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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

Save More by Shopping Less!

 

I'll admit it - I love grocery shopping. However, I totally understand why most people may not feel the same way.  It's time-consuming, it’s hard to do with kids, and no matter how many times you go shopping, you always seem to find yourself headed back to the store to pick up a few more things.  Whether we like it or not, we all have to grocery shop, prepare food, and eat, so we might as well attempt to make the best of it in order to be as expeditious as possible. Over the years, I’ve developed a strategy that has made these duties less arduous, more efficient, and most importantly, has saved us a lot of money.  And the strategy is very simple -- shop less often!  It takes some committment and developing a solid meal plan, but if you feel like you spend too much time and too much money at the store, you may want to consider experimenting with this concept.

 I refer to my meal planning and grocery shopping routine as a “cycle.” I have a “two week cycle” in that I only grocery shop twice a month. Two trips, plus a stop for more fresh milk, and that’s it. The main purpose of infrequent shopping is to use up and eat as much as you possibly can during the cycle to maximize utilization, which hence saves money. The concept is very simple: meal plan for the entire cycle, complete a large shopping trip and stock up on everything that is needed during that time, and finally, commit to avoid more food shopping by “purging” what is in the house during the cycle, using up everything until the cupboard is bare. Literally - you are aiming to have an near-empty fridge at the end of the cycle!

   (it's a great feeling to know that all perishable items have been used up when it's time to shop again)

 Doing larger, less frequent shopping trips is admittedly not for everyone and can seem unrealistic at first, but it has so many benefits, and can be tweaked and customized for each family’s needs. Here's why I love it so much:

  • It saves money. We tracked our spending over the course of several months, and we saved about $50 a month shopping every two weeks as opposed to every week. You are literally reducing the “oh I need that,” and the “oh we’re almost out of that” moments in half, which adds up to a smaller grocery bill overall. It forces you to use what you have!
  • It is time efficient. There’s nothing I love more than saving money – except for saving my time. Making lots of shopping trips means more time driving, parking, toting kids, getting carts, crossing things off lists, wrangling kids, dealing with tantrums in aisles, waiting at checkout, bagging, unpacking groceries, and more. By doing larger shopping trips, you are consolidating all of this.
  • It helps to avoid food waste. When you’ve made a commitment to shopping less frequently, it means you’re committing to actually using what you bought. If you run out of bread with two days left until your next trip – it forces you to get creative and put tuna on that last tortilla in the fridge, see what else works, or simply go without. The more you operate like this, the more you’ll avoid wasting odds and ends of food items, which adds up to a lot of savings in the end.
  • It helps you plan better. When you meal plan and shop less, you begin to recognize your family’s eating habits a whole lot more, and over time, this makes the entire process easier and organized. I promise! You’ll be able to see patterns and predict when you typically run out of certain items, and you start to adjust quantities more appropriately.

There may be a list of objections and questions running through your head, but this way of shopping is very feasible. If you're concerned about fresh produce, you'll learn to develop a sense of what stays fresh longer, and plan your meals according to these “perishable priorities.” And lots of produce lasts longer than you think. If you fear that your hungry family wouldn't like this, I assure you they will not starve. I truly believe that one of the main reasons people spend too much at the grocery store is out of worry that they will run out of items. After doing this for so many years, I can tell you this: you will not run out of things if you plan accordingly. You have to see how long you can go without buying a replacement of something to truly understand how long it WILL last, and overall, this will extend the money you spend on it.

Infrequent shopping doesn’t mean you can’t step foot into the grocery store until your next major shopping day. If you need to stop at the store mid-cycle and get more cold cuts and fresh raspberries, go ahead - but don't get anything else! This can take some discipline, but the commitment works. For some, meal planning for a long span of time sounds like too much work. But for me, it's all about consolidating time in order to be more efficient. You're swapping out lots of little moments of preparation for one larger session. And then it's totally done until next time! 

(I'm fully stocked and don't have to think about any shopping for the next two weeks)

All this may sound  overwhelming, but the first and most important step in making this a success is committing to meal planning. Next time, I'll be sharing some of my tips on that topic. But for now, take note of how often you buy groceries or stop at the store for items and see if it seems like too much. Perhaps shopping less is the answer! You never know until you try! 

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Fun with Frozen Bananas!

Sometimes you think you're doing everything right when it comes to food, and you still find yourself with a picky eater. My 8 year old, Aidan, is a perfect example of this. I experimented with every piece of advice under the sun to develop good eating habits and widen his horizons when it comes to food. I pureed all his baby food from fresh fruits and vegetables and decorated his toddler plates with cute animals and designs made out of carefully carved grapes and cheeses. We’ve modeled proper eating habits, provided him with opportunities to shop and cook with us, read books on the matter, given vegetables “superhero” names, withheld dessert, practiced apathy and reverse psychology – you name it! And yet, the child will still take 60 minutes to carefully dissect his plate of dinner to make sure not one grain of rice or vegetable will enter his mouth!

