates most of your food waste issues because you are shifting your mindset about the items you shop for. Everything that’s put into your grocery cart should have a specific intent. You’re no longer buying those beautiful peaches just in case you feel like making a cobbler, but rather, you’ve planned to make one and are shopping for the rest of the recipe ingredients, as well. When you know steak is on sale, you’ll plan to grill it up next Tuesday. The peaches and the steak will no longer sit in your fridge endlessly until they eventually go bad. Planning your meals is not overwhelming or rigid; it just keeps you organized and ensures that things do not go to waste. For everything you need to get starting meal-planning, see my blog post on it all here. 

Shop Less and Inventory More: Make less frequent trips to the store and you’ll slash your grocery costs and your food waste, because you are giving yourself less opportunities to buy things you won’t use. You’ll need to rely on what’s in the house to get you through to the next shopping trip, whether you’re out of bread or not. Challenge yourself to go without running to the store when you think you are low on staples. The more you meal plan, the more you will notice trends in how, what, and when your family eats, and you can shop more accordingly. For more tips on how to successfully shop less frequently, see my post on it here. Focus less time on stopping at the store to pick up a few things and more time taking inventory of what’s already in the house that can be used. You should be doing a quick scan of items, particularly perishable foods, every single day and trying to use them up.

 

Front Load: Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most likely victims of food waste. Consumers throw out over half of the produce they purchase! Over time, I’ve learned that the trick to preventing produce rot is not in the storage, but in the scheduling of using them. When you meal plan, “front load” your produce in order to maximize freshness and avoid rot. This means that you’ll try to eat/cook/use up the highly perishable items at the “front” of your meal cycle, and taper off towards the end of the cycle with less perishable produce. For example, plan to eat/use your bags of fresh baby spinach, raspberries, and bananas within the first few days of purchase. Other produce, like a head of cauliflower or beets can wait a bit longer. If you prefer to supplement your produce mid-meal-cycle, that’s fine, but be mindful of it. So for instance, if your kids gobble strawberries every day but you have another eight days before your major shopping trip, by all means, stop and get another pint. But limit your shop to just that item, and continue to offer less perishable alternatives like apples and citrus fruits.

 

Commit to Leftovers: Did you know that 96% of leftovers would be eaten more if you knew what was actually in your containers? Invest in some nice plastic storage containers and commit to actually eating what you pack away! Don’t be a food snob about eating leftovers – they are delicious and certain meals (eggplant parmesan and stuffed pasta come to mind) actually seem to get better as time goes on! Eliminating food waste can only happen if you make a point of eating leftover odds and ends of food. Is there a clump of wild rice, a few pieces of broccoli, and ½ a chicken cutlet still in the pots and pans after dinnertime? If you put these things together in a container, it makes for a hot lunch for someone the next day that’s probably much larger and more satisfying than what’s in a Lean Cuisine box. Using up perishable food should be something that’s always a conscious priority.

 

Relax about Expiration Dates: Don’t fret too much about “sell by” and “best used by” dates. A lot of food waste occurs when consumers get too nervous that something, particularly dairy and meat items, are going bad when they aren’t. Food safety is something to take very seriously, but first educate yourself on what each type of label actually means. Here is a great resource to help clear up the confusion.

 

Finally, for these goals to work, everyone in the household has to commit. If you have a spouse or a family member that isn’t really a fan of leftovers or doesn’t seem to mind when produce or dairy items have to be chucked when they go bad, talk to them about your goals and why it is so important for both an individual family and the environment. Encourage each other to eat up what’s in the house, and perhaps even some “tough love” is necessary to get everyone on board. Model gratitude for the food you have. Beyond helping to save the environment and what’s in your wallet, you’ll also be nurturing creativity as you look for ways to use up food items hanging out in the fridge. Resourcefulness is a wonderful trait that, once honed, can inspire you in so many ways. Join me in preventing food waste ASAP! 

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Make Your Own Taco Bowl!

