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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

Simple Steps to Dining Out Less

It’s estimated that the average American family spends about $225 a month eating out. That adds up to $2700 a year just on food away from home, not including any groceries. However, I’d bet that that is a low estimate for some families, who seem to rely on fast casual meals and restaurants more often than not to get through the week. In fact, recent studies point out that for the first time in history, Americans are spending more at restaurants than they are on groceries. There’s nothing wrong with going out to eat. But when a family is looking to cut back on food expenses, there’s always a lot of emphasis on reducing grocery bills but not nearly enough on the obvious decision to eat out less.

Remember – a plate of food at a restaurant is going to cost you much more than if you prepared the same dish at home mostly due to overhead and mark up – you are paying not only for the meal but the nonfood costs of the establishment such as labor, rent, utilities, and marketing. This is obviously how restaurants make a profit. And while one could argue that sometimes it’s worth it to avoid shopping, cooking, and cleaning up, this philosophy might be better suited for going out to eat more seldom rather than the norm. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly think of other things I’d need that $2700 a year for! For families who might like to cut back on eating out expenses but may not be sure how to make that happen, here are some totally feasible steps to get you started:

Get introspective: Take a few moments to think about why you find yourself going out to eat so often. Is it a hatred for cooking or a feeling of inadequacy in the kitchen? Do you feel like your family’s schedule is just too hectic for anything else? Be honest with yourself. For some, maybe paying for nice meals at restaurants is a status symbol. Or do you just enjoy the sheer convenience of it? The better you are able to pinpoint why you spend so much money on food away from home, the better you’ll be able to develop strategies to deal with the reasons behind it all.

Get real about how much you’re actually spending: If you don’t already keep track of what you spend, start by writing down every dollar your family dishes out on food and drink away from home for at least two months. I can guarantee that you’ll be blown away by the numbers. Many do not realize how quickly a trip to the drive through or a night of pizza delivery will add up when you’re also stopping for coffee often and going out to eat several times throughout the month. Don’t beat yourself up over the total – just use it to recognize how much of your money goes down your throat before even stepping into the grocery store.

Start small: As with everything else in life, it’s all about baby steps. Wean yourself slowly. Make a budget and stick to it. Think about what might be a realistic reduction in expense for your family and set yourself up for success by not making the budget too low. You’ll never feel a sense of accomplishment if you make unrealistic goals.

Meal plan and anticipate busy nights: Combat the need for convenience meals by planning out your week and anticipating what nights you’ll need an “easier and quicker” meal. Then, fill out the rest of the week with simple meals you can prepare at home.  When you meal plan, you maintain control over when you chose to go out to eat, making it all the more budget-friendly. If you know you’ll have an opportunity for a date night on Friday, cook the other six nights that week. If take-out might be easier on the way to gymnastics, try to commit to home cooking the rest of the week. Every little bit of savings helps. For my complete set of guidelines on meal planning, especially for busy schedules, check this out.

Forget about being a foodie: If lack of culinary expertise has you eating out more often than not, that doesn’t need to be an excuse for all the spending. You don’t need to be the next Julia Child to feed your family most nights of the week. Grilled cheese and tomato soup? A steak on the grill with a salad?  A rotisserie chicken with some rice from the pantry and peas from the freezer? Most dinners like this require little cooking knowledge and are more about assembly than anything else. Also, if you’re serious about reducing your spending, there’s no time like the present to practice basic cooking skills.

Recreate the restaurant experience: Some feel like the caliber of cuisine is far superior at restaurants. Sure, this may be true at some establishments, but like most families, you might be spending most of your money at fast casual and sit down chains where sometimes the food is just mediocre and the service less than stellar. I love trying to recreate items I’ve had out by using copycat recipes or just experimenting at home. You can find a bunch of copycat recipes just by searching online. Some of my favorites include this copycat Chick Fil A chicken nugget recipe and this take on Panera’s Cheddar Broccoli soup. You may discover you can even achieve better results!

Stay focused on your goals: If you’re trying to reduce your eating out spending for financial reasons, have some set goals in mind (saving up for Christmas shopping or a major purchase, paying down a debt) and remember that small reductions in spending add up remarkably. Perhaps you are trying to reduce for health reasons. Stay motivated by remembering that when you prepare your own food, you are controlling the ingredients. As you acclimate to eating more home cooking, you soon discover that your body can’t handle restaurant food like it used to! I think this is a testament to how more healthier it is to consistently commit to home cooking.

