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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

Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta

There is nothing quite like the sweet juiciness of a perfectly ripe cherry tomato in the summer. Right now, it’s prime time for these little jewels of the garden, and their scent and taste are always nostalgic for me. Growing up, we had a huge garden and my father grew everything he could think of – green beans, zucchini, sunflowers, eggplant, but most important to me – the beautifully bright cherry tomato. His efforts would yield hundreds and it was my job to harvest the red little gems off the vine and bring them into the house. Unfortunately, most never made it very far – I’d pop tomato after tomato into my mouth right then and there standing in the garden, excited to find yet another bright red beauty hiding behind some leaves.

            Despite my love of cooking and utilizing fresh food, I’ve yet to start a garden of my own. I have the perfect spot carved out in my backyard, but I just can’t seem to get it together in time to start the process. One of these days! In the meantime, I continue to have a love affair with cherry tomatoes this time of year and fortunately, I’ve learned to save some for recipes without snacking on them all first (although that’s still my favorite way to eat them)! If you’ve never tried roasting tomatoes before, you need to make my Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta ASAP. Roasting tomatoes changes so much about the vegetable – the process transforms it into something delectably sweet and rich, with a depth of flavor that is intense, concentrated, and unlike anything else! Roasting tomatoes is an absolutely great way to use up tomatoes that might be a little past their prime or a little softer than you’d like. The great thing about roasting vegetables is that it does not discriminate against less than perfect ones – all tomatoes convert equally into the intense flavor that only roasting can bring out. The best part is – it’s super easy to do! It’s an inexpensive, simple summertime dinner that I know you will love. You can also use the more economical grape tomato for this recipe. The combination of sweet garlic and rich roasted tomatoes, all topped with fresh mozzarella pearls is irresistible. Happy roasting!

 

Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta

Ingredients:

  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved (you can also use grape tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 12-16 oz mezzi (small) rigatoni or other small tube pasta
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil or oregano (or dried if you’d like!)
  • Approx. 8 oz fresh mozzarella pearls (ciliegine)
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss tomatoes with about 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper and spread on stoneware or lined baking or roasting sheet. Roast about 20 minutes, flipping halfway through until the tomatoes are softened and mildly charred.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package instructions. Reserve about ½ cup of cooking water. Drain pasta.
  3. Heat remaining olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook a few minutes until fragrant and lightly browned.
  4. Add pasta to the skillet with garlic and oil, and add tomatoes and any scrapings from the roasting pan. Add reserved pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce a bit. Stir in herbs and season with more salt and pepper. Sprinkle a handful of the mozzarella on top. You may also drizzle a bit more olive oil on top if you’d like. Enjoy! 

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DIY Greek Yogurt and Easy Tzatziki!

Greek yogurt is all the rage these days, and with good reason. It fares better than regular yogurt to some degree in terms of lower sugar and sodium content. But both Greek yogurt and regular, low-fat plain yogurt are about equal when it comes to calories. Further, regular yogurt actually has more calcium than Greek yogurt. For most people, I think the appeal of Greek yogurt comes down to consistency – regular yogurt is notorious for being runnier and thin compared to the thick, uber-creaminess of Greek yogurt. Unfortunately, Greek yogurt can also be much more expensive! Want my secret to making your own “Greek” style yogurt for a fraction of the cost? All you have to do is drain your regular yogurt to attain the same rich results! Here’s how to get that wonderful thickness:

  • Several hours before use, line a small bowl with paper towels and drop your regular yogurt on top.
  • Cover, refrigerate, and allow to “drain.” The liquid will saturate the paper towels leaving behind a much thicker yogurt on top! That’s it!

You can utilize this technique for everyday snacking, for making creamier baby and toddler food, enhancing smoothies and shakes, or as an ingredient for my favorite way to use plain yogurt – Tzatziki! There is nothing more refreshing and delicious than a good Tzatziki sauce, and the best part is – it’s super healthy! If you are not familiar with Tzatziki sauce, it is a traditional Greek yogurt and cucumber based condiment served with grilled meats, vegetables, and gyros. It’s also lovely as a dip. It can be bought in pre-packaged containers or fresh in the expensive olive/salad bar, but to make it yourself costs pennies and is SO easy! I like to serve it up with my version of a “deconstructed” gyro – all the flavors of the classic dish but in a slightly healthier adaptation. I pair Tzatziki with grilled chicken or another protein, grilled pita bread, grilled red onion and zucchini, and a crisp Greek salad. Every element is nutritious, inexpensive, and just as appetizing as a plate in a Mediterranean diner! Here’s my personal version of Tzatziki. Happy yogurt-making!