 

Did you know it’s a cinch to make your own taco bowl or “shell” using just a plain tortilla? It’s so easy to do and also so much healthier than the fried version. There’s no need to buy packaged taco bowls – all you need is a mixing bowl, a tortilla, and the oven! These homemade taco bowls are great for upgrading boring salads and they elevate a simple weekday dinner meal into something kid-friendly and fun. I like to make large ones for the adults in the house, and a “mini” taco bowl for my son. And everyone’s favorite part is eating the crunchy bowl when the fillings are gone. This can be a great selling point for your kids – when you’ve cleaned your “plate” you actually get to eat it!

We love using them for traditional taco salads or fried chicken salads, but they’re really a great vessel for anything – steak, rotisserie chicken, grilled veggies, you name it! They are also a fun way to use up leftover fixings from taco night or can be used for my personal favorite, rice bowl night. You can prep them in advance the night before or that morning and then throw everything inside when it’s dinnertime. What can be a quicker meal than that? Read on to see how easy it is!

What You Need:

  • Flour tortillas (whole wheat is fine too), any style or size will work, but largest will obviously make a bigger bowl
  • Butter or margarine
  • Glass or metal oven-safe mixing bowl slightly smaller than tortilla

 

Step 1:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread about one teaspoon (just a thin coating) of butter or margarine on one side of tortilla.

 

Step 2:

Turn the mixing bowl over and lay on top of foiled-lined tray. Place tortilla, butter side down on top of bowl and press all sides against it, keeping your hands in place for a few moments. Bake for approximately 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned, hardened, and crispy.

 

Step 3:

Remove from oven and carefully peel away from mixing bowl. Place taco bowl right-side up and bake for another few minutes, allowing the interior of the bowl to firm up a bit more. Repeat the procedure with more tortillas as desired.

 

Fill with your favorite salad components and enjoy! Here are our favorites:

“Leaner Taco Salad”

  • Shredded lettuce
  • Sliced tomatoes
  • Sliced red onions
  • Turkey or vegetarian chili
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Sour cream

Fried Chicken Salad

Burrito-in-a-Taco-Bowl

  • Brown rice
  • Grilled steak or chicken (omit for a meatless dish)
  • Grilled or sautéed onions and peppers
  • Shredded pepperjack cheese
  • Avocado
  • Sour cream
  • Scallions
  • Black beans
  • Click here for my rice bowl night concept

 

What other things would you love to put in your homemade taco bowl? The choices are up to you! 

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To Have and to Hold...a Pitaria!

 

My husband and I recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary a few months ago– well, as much as any couple with a young child can celebrate - probably getting excited at our son’s bedtime after a long weekday only to fall asleep on the couch together or something glamorous like that! Truth be told, we actually have two technical wedding anniversaries, but most people do not know about the first. I had a dream, fantasy-come-to-life wedding, only it was just the two of us. We traveled to Switzerland and had a beautiful, private ceremony in a tiny, medieval castle on a mountain overlooking Lake Luzern. We wore fancy clothes, got our pictures taken, and treated ourselves to an amazing two weeks in a ritzy hotel as I introduced my husband to my favorite city in the world, having visited there years earlier. A few weeks later, we had a fancy brunch at a historic mansion with just super close family members to celebrate our nuptials.

 

 

Although a lot of people accustomed to standard weddings couldn’t quite figure out why we chose to get married this way, most agreed that it sounded super romantic. And it was. It was the most romantic, movie-like experience of my life. Years earlier when I traveled abroad alone, I fell in love with the city of Luzern, and saw a couple getting their picture taken on their wedding day in the beautifully ancient Old Towne. I remember thinking how incredibly storybook-like it seemed, and if I were ever lucky enough to find someone to love, I couldn’t picture a more perfect spot to marry him. It’s funny how things turn out.

Which is why our first technical “wedding” is so contrastingly different, it makes me chuckle. While researching how one gets married in a foreign country legally, I discovered that it’s totally possible, but there is a lot of red tape involved. I was advised by the individuals coordinating our event in Switzerland that it would be much easier to get legally married in the U.S. first, as we would have had to do so in Switzerland anyway before having our castle ceremony. So, on a pretty May weekday, my husband and I took off from work and technically got married at our town hall down the road, attended by just our parents and my sister-in-law and young nieces. Although it was just a technicality, the location was a special spot which would come to have more meaning later on, as we’d often take our son there years later as a baby to play at the adjoining park. After our little office ceremony, we all headed to the great diner across the street for some lunch.