Do your research: When you do go out to eat, you can still be cost conscious. Check menus in advance online to get an idea of prices, call ahead about any specials, look for Groupons and other deals. Commit to only patronizing establishments you have coupons for or find deals on, such as restaurants that have “kids eat free” nights.

Finally, make dining out more sacred than standard. Going out to eat or getting treats should be reserved for special occasions and fun spontaneous excursions. If you go out to eat too much and “normalize” it as the way your family eats most of the time, you are taking away the specialness of it, as well as wasting a lot of money, because now it’s become a habit rather than an occasion. Remember that going out to eat should not always translate into being a form of entertainment or just a way to pass the time. I don’t agree that it should never be, because it’s fun and enjoyable and a great way to get together with those you love. But balance and moderation are key. You’ll have a much more amazing, memorable experience trying that new steakhouse in town or being blown away by the burger in the hole-in-the-wall establishment everybody’s been raving about if you haven’t just eaten out two days prior. Keep the joy of dining out joyous by keeping it sacred and reserved for the right moments. Your wallet – and your waistline- will thank you in the long run! 

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Perfect Lunchbox Pizza Puffs


A mini muffin pan is a godsend for parents of young children. Everyone loves things in miniature form, especially kids, and the muffin pan can yield an array of treats that are both versatile and easy to eat. We like to do mini quiches and breakfast cups, traditional mini muffins, mini meatloaves and other cutesy versions of larger recipes, but most of all, we love to make teeny lunch items that pack easily for school and that my son will happily gobble up in the cafeteria.

Aidan’s favorite food in the entire world is pizza, and I’ve converted it into a lunchbox pizza puff that is a cinch to whip up in the mini muffin pan. He loves eating them plain, but you can also serve them with a small container of your kids’ favorite dipping red sauce. I like to make a bunch to save. They freeze well and you can just defrost them for quick lunchbox meals throughout the school year. They are great cold or at room temperature, but if your children prefer them warm, here is a tip for ensuring hot lunches stay hot: fill Thermos containers with boiling water, cover, and let sit for a few minutes. Then empty the water and wipe dry before placing the hot or warm food inside immediately. The process will help keep the temperature of whatever you are stuffing it with. As far as the pizza puffs, I reheat mine in the oven quickly while we’re getting ready for the bus, wrap them in some foil, and fill in our preheated Thermos container. They keep pretty warm until it’s Aidan’s lunch period without getting soggy. We hope you enjoy!

Perfect Pizza Puffs

  •  ¾ cup flour 
  •  ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  •  ¾ cup milk
  •  1 egg
  •  1¼ cup shredded mozzarella
  •  Approx. 4 oz. pepperoni, chopped
  •  1-2 tablespoons dried or fresh basil or Italian seasoning
  • 1 cup tomato or marinara sauce, for dipping

1.   Lightly spray a mini muffin pan with cooking spray.

2.   In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, milk, egg, cheese, pepperoni, and seasonings, stirring until mixed well.

3.   Spoon batter into muffin pan approximately ¾ of the way full.

4.   Bake in preheated oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until cooked through and lightly browned. Let cool before removing from pan.

5.   Serve with sauce for dipping.

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Oh Boy – Grilled Bok Choy! (And 6 Other Foods You NEED to Grill Now!)


We use our grill constantly throughout the entire year, but warm weather is when we become quite obsessed with trying out new recipes to throw on the barbeque. What’s so great about grilling food is that it pretty much guarantees that you are maximizing flavor with minimal effort and technique. You don’t need to be a culinary expert to grill, there is almost no preparation required for most things, and best of all, grilling lends itself to limitless potential for healthy eating. If you are used to just firing up the barbeque for the occasional hot dog or hamburger during summer months only, I encourage you to think out of the box and explore what else the grill can do for your meal repertoire.

Below I’ve highlighted some of our favorite atypical items to grill, along with some ideas of how to utilize them. And here’s the best part: all anything really needs before it goes on the grill is just a quick toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. That’s all it takes to achieve dynamic flavor profiles and transform regular ingredients into something so much more.