Debra's Easy Tzatziki Sauce

Ingredients:

  • One cup fat free or low-fat plain yogurt, drained
  • Approx. ¾ one cucumber, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • One tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • One tbsp fresh dill or oregano
  1. In a food processor (or blender), combine chopped cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and fresh herbs. Pulse until combined and smooth.
  2. Transfer this mixture into a bowl, and add the yogurt. Stir to combine.​

 

      3. Chill sauce until ready to serve. Enjoy! 

 

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Savin' on Vacation!


It’s hard to believe it now, but the first long road trip we took after becoming a family was when my son Aidan was just two months old. I think we got through it all right, with the exception of treating a terrible case of newborn diaper rash in dirty rest stop changing tables, pulling off the side of the road to comfort my screaming baby, and trying to nurse him in a shady McDonald’s bathroom stall. In retrospect, maybe two months old is a bit young! Later travel has included projectile carseat vomit, emergency stops for Dramamine, and ridiculously expensive tickets from speeding traps in the middle of nowhere. But despite these mishaps, we've also cultivated some serious road trip and vacationing savvy. I’m proud to say that in our 8 years of parenthood, we’ve had more great family trips than I can count, and from all our time doing it, I feel like we’ve got it down to a science.

Spontaneous travel with unrestricted spending was great when I was 20 years old or when we were a young couple, but when you have a family, spontaneity is a luxury that is hard to afford! Speaking of hard to afford, we’ve been blessed to go on many memorable family vacations, but they can add up. As a mostly-one-income family, it’s critical that we budget for our vacations and stay within budget. Being frugal and making smart choices about food and eating while on vacation is one of the biggest ways you can control your spending, and doing so has enabled our family to take more trips than I would ever think possible. Here are some of my tried and true tips:

  • Pack your road trip meals! If you are road-tripping, there is no reason not to do this. Think of it this way - you’ll have lots of restaurant trips and treats to look forward to at your actual destination, so don’t blow your food budget during the actual travel time. Further, it’s good to keep a cooler in your car at all times – you can fill it with ice later on to store perishable ingredients on the way home and/or during excursions.

 

  • Commit to the “One Meal In, One Meal Out” Rule: When we vacation, we firmly stick to this rule for both our budget and our health – it simply means that you’ll only indulge in a “sit down” restaurant dining experience once a day. For instance, if we’re at the beach for a week and know we are going to try a nice seafood restaurant for dinner, we’ll be sure to bring peanut butter sandwiches to the beach for lunch that day. If we’re vacationing with the grandparents and are going to sneak out to kid-free lunch date, a quick slice of pizza is perfectly fine for dinner that night. Making sure you don’t go “out to eat” more than once a day will save you in tips, overpriced entrees, and calories. The other meals can be a picnic, a simple sandwich from a take-out place, or something you might be able to put together where you’re staying.

 

  • Research in advance and use local coupons: Take some time when planning your vacation to look up local restaurant websites and their online reviews to get an idea of price range and proximity to attractions and your hotel. Sometimes just googling this info will bring up online coupons you can use! Visiting tourism sites for your destination should also provide advice about local dining. At your hotel, take advantage of the front desk staff’s knowledge and inquire about dining establishments and any deals they know of. They are trained to answer these questions and finding out which great restaurants have a “kids eat free” night or BOGO entrée coupons can save you big time. For more tips on dining specifically at WDW, check out fellow blogger Gin's post here

 

  • Take advantage of complimentary breakfasts when you can: The little continental breakfasts in the lobby of your hotel? It may not be the hottest spot in town, but if your kids can fill up on little boxes of cereal and you can grab some scrambled eggs, an apple, and a piece of toast before you head out for the day, it serves its purpose and saves you money.

 

  • Remember the ride home when bringing snacks. Don’t forget to pack enough snacks for your return road trip home – don’t rely on buying overpriced treats on the way! We bring a large, reusable grocery shopping bag with us with almost all of our dry snacks from the pantry. Whatever we don’t eat on the way there gets saved for the ride home. When you’re buying snacks in advance of your vacation, think about the entire trip. Will your hotel have a microwave? Bring along those popcorn bags! Don’t forget not-so-perishable fruit like bananas, apples, and oranges.