It can sound so silly to think of sitting down to some BLTs and turkey wraps at a no-frills diner after just getting married, but honestly, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Food is such an integral part of the way we all celebrate and what I love about cooking and feeding people so much is the way food can stir up wonderful memories and sentiments. That afternoon, I had one of the most delicious creations ever - what the diner termed a “pitaria,” a grilled sandwich with fried chicken, melted cheese, and other fixins’ using pita bread. I didn’t think twice about recreating it at home, and every time I make it, I smile and think back to my casual, Thursday afternoon wedding day and the delicious and simple celebration lunch that followed. Although pitarias are apparently no longer on the menu at our ol’ diner from that day, I continue to make them all the time, and I’d love to share my recipe with you. They are gooey, delectable, and super easy to assemble. And to me, they symbolize love, celebration, and remind me that the important things in life need not be expensive, fancy, or showy. I hope you will cherish this recipe as much as I do!

 

Perfect Pitarias!

Ingredients:

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes or chunks
  • One tablespoon Italian dressing
  • One cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
  • Approx ¼ cup vegetable oil, for frying
  • One package, approx. 6-8 count sturdy  large pocketless Greek pita or gyro bread
  • 4-6 slices provolone cheese
  • ½ red onion, sliced
  • One cup chopped Romaine lettuce
  • 1-2 plum tomatoes, sliced
  • 3-4 tablespoons Thousand Island dressing
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter or margarine for griddle

 

1) Dip chicken pieces into Italian dressing, letting excess drain before dredging into a bowl of the bread crumbs. Heat oil to medium-high heat in frying pan, skillet, or Dutch oven. Shallow fry chicken, being careful not to turn over too soon, approximately 6-8 minutes. Flip and fry other side until golden brown and crispy. Drain chicken on paper towels.

2) In the meantime, heat griddle to 400 degrees. Line one piece of pita bread with one or two slices of provolone, a small handful of lettuce, a few slices of tomato, and red onion. Place a few pieces of the chicken on top. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of the Thousand Island on top. Place another piece of pita bread on top. Spread top piece of bread with one tablespoon butter or margarine.

 

3) When griddle is hot, carefully place “pitaria” butter-side down onto griddle (you may need a very large spatula to help you flip it this way). Griddle until bottom is lightly golden. Spread another thin layer of butter on top of pitaria, and, using large flat spatula, quickly flip to cook the other side until golden. (If something falls out of pitaria during this process, that’s OK, you can quickly stick it back in)!

4) Transfer pitaria onto a cutting board and let cool slightly. Using a large serrated knife, carefully slice pitaria into smaller sandwiches, keeping one hand on top to keep everything inside. Enjoy! 

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5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Eat Their Packed Lunches!

Another day, another lukewarm yogurt coming home in my son’s lunchbox. The ice pack I’ve carefully put in to keep everything fresh until his lunch period is now at room temperature. I have to dump the cheesestick too, no longer edible after sitting in his backpack all day. “Oh, I only had time to eat half my sandwich,” Aidan says as I sadly put the rest in the trash. But what’s this? The cookie is gone? Hmmm.

If this scenario sounds similar, I’m glad I’m not alone in the struggle to get my kid to actually EAT his packed lunch every day! There can be so many factors preventing children from eating most of their lunch, from a too-quick cafeteria period to the influence of what other kids are bringing to being full from the cupcake brought into the classroom for someone’s birthday. I’ve been disappointed many times to find Aidan coming home with most or at least half of his lunch still in his Thermos, untouched. Lunch periods go by very quickly, and any parent who has been allowed to visit their child during lunchtime knows how chaotic the cafeteria can get. It’s like a bunch of animals have just been released from captivity! It’s no surprise that sometimes children have a hard time actually eating in that environment. For Aidan, it’s the perfect storm of being a very slow eater with selective tastes paired with wanting to spend time talking to his friends. I don’t care so much if he finishes everything, but not wasting perishable food is an important value in our household, so that’s the bare minimum I hope for.