Bok Choy:  This is my all-time favorite vegetable to grill. If you’ve never had bok choy to begin with, give it a try! This cruciferous veggie is chock full of potassium, vitamin K, C, A, and lots of antioxidants. I love to braise it with ginger and sesame oil, or add it to stir fries, but when I tried grilling it, I fell in love with it even more! The slight char that is achieved adds a smoky depth that is indescribable. It becomes crunchy, rich, and holds up so well to deliciously salty and complex Asian dipping sauces. I love to pair it with sticky Jasmine rice and hoisin chicken skewers. Mmmm!


Grilling Tip: Cut your bok choy into bite size pieces or strips, toss in your basic oil, salt, and pepper preparation, then string onto skewers to grill. It is a delicate item to grill, so use low heat and don’t overdo! 

Red Onion: Grilled red onion comes in a close second as my favorite barbequed veggie. They are a perfect side dish for steaks and other grilled proteins, in salads, and are to die for dipped in vinaigrette or creamy Tzatiki sauce. The stringent quality of raw onion is eliminated and in its place is just smoky, sweet, caramelized goodness! Grilling Tip:  To make sure your onion rings do not fall through the grates, use only the largest cut rings. Or, you may also string smaller rings on skewers. 

Pineapple: Delicious on its own, as a side dish with some simple teriyaki chicken and rice, or perfect in Caribbean –style salads,  pineapple holds up to the grill very well due to its sturdy nature. The natural sugars caramelize nicely and create wonderful depth. Want to use it in a dessert? Top it with vanilla ice cream and some caramel sauce for an indulgent treat. Grilling Tip: As with most items, don’t overcook the pineapple, or it will become mushy.


Ciabatta Bread: Some sliced ciabatta brushed with oil, charred slightly with a smear of fresh ricotta cheese on top? Heaven! Try experimenting with grilling other types of bread for that matter. I also love putting tortillas and pita bread on the grill. Grilling Tip: Ciabatta is a stiff bread to begin with, so be sure not to overdo it. Use low heat and watch carefully. Remove from the grill right after you achieve a few grill marks but before it burns!

Corn: I will never eat corn on the cob another way again! As if there was a way to improve upon the natural deliciousness of sweet corn in season, grilling it can do just that. Grilling corn preserves the integrity of its flavor, but it is enhanced with browned, blackened, charred, and smoky bits that pair so amazingly once a little bit of butter melts on top of it! Good on its own, grilled corn is even better trimmed off the cob and used in salads, succotash, and salsas. You don’t need to consider yourself a chef to throw together a killer healthy salad of spinach or mixed greens, grilled chicken, grilled corn, avocado, and hard boiled eggs. It’s delicious! Grilling Tip: Don’t worry about getting every piece of silk off when shucking. They will singe off.

Avocado: There’s not many ways to make one of my favorite things to eat better, but grilling the heavenly avocado comes close. The creaminess and richness is still there, but is boosted with smoky char marks and depth of flavor. Eat it plain, top a burger with it, or try chopping it up and adding it to fresh tomato slices for a stellar side dish. Grilling Tip: Drizzle some lemon juice in your olive oil/salt/pepper prep to prevent browning.

Citrus: Why try grilling citrus fruits? It adds a subtle, smoky flavor that is versatile for so much. Pair your grilled lemon with seafood, try some homemade cocktails with grilled lime, and try your hand at making marinades and salad dressings with grilled oranges. Grilling Tip: Due to the juiciness of citrus, it isn’t necessary to toss with oil first.

Join me in firing up the grill any time of year. What other “out of the box” items can you think to throw on the barbeque? The possibilities are infinite. Happy grilling! 

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Edible Playdough!

I don’t know if it’s just me, but the last weeks of summer in particular seem to drag out endlessly. At this point in the game, I feel completely out of ideas to keep my kid busy, just at the same time all the wonderful summer activities for kids have petered out. Vacations are over, camps have been completed, free kids movies have ended, and summer bucket list items checked off the list. Though we start summer break full of energy and motivation, by this time, I just feel like shrugging at Aidan and saying, “sorry dude – I’ve got nothin’!”