 

  • Utilize the local grocery store. This is an essential resource for frugal eating on vacation. It’s a great place to grab some bread, cold cuts, and other sandwich fixings that you can DIY instead of buying expensive premade versions elsewhere. If you are able to do any cooking while away, this is also where you’ll stock up on basic ingredients. At checkout, mention you’re out of towners and ask the cashier if he would be kind enough to run the savers club card even if you don’t have one (they usually will – we do it every time)!

 

 

  • Meal plan wisely leading up to trip. Be mindful about the days leading up to your departure date with regard to perishable items. Try to taper off your highly perishable ingredients as you get closer to this date to try to ensure that you are cleaning out most of what’s in the fridge to avoid waste. For instance, don’t plan a large dinner that yields a lot of leftovers the night before! Check out more of my meal planning tips here.

 

  • Additionally, plan for your immediate return: Lots of money can be spent on convenience food right AFTER you return home from a trip, because you have nothing in the house to eat. The way to combat this is to plan what you’ll do for your return ahead of time. For example, make and freeze a baked ziti or other casserole before your vacation so it’s there to come home to. Even making sure you have a frozen pizza to eat that first night is cheaper than take out. Also, plan something quick that doesn’t use a lot of perishables the following day in case you don’t have time to replenish your produce and dairy ASAP. Better yet? Meal plan for the week you return home the week before you leave – your menu will be waiting at home for you and then all you have to do is shop for the ingredients.

 

  • Consider investing in a kitchenette. It might be more economical to make sure your accommodations have some sort kitchen space for you to use rather than relying on restaurants for every meal. Whether you’re renting a cabin with friends, splitting a timeshare with other family members, or booking a hotel on the beach, take advantage of the kitchen area! A mini fridge will preserve your leftovers to eat for lunch the next day, a microwave will heat up your breakfast oatmeal, and you can prep yourself tons of quick easy meals using a small oven range. Bring along a box of pasta and some jarred sauce from home, grab some salad supplies and garlic bread from the local grocery store, and you’ve got yourself a cheap yet satisfying  dinner after a long day at the beach.

 

  • Two words – CROCK POT! Packing up our crock pot for vacations where we’ve had access to a kitchen was one of the best things we’ve ever come up with! If you have kitchen/kitchenette access, setting a crock pot in the morning is a great way to eat on the cheap. We’ve done chili, a whole chicken, pastas, and soups, and it yields so much! Further, you can bring other kitchen supplies and gadgets from home when you can that might help make some quick meals. A flat skillet, cheese grater, and spatula can allow for quick quesadillas one night, for example.

 

 

  • Know food rules at attractions. Some attractions have very strict “no outside food/drink” rules that you may need to follow. Other places are much more relaxed. Do your research in advance. Calling first and asking a live employee about the rules is your best bet - sometimes a place will not allow coolers but are lax when it comes to snacks and kiddie stuff. Remember that all food, drinks, and treats at parks, attractions, and museums are incredibly overpriced. It doesn’t mean you can’t treat your kids to a funnel cake or a frozen lemonade, but if you’re going to, eating a quick sandwich for lunch that you’ve packed will balance out some of that spending!

Family vacations are supposed to be fun and an escape from the everyday, and food is a big part of that. Get those giant ice cream cones while walking on the boardwalk, treat yourself to that lobster roll, savor every minute of that fancy meal al fresco watching the sunset with your spouse. We do all of these things too. Just be mindful of all of the other ways you can save here and there. All the little things add up, just like at home! Trips are about creating family memories that your children (and you!) can look back on and cherish forever. You’re going to remember the quality time together, the silly things that happen along the way, the beautiful scenery and irreplaceable bonding no matter what, so you might as well save some money along the way! Have a great trip!  

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Want S'more Pie?