Over time, I’ve tried to make peace with Aidan’s stubbornness when it comes to food, and instead, focus on the positive and be grateful for the items he does eat. One fruit that Aidan will ingest without drama is the versatile banana. I’ve learned that the best way to get the nutrients from this great fruit in him is by way of the frozen banana – it lends itself to so many fun recipes and can make eating something healthy taste like dessert – the best way to trick my picky boy! Freezing our bananas has been a great way to utilize them and avoid wasting this highly perishable fruit. Besides eating a ton of fresh bananas when they are ripe, I like to throw a bunch of firm, peeled bananas into the freezer in a Ziploc bag right away to use for later. Freezing them when still firm and not over ripe will ensure that they will not get icky in the freezing process (I’ve found that when I wait too long, they darken and get mushy in the freezer no matter what). Here are two of my favorite kid-friendly ways to use up frozen bananas and they could not be simpler! I hope you enjoy!

 

Monkey Smoothie

Aidan goes bananas for this simple way of using bananas! It takes two seconds to make, is a satisfying snack for little ones, and the frozen banana gives this shake the exact consistency of a Frosty! Aidan loves coming home from school and asking me to whip up a Monkey Smoothie!

Ingredients:

Makes approx. one 8-oz serving, adjust amounts for more servings

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1-2 tablespoons chocolate syrup, more or less depending on personal preference
  • One whole frozen banana

 

  1. Place all ingredients into a blender, and process until smooth and yet still thick. Enjoy!

 

Banana Pops

My mother used to make these for me as a child. It’s a fast, easy way of getting your fruits in at dessert time and you can custom-make each pop with an array of “toppings.” If you’re using up frozen bananas with this recipe, be sure to insert the wooden craft sticks in the fresh bananas first.

 

Ingredients:

8 servings

  • 4 ripe but firm bananas
  • 8 wooden craft sticks
  • Approx. 6 oz semi-sweet chocolate morsels
  • 2-3 tablespoons each of your favorite items to decorate the pops with: coconut flakes, granola, sprinkles, crushed nuts, crushed candy pieces, etc.
  1. Cut each peeled banana crosswise and insert a craft stick into each half. Place on tray lined with wax or parchment paper and place in freezer until frozen, about 3-4 hours.
  2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler, stirring constantly and being careful not to burn until smooth and completely melted. Roll the frozen banana in the melted chocolate, covering almost completely or to your own preference.
  3. Immediately sprinkle your toppings over the chocolate portions so it sticks, and place on a tray covered with new wax paper. Cover with plastic wrap and place in freezer until chocolate hardens. If not serving immediately, cover in airtight container and keep in freezer until ready to enjoy! 

 

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Move Over, Taco Night!

     “Fast casual” dining chains are popping up all over the country, and with good reason. For those who need quick meals on the go, healthier-sounding fast casual restaurants seem like a great alternative to traditional hamburger-and-fries fast food places, especially with all the customization that can be done. It can give patrons a sense of control over what they are eating and in that way, things don’t seem that unhealthy. Even my household will indulge at a particular fast casual chain if we happen to get a “buy one get one free” coupon in the mail. But a recent study points out that these popular establishments may be serving up higher calorie meals than their fast food counterparts. Beyond that, whenever I do indulge and use my BOGO coupon, I look down at my burrito or rice bowl and am instantly struck with regret, thinking – “I can make this myself for ¼ the price!” So I started to.

            Trying to replicate restaurant or takeout meals is one of my favorite things to do, because it becomes the most rewarding DIY project, as you control not only the ingredients but the cost. Rice Bowl nights are a perfect example of this. This kind of easy meal demonstrates that getting dinner on the table can be much more about assembly rather than complicated cooking technique. All you have to do is prep a few components, spread everything out, and let everyone build their own bowls. Brown Rice Bowl night has become one of my family’s favorite go-to dinners. Here’s why:

  • It’s more "assembly" than cooking
  • It is a healthier version of “taco night” but still fun
  • It is interactive and allows for customization
  • The majority of items can be prepped ahead of time
  • It is a complete, well-rounded meal chock full of nutrients and unprocessed components
  • It makes for great leftovers! (especially in a tortilla)
  • It tastes just as good as the fast-casual versions for a fraction of the cost

 

    In my version of DIY Brown Rice bowls, the super healthy grain becomes the foundation, but for me, the star is the sweet deliciousness of the sautéed onions and peppers, which pair so well in contrast to the cool relief of the sour cream and the kick of the pepperjack cheese. The combination of textures, varying temperatures of ingredients, and flavor profiles are so irresistible, you don’t even realize how healthy it is! Brown Rice Bowl night could not be easier, and assembling it in the comfort of your own home rather than schlepping out to a fast-casual chain to pay for an overpriced version wins me over every time! Here’s how we build our bowls. What alternatives can you try? The combinations are endless!