But just when all hope is lost, I remember that I still have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep us entertained. Aidan enjoys cooking and still likes to indulge in a little sensory play now and then – and a recipe we’ve done a few times in the past is the perfect combination of both of these. If your kids are getting restless during this dragging last week, this activity should keep them busy for awhile, and the best part is that you get to eat your craft! Here is our basic recipe for Edible Peanut Butter Playdough. You may sub peanut butter with SunButter if there are nut allergies in your family. After you have made the basic recipe, kids can play with it like playdough, shape and mold it, use cookie cutters and other dough accessories, and form it into bugs, creatures, and whatever other designs they can think of. Then, it’s time to snack on it! The basic recipe can keep for awhile, or you can even freeze it for later use. Enjoy!


Edible Peanut Butter Playdough

  • ¼ cup creamy peanut butter (can sub SunButter for nut allergies)
  • 1 tablespoon wheat germ
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3 tablespoons nonfat dried milk + more as needed if dough becomes too sticky
  • small edible items to use as accessories (optional). We like to use chow mein noodles for “legs” and pieces of raisin for eyes. Mini chocolate chips also work well.
  1. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until well incorporated.
  2. Chill in fridge until firmer and a bit drier.
  3. Model the “clay” into desired shapes, adding more dried milk if necessary and if clay starts to stick to hands.
  4. Decorate with edible accessories as desired.

Once playtime is over, enjoy the playdough as a snack! 

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The Chopstick Challenge

My 8 year old can’t be fooled. He’s too old now and jaded to fall for bribery and other tricks I’ve attempted over the years to get a vegetable down his throat. Most recently at Aidan’s well check-up, when his wonderful pediatrician tried again to have a serious talk with him about eating more produce, she suggested the idea of earning a trip to a Broadway show (something I’ve promised Aidan down the line) in trade of trying 50 new good-for-you foods. His response to her: “Nope, that’s not going to happen.” Yep, my strong-willed child is one step ahead of all of us.

As a mother, I’m constantly being taught that things can’t be forced. And, especially with regard to resolute children, things have to happen on their terms. I was reminded of both of these lessons the other day, when Aidan and I stumbled upon a great way to play around with food quite by accident.

While Aidan was getting a fork for his lunch, he pulled out a pair of bright pink flamingo kiddie chopsticks. “Hey, what are these?” he asked. I had completely forgotten about them! I’m not a very forgetful person at all, but it has been a busy few weeks and they totally slipped my mind. I had purchased them at World Market a month earlier in perhaps one last mom-of-big-kid optimistic attempt to encourage Aidan to explore healthy food in a fun way.

“Oh, yeah…I forgot about them,” I said, trying to think of something enthusiastic to say about the chopsticks without letting Aidan see my true motivation. Instead I continued plainly, “I thought you’d like to use them.”

Rather than calling me out on my newest trick to encourage good eating, Aidan appreciated the gift simply. “Thanks!” he said genuinely. He was having leftover pepperoni pizza, and instead of talking about how great the chopsticks would be for raspberries or peas, I just sat back and enjoyed watching Aidan successfully and sloppily get the cheesy pizza pieces into his mouth. He asked if he could try picking up marshmallows and chocolate chips with the chopsticks for dessert, and unlike my typical reflex to ask him to eat some fruit before a sweet, I let him. And together, we just had fun playing with the chopsticks.


Quite organically, Aidan and I started thinking of “chopstick dares” and soon, the “Chopstick Challenge” was born. Aidan decided on a few texture-based dares and I was able to throw a few of my ideas in too. The challenge was to see how many items on the list you could successfully pick up and eat using the chopsticks, such as "something slippery" and "something teeny." Unlike past attempts, there was no final reward or prize for eating healthier items – it was suddenly just all about the process.

Any strong-willed child loves a good challenge, and Aidan was too distracted by his determination to realize that he was actually eating some healthy things that fit the Chopstick Challenge categories (he actually ate pieces of salad – that’s huge!) But more importantly, I learned to relax a little and put my faith in spontaneity and child-led exploration.

If you try the Chopstick Challenge yourself, be sure to allow your kids to participate in creating the categories too. Their creativity and innovation in seeing what they can eat using just the sticks will lead the way to not only entertainment but growth for everyone. But most importantly, just have fun! 


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Pouches' Community Corner

This month Pouches learned about a very important resource for families who have lost loved ones to sudden tragedy, an organization called LLOST.

keepsake box

The foundation has helped 44 hospitals in 22 states through their Treasured Memories program. The program sends nurses to bereavement training, and provides or supplements the $55 memory boxes that include clothes, booties, handknot blankets, pictures, foot prints, hand prints, clipped hair and other mementos.