Family Movie Night has become a recent new ritual in our household now that my son is old enough to both stay up late when we OK it and watch “big kid” movies. And of course, Mama is ready with making sure we are fully equipped with good snacks! After our first few Family Movie Nights, Aidan and I got talking about how fun it would be to make our movie snacks fit the theme of the story in some way, and it’s been quite a hit! We’ve made pumpkin bread for Cinderella, had rainbow cookies to fit the colorful characters of Inside Out, and as for Harry and the Hendersons during my son’s Bigfoot phase…let’s just say we searched far and wide for bear claw pastries only to discover that not one donut establishment in the area has even heard of them! Oh well – at least we tried! We were excited to introduce the classic kid movie The Sandlot to Aidan, and I got to work thinking of a treat that would mirror the classic Americana nostalgia of the film. Then, when I was telling Aidan about the funny s’mores scene during the boys’ sleepover in the clubhouse, it hit me. Nothing evokes Americana, summertime fun, and childhood adventure quite like a s’more!

I decided to convert this classic treat into a pie to enjoy indoors and it was…..outrageously delicious! Here is my recipe for our S’mores Pie. It is so simple! And it somehow got better and better as we continued to snack on it the next day. The buttery goodness of the crust, the richness of the chocolate ganache, and the gooey toasted marshmallow topping – it’s heaven in a pie dish! We hope you enjoy and feel inspired to create your own themed movie/snack nights with your family!

 

Heavenly S’mores Pie

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½  cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
  • 8-10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chip morsels
  • 1 cup heavy or light cream
  • 1 (10 oz) package marshmallows (your choice of what size marshmallow!)
  1. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a pie dish.
  2. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, and sugar in mixing bowl. Mix well to the consistency of wet sand, then press into the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Bake in the preheated oven until the crust is lightly browned, about 5-10 minutes.
  3. Heat cream in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat, bringing to a gentle boil. Quickly remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate chips in a bowl; whisk until smooth. Pour evenly over the graham cracker layer.
  4. Preheat the oven's broiler and set the oven rack so it is close to the heat source. Place marshmallows on top of chocolate layer, and broil until the marshmallows are lightly toasted, about 1 minute. Watch very closely so it does not burn! Refrigerate until chocolate has hardened, about one hour. Enjoy! 

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Meal Planning Made Easy!

Last week, I discussed my biggest recommendation for grocery shopping more efficiently and economically – infrequent, major shopping trips. The essential counterpart to successfully doing this is meal planning. This is the heart of spending your grocery money wisely. I cannot stress how crucial it is to make meal planning a priority for organization and frugality. I don’t think anyone would argue with this notion, but when it comes down to actually following through, it may seem too rigid and overwhelming. However, I’ve found that planning for meals saves time in the long run and actually allows you the flexibility to change things around as needed.

Think about a successful restaurant. How could it thrive if not for a planned menu and the inventorying of items to help with ordering and food suppliers? I often think of my kitchen as my own little mini restaurant – it certainly feels like all I do sometimes is make meals and clean up afterwards! I would not be successful at keeping this going day in and day out were it not for having some kind of game plan. If meal planning is something you would like to improve upon but are not sure where to start, I’ve broken it down into basic step by step guidelines. A day or two before you plan on doing your shopping trip, sit down with some scrap paper and jot down the dates that will take you to the next shopping trip in a bulleted format. Then, here are my tips for where to go from there:

Step 1:  Inventory: Scan your freezer, fridge, and pantry areas. Jot down anything that can be used as an ingredient and how much you have. Three tilapia filets in the freezer? One cup of frozen beef stock? Half a red onion wrapped up? That jar of oyster sauce you bought once but never used? A box of couscous? A packet of taco seasoning? These items become the base of what you’re planning your meals around. This will allow you to spend less at the store overall by ensuring that you are maximizing what you already have at home.

Step 2: Take note of the “crazy nights.” Make an asterisk on any dates that are abnormally busy or where your schedule would make it near impossible for you to get dinner on the table. Two soccer games for two different kids at two different start times? Not the best night to try a new chicken marsala recipe! These will be the days where you get convenience food or find an alternative. Although I always endorse saving money and meal planning, I’ve learned that it’s smarter to “schedule” nights like this if need be because it still avoids impulse meals and overspending the rest of the cycle. However, if your typical schedule has LOTS of crazy evenings, think about ways you can avoid spending money and still incorporate your meal plan into these days. Breakfast for dinner before you leave for T-ball? Pre-making wraps and sandwiches to bring with you on the go?  During times when my son’s extracurricular activity schedule gets intense, I try not to overachieve in my meal planning, and I make sure to schedule a few “do your own thing” nights, which is basically when everyone needs to fend for themselves for dinner! It’s also pretty easy to schedule leftovers. If you have to leave for basketball practice at 6 on Thursday, make baked ziti on Wednesday so everyone can heat up a plate of leftovers the next day. Also, make sure you’ve taken a minute to consult with your spouse and/or any other members of the family about their schedule and/or preferences that week.