Cooked brown rice + grilled chicken or steak strips + sautéed onions and green pepper + black beans + sliced avocados + sour cream + sliced green onions + shredded pepperjack cheese + sliced jalapeno 

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Easy Cheesy Veggie Pockets

    Hi! My name is Debra and though I have been working part time with FredParent for awhile, my first and true love is being a mom to my 8-year-old son Aidan and being the proud homemaker and CEO of our household. I am passionate (perhaps a little obsessed) about both home cooking and living frugally, and how these two things are so connected in creating an economically sustainable lifestyle, whether surviving on one salary, two, or anywhere in between! Utilization of what is bought at the grocery store and preventing food waste is so important to me, and over my years of homemaking, I’ve cultivated a style of meal planning and grocery shopping around both this philosophy and the idea that getting meals on the table is not as overwhelming as it may seem at first!

Meal planning and cooking have become second nature to me, but I do observe a lot of other households wishing they didn’t have to do these things, or dishing out a lot of money for convenience food all too often. In my new blog, I hope to share with you my tips and tricks for meal planning, using ingredients efficiently and frugally, grocery shopping smartly, and organizing your kitchen for optimal success. I also hope to inspire with some of my favorite go-to recipes and the stories behind why they have become family favorites in my home. Each post will be a little different! One thing I’ve learned over time is that, like anything, there is no one, easy answer to being successful with cooking and/or feeding your family frugally. Rather, it is a bunch of smaller skill sets strung together, based on very simple, minor tweaks that add up over time. I look forward to sharing some of these with you!

    Before I say good-bye for now, I’d love to share one of my favorite “go-to” weekday recipes. My definition of a go-to meal is something easy enough to accomplish on a busy day, isn’t super intimidating in both ingredient list and preparation, is satisfyingly frugal, and has a certain amount of versatility that you can play around with to your liking. Every time I discover another successful “go-to” recipe, it becomes a resource in my repertoire that I can always rely on in the future. That’s the thing about home cooking – it has to be comforting and reliable in order to be sustainable in the long run. Below, I’ve shared my basic recipe for Easy Cheesy Veggie Pockets, which are not only easy, but can be changed up so many ways. Most importantly, they can be made ahead of time, as well as frozen, and seem to get even better as leftovers! These types of pockets or calzones are so versatile and are a great vehicle for getting in a well-rounded meal. If your kids are anything like my son, they may hate broccoli as much as getting a shot at the doctor (in fact, I think Aidan would actually chose a shot over a bowl of broccoli), but the veggie becomes hard to resist surrounded by melted cheese, flavorful garlic, warm pizza dough, and dipping sauce. We can’t force our children to like veggies, but we can present them in appealing ways and hope for the best. The beauty of these calzone pockets is that you can change them up however you’d like!

Easy Cheesy Veggie Pockets

Ingredients:

  • one tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • one head of broccoli, cut into small florets
  • one red bell pepper, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 package fresh or frozen pizza dough, brought to room temperature
  • marinara or your favorite tomato sauce, for dipping

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 415 degrees.
  2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Press garlic, sauté for just a minute to release flavor without burning. Add red pepper and broccoli florets and continue to sauté until vegetables are crisp-tender. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. 

     
  3. Once cooled, add cheeses, salt and pepper, and mix well. You can do this right in the skillet, or in a mixing bowl – your choice. The cheeses will begin to melt, that is OK.
  4. On a lightly floured surface, divide dough into 6-8 mini pieces and roll out each piece to form an oval (you can make your calzones as big or as small as you’d like).

     
  5. Spoon an equal amount of your broccoli mixture in the center of each oval of dough, leaving a bit more space at the top to fold over.

     
  6. Fold the dough over the filling to form a half-moon shaped calzone. Press the edges down with the back of a fork to seal closed, and prick a few holes on the top to release steam while cooking.
  7. Place pockets onto a pizza stone or prepared baking sheets. Bake about 25 minutes, or until golden (let your senses guide you!).
  8. Let cool slightly, cut in half to cool further, and serve with warmed dipping sauce.

 

Variations to Try:

(follow the basic recipe, swapping out the fillings for whatever you’d like)

Sausage and Pepper Pockets (sliced or crumbled cooked sweet Italian sausage, sliced peppers, provolone cheese)

Cheeseburger Pockets (browned ground beef, American cheese, diced onions)

“Garden” Pockets (artichoke hearts, mushrooms, fontina cheese)

What other variations can you think of? The possibilities are endless!

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