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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

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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Outsmart the Supermarket!

The grocery store wants you to spend as much money as possible. You may not realize it, but supermarkets spend a ton of money each year working with industry analysts and consumer data specialists to track shoppers and develop algorithms and other strategies to increase consumer spending. This goes way beyond impulse candy bars at the checkout and giving out free samples. The marketing analysts have carefully tapped into every one of your senses as a shopper so that they may increase how much you’re willing to spend on products. These marketing strategies are more like magic tricks, ensuring the shopper doesn’t even notice how every single detail of a grocery store is thoroughly set up for the very reason of maximizing spending. Make no mistake about it – nothing is by accident! As a consumer, it’s important that you are aware of these strategies, so you can keep a clear head while grocery shopping and not be lured into spending more than you need to. Here are some of the most common approaches supermarkets employ to seduce you as a consumer:

  • Meandering Aisles: Years ago, grocery stores were composed strictly of straight rows of aisles with specific categories. Have you noticed that many now have smaller, more broken up aisles and zigzagged displays? This is not an accident. Stores would rather have you meander around casually rather than lapping through long aisles. The purpose is to get you a little “lost” and create the illusion that you’re in a bountiful marketplace to browse through leisurely rather than just running an errand with purpose. The goal? To get you to spend more time in the store, which will ultimately lead to more spending.

 

  • End Cap Confusion: An endcap is a product display placed at the end of an aisle. Most consumers believe that this the go-to spot for items on sale, but this is not always the case. Items are strategically placed here to get your attention, not because the item has the cheapest price.

 

  • Appealing smells and sights in the front: Supermarkets deliberately manipulate your senses when you first enter the store. Placing baked goods, delicious smelling rotisserie chicken, and colorful produce towards the entrance of the store activates your salivary glands and makes you more likely to purchase more. Even placing fresh flowers in the front is a marketing strategy that has been shown to put consumers in a good mood, which increases the likelihood that they will purchase more. 

 

  • Cross promotions: Cross promotion takes place when supermarkets will place like items that pair well together in the same display. For instance, having a refrigerated basket of fresh mozzarella next to tomatoes in the produce section so the consumers will more likely pick up both at the suggestion that they will make a nice caprese salad. While this isn’t an entirely bad idea, it’s something to be mindful of. You’re much more likely to buy that more expensive dip if it’s placed right next to the potato chips rather than all by itself in the dairy aisle.

 

  • Sales on Multiples: 2 for $3.00 may sound like a great deal on that expensive shave gel your husband prefers – but most sales like this don’t actually require you to purchase two in order to get the discounted price of $1.50 each. It’s a marketing strategy to make you believe the offer is too great to pass up. Note that some sales on multiples do require you to purchase both, but if you’re unsure of the signage, always ask. Remember, you shouldn’t be buying more than you need, otherwise the sale is not economical for you.

 

  • Premium selection at counters: The butcher, deli, seafood, and bakery selections purchased at their respective counters does not necessarily mean they are any fresher, healthier, or higher quality than the same items located down the aisles. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking assistance from the knowledgeable employees working behind these counters, you can usually pick up packages of the same items they dish out for you elsewhere in the store and there is a bigger variety in price. ​

 

  • Bulk isn’t always best: I am usually a huge fan of promoting bulk buying, but the largest size of an item isn’t always the cheapest. Grocery stores know how to advertise their bulk and family-size items to make all largest versions of items sound like the best deal so consumers will naturally select them. However, the best deal is actually based on unit price – this is the price per ounce, size, or unit of something. You need to compare the unit price of items to see what size is really the best deal. If the store does not identify unit price, this is where your calculator comes in handy.

 

  • Remodels and layout changes: Do you ever step into your grocery store one day realizing that they’ve changed the layout around and you suddenly can’t find where anything is? This is completely intentional. Stores undergo many remodels and plan-o-gram changes (diagrams showing where retail items should be placed) to get you to think something is new and different when it’s really not – it’s just been rearranged. Stores know that most shoppers are running in to just grab a few things (see here for more of why that is an economical no-no). 

 

  • Produce Placement: Stores will almost always place beautiful produce in front because its attractiveness and bright colors puts you in a good mood. Marketers depend on the benefit of this - if you buy lots of healthy produce, it will make you rationalize the other things you put in your cart afterwards. The pay-off for the store? You’re ultimately buying more.​

 

 

  • Misleading flyers and circulars: Just like with endcaps, not everything advertised in a store’s weekly flyer is actually on sale. Marketers depend on the fact that the majority of consumers can’t remember the regular price of most items other than milk, bread, and eggs. What may seem like a sale price on a circular is actually just that particular item being advertised. Make sure to double check the regular price versus sale price in store. 

 

I often think of my shopping experience as sort of a battle between the marketing specialists and my shopping savvy – and I always like to win. We can’t blame supermarkets for trying their best to make you spend money, but it makes it all the more important that as a consumer, you arm yourself with the knowledge of these strategies so you can be sure to ignore them as much as possible. Being an aware, smart shopper will give you more confidence that you can stick to a budget and be more mindful of what you’re spending. Good luck out there! 

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We All Scream for Smoothie Cream!

I’ve mentioned that my son Aidan is a pretty picky eater when it comes to healthy things, but he loves smoothies and shakes, so I try my best to incorporate them into his diet on an almost daily basis so I know he’s getting some fruit! And even though he can slurp one down eagerly, there’s always that little bit of leftover smoothie in the blender that I was never sure what to do with! Aidan and I came up with a fabulous way of saving our leftover smoothie and it has been a hit in this house. We turn it into “Smoothie Cream,” our healthier version of ice cream! It’s simple, delicious, resourceful, and the best part is that we don’t waste one drop of the ingredients we’ve put into our smoothie.

All you have to do is pour the leftover smoothie contents directly from the blender into a freezer-safe container and freeze. When ready to use, take the container out and let it defrost slightly until you can break it up a bit with a spoon and it has the consistency of a very thick shake.

The amount of time it takes to defrost to this point depends on the quantity you’ve frozen. You can speed things up by zapping it in the microwave for 30 seconds or so. And that’s it! You have what we call Smoothie Cream! Call it whatever you’d like, but I guarantee your kids will love it just as much as real ice cream! It’s so refreshing and a great, healthy addition to complete or end a meal.

If you don’t have your own tried and true smoothie recipes of your own, here is our favorite base way to prepare one. You can play around with the ingredients and the possibilities become endless. No matter what kind of smoothie you like to make, I promise your whole family will love Smoothie Cream as much as we do!

 

Easy Beginner Fruit Smoothie

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • Approx. one cup ice
  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • ½ cup milk
  • One teaspoon vanilla extract (you may omit this if you prefer)
  • Approx. 1-2 tablespoons white sugar (you may use honey, another sugar substitute, or omit completely – it’s your choice!)
  • One cup fresh or frozen fruit of your choice (frozen fruit will enrich the thickness)
  1. Combine all ingredients in blender. Blend until thick and smooth and desired consistency. Pour into glasses and enjoy. Freeze the leftovers for future Smoothie Cream! 

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