Step 3: Plan for the slightly-less-hectic nights: Does your daughter have a 4:30 dentist appointment on Wednesday and you know by the time you get home, it’ll be a little too late to start dinner? That’s a perfect night to use the slow cooker in the morning. Do you have plans to take the kids to a waterpark on Friday? It’ll only take a few minutes to prepare grilled cheese and tomato soup that night when you’re feeling wiped out! Do you have an errand to run after work on a night your husband will be home on time? Perhaps he can throw a steak on the grill while you commute home. Anticipating the realistic scenario each night you’re planning for is one of the most important elements to meal planning. Of course unexpected things come up and schedules change, but being prepared for everything is crucial.Step 4: Plan for the rest of the dates: Look at how many more dates you have to plan for and, looking back at your list of inventoried items, brainstorm about what meals you can make with them. Not sure where to start? Allrecipes.com has a great feature where you can search for recipes by ingredient. Once you have ensured you are using up the majority of what’s already in the house, think about what else you’d like to have. Scour your cookbooks. Just googling “easy weeknight meals” should supply you with endless ideas. The library is also a wonderful resource for cookbooks.

Step 5: Match your meals to your schedule: Now you’re going to “match up” the meals you’ve come up with into the dates you jotted down. Place meals that require more perishable ingredients in the beginning. Meals that use less perishable items can be made less of a priority to cook right away. Fresh spinach side dish? That should be cooked on your first night! Homemade pizza with jarred sauce – no rush on that. This will ensure that less goes to waste. This step gets easier as time goes on but it’s the most important step! Again, if you want to stop and get more highly-perishable produce midway through your cycle, that's OK as long as you plan for it.

Step 6: Make your grocery list based on your meal plan: Review your written meal plan, and write your grocery list based on the recipes that each meal requires. You should be buying just what you need for that recipe. Buying an enormous bag of carrots might seem like a better idea than buying just four, but if you don’t have a plan for them, you risk wasting them. There are a few exceptions to this, but overall, keep it’s good to keep in mind.

Step 7: Think about lunches, breakfast, and snacks, too! Sometimes while spending time meal planning all these great dinners, I forget that I also need to eat lunch and snacks too! What do the kids need to get them through your meal cycle? What are you realistically going to want to pack for lunch for yourself? What healthy snacks and other goodies would be good to shop for? I have found that if I don’t actually plan at least one dessert-type “naughty” thing in my meal cycle, it may lead to me begging my husband to go out and get some emergency ice cream! So I will make sure to add my special chocolate chip cookies or brownies into my meal planning!

Step 8: Don’t forget non-grocery items: Inventory your health and beauty items, as well as your paper goods supply. Do you really need more toothpaste, or do you have enough to last the cycle? Buy only what you really need for that period. Again, there are a few exceptions to this. Sometimes, for example, if I match a coupon to a sale, I can get some items for free, so I may stock up a bit, but in general, stockpiling is not necessary unless you happen to be competing in an extreme couponing event!

Step 9: Prepare for shopping success: Pull any coupons you will definitely use, as well as any that might expire before the next trip in case they are worth using. Make sure to have a calculator with you, and have your list ready and clear. If you will be shopping with children, prep anything you need for them (snacks, games, books to read) in advance so you are prepared. Bring a snack and drink for yourself as well to curb any hunger that may pop up during your trip. Remember your reusable shopping bags. Finally, share your meal plan with the rest of your family to encourage everyone to be excited about organization and efficiency. Let them look forward to the meals ahead – it will help everyone to stay on task and avoid impulse food purchases.

Meal planning is just that – a plan. Family members get sick, schedules change, and sometimes –you just don’t feel like cooking! The beauty of a meal plan is that you are in control. If you’ve just had too hard of a day, you can “carry over” the meal that was scheduled into the next day – just make sure to use that defrosted meat you’ve already thawed before it’s too late. If you want to ditch your plan one night and try a new restaurant when the kids are sleeping over Grandma’s – go for it. A meal plan is an integral part of your practical pantry, but it can also be flexible. So go get started and good luck! 

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