Finally, after a few years of just being frustrated about this, I’ve discovered a few ways to alleviate the issue and help Aidan actually eat his packed lunch! Read on if you’ve ever unzipped a lunchbox at the end of the day and sighed with frustration!

Make it a Game: You’ve got to try this! Aidan and his friends at school love riddles. In the past when I’d stop in the cafeteria to say hello, sometimes it would get a little awkward trying to make conversation with all the classmates who were excited that a parent was there. So I’d prepare a riddle for them to mull over while they ate. It was a big hit, so I decided to bring the riddle game directly into the lunchbox. I leave a riddle for Aidan to try to figure out with his friends during their lunch period, but I don’t give the answer. He only gets it when he returns home with most of his lunch eaten. My son is too smart to fall for most parental tricks like this, so I was blown away when he hopped off the bus the first time with his guesses to the riddle….and an empty lunchbox! Here is a great site for kid-appropriate riddles. We do it every day now! 

 

Involve the Kids: Let your children assist with preparing and packing their own lunches for school. They naturally enjoy helping with things, and it will give them a sense of autonomy and control over what goes into their lunch. If packing healthier items is important to you, let the children select a more “fun” side to go along with the carrot sticks you put in there. Working together will demonstrate teamwork and letting children have some control will give them a sense of pride in what they have packed for themselves.

 

Lower Your Expectations: Consider that you may be providing too much food for one meal. It’s normal and instinctual for us to want to leave our children very prepared when they are not with us, and this can translate into how much we pack for them in the lunchbox. What if they get hungry? What if this isn’t enough for them? Unless your child is directly telling you that they are still hungry after eating everything in their packed lunch, it’s best not to overdo it. If they are already eating a complete breakfast and dinner as well, they just need a simple lunch to get through the day, especially since younger grades still have snack time.

 

Keep it Simple: The Pinterest pages and school lunch blogs have beautiful images of creative lunches to make for your children, but most days, kids don’t need fancy things or artfully-crafted sandwiches. I love a good fun food recipe, and when Aidan was younger, we had fun turning cheese slices and waffles into dinosaurs, flowers, and other works of art. But for school lunches, it’s best to keep it simple. Kids these days really don’t have a lot of time in the cafeteria, and they truly are too busy talking with friends and just want to decompress from academics. Save the artsy creations for the weekends, when you can surprise them with a pancake monkey face. For packed lunches, even just cutting sandwiches differently one day is creative enough for you both. Speaking of simple, make sure your kids are able to open all their containers and food packages easily. That might seem obvious but sometimes a kid might not bother with that yogurt or snack mix if he can’t open it. He may not want to waste time keeping his hand raised while the cafeteria aides make the rounds helping out with this. Don’t go crazy searching for the best Bento boxes out there – when it comes down to it, foil and plastic wrap are fine enough sometimes!

 

 

Think Outside the Bread: My son is more of a “hot lunch” person just like me. In fact, when I have to pack a picnic lunch for myself, I actually have a hard time coming up with different ideas, as I’m not much of a sandwich person. What do your kids naturally love to eat? How can you translate these foods into lunchbox items? For example, Aidan loves bagels, but I’ve found they can get too hard sitting all day. Instead, I spread a little cream cheese on bagel chips  and pair with a few other sides. They stay fresh without getting soggy or stale. What about turning every kid’s favorite food, pizza, into lunchbox-friendly pizza muffins that pack well? Breakfast for lunch? Grilled cheese and chicken nuggets stay warm in a hot Thermos too! See here for my post on other great picnic meals. They can translate easily into a packed lunch for school.

Finally, take the pressure off both yourself and your children. I have struggled with this as well but when we encourage eating too much, we are engaging in a control issue with our children and that will make them even less likely to eat their food. You can have an honest talk with your children about eating their lunches, and it’s good to educate them on the difference between perishable food, which we unfortunately cannot save after a long, hot day in the backpack, and non-perishable items, which can be brought home and saved if time runs out. But beyond that, children will pick up on our stress and it won't help. As with all food and eating issues, our goal as parents is to remain consistent and model good eating ourselves. Other than that, we can just hope for the best! I encourage you to try some of these tips for your school-aged children. Best of luck! 

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