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In addition to her monthly Practical Pantry article, Debra Caffrey is the Editor of the Education and Infant E-newsletters for FredParent. She is the proud mom of a middle schooler. Debra is passionate about cooking, meal planning, and smart grocery shopping, and is excited to share her ‘Practical Pantry’ with you.

 

Practical Pantry

Stress-Free Ways to Make Packing School Lunches Easier

Though it only takes a few minutes to do, and we should be used to feeding our kids three meals every day, there is something about packing lunchboxes that makes all parents moan! By the time the end of the school year is upon us, it’s not an exaggeration that we’re just throwing random items into the lunchbox without much care or sense! Now that school is in full swing again, it’s time to reevaluate our game, and figure out how we can streamline the process to make packing lunches smoother (and a little less tedious). Here are a few of my suggestions to help you expedite and actually enjoy the process:

1) Keep it Simple

Beware the appeal of beautiful Pinterest images and mom blogs of gorgeously perfect compartmentalized school lunches. You can draw inspiration from what you see, but let’s get realistic here—my child is not going to eat fruit sushi roll-ups or veggies just because they are cut in the shape of stars and flowers or arranged in colorful silicone muffin liners. Perhaps your child won’t either! Keep things simple by focusing on what your children really do eat, not what you wish they were eating. A little experimentation is fine, but save introducing new foods for dinnertime and keep lunch about what you know your kids will eat to get through the day.

2) Don’t Overpack

If you’ve ever visited your kids during lunchtime at school, you may already be well aware that there are many other things going on besides eating! Kids are being social, letting loose, fooling around, decompressing from academics and dealing with a bunch of other internal issues during the brief time they have to eat. We all worry about our kids eating enough, but proper nutrition can be comprehensive over the course of the day. For lunchtime, remember that kids don’t have a lot of time to eat and probably do not have as huge of an appetite as you may be worried about. Pack lighter than you think and keep portions realistic, not overly ambitious.

3) Create a “Lunch Making Station”

Designate a specific cabinet or drawer in the kitchen to be the “lunchbox” workplace. Keep all necessary Tupperware, Bento boxes, Thermoses and the like there, as well as helpful accessories like straws, utensils and napkins. Further, you can appoint a “grab and go” spot in both the pantry and fridge for easy-to-pack items like juice boxes, cheese sticks and mini bags of chips for easy assembly when it’s time to pack.

4) Make the Freezer Your Friend

To save time in the long run, prep big batches of favorite lunch foods to freeze in gallon-sized bags and use for lunches during the week. This can be done with many items such as mini egg frittatas, pizzas, homemade soft pretzel bites, savory muffins and breakfast-for-lunch foods like mini bagels and breakfast burritos. These make great lunches and can be defrosted and reheated quickly before packing.

5) Prepare and Pack the Night Before

It may feel like the last thing you want to do after a long day, especially after cooking and cleaning up dinner, but preparing lunches and getting everything all set the night beforehand is crucial if you want to avoid feeling the lunch-packing dread that inevitably will come day after day. It’s a great feeling to prepare lunches in the evening, leave all bags in the fridge, and not have to worry about it early in the morning! Prepare, pack, and assemble everything at night and don’t forget a special note! I often try to get this done while I’m waiting for water to boil or something to finish baking in the oven for dinner. Then, in the morning, all you need to do is throw an ice pack in the lunchbox, or warm up a hot lunch, and you’re done!

Finally, be sure to involve your kids in age-appropriate lunch prep duties. Most school-aged children can prepare some or all of their own lunch and it’s a perfect opportunity for them to learn the weight and responsibility of meal prep. Giving them onus over their own lunches can help avoid wasted food, too. Like anything else when it comes to what goes on in the family kitchen, a little bit of preparation goes a very long way to save both money and sanity.

Good luck!

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5 Hidden Reasons Why Your Grocery Bill is Sky High

Maybe you’ve gotten through that tough first step of admitting you have a problem at the grocery store. Perhaps you’ve sought the advice of your more frugal friends and have committed to meal planning and are even avoiding impulse purchases. You might have even listened to me over the years and are shopping less frequently and making a priority of not wasting what’s already in your kitchen before heading to the store. That’s great! But there is always room for improvement when it comes to saving money on groceries and food. I’ve said it before, but it’s important to remember: being savvy with your money, especially on groceries, is not a one-answer-fits-all trick. Rather, it’s an interconnected combination of small tweaks and lifestyle habits practiced and put into place over time. Here are some hidden culprits that may still be contributing to your high grocery bills, even if they sound silly!

1) Being Dehydrated

You know that going grocery shopping when you’re hungry is not a smart idea, especially because stores rely on your growling stomach in their marketing strategies and product placement. (Hint: that’s why the bakery department’s freshly baked bread and beautiful cupcakes greet you as soon as you walk in!) In order to be smarter than the store’s ploys to entice you, make sure you’re shopping after a full meal, and bring a snack with you in case you get hungry along the way. More importantly, did you know that being even slightly dehydrated can also contribute to your impulse buys? Dehydration often disguises itself as hunger, and many of us are not drinking enough water on a daily basis. Bring along a reusable water bottle and sip while your shop. I promise, it will help you stick to your list!

2) Dissing Frozen Produce

There’s nothing quite like the taste of fresh tomatoes and corn on the cob in summer. It’s exciting to see all the beautiful stalks of asparagus and bunches of radishes in the spring. But, if you become a snob toward using frozen produce, you are missing out. Not only is frozen produce significantly less expensive, it’s also fresher and therefore often contains the highest level of nutrients because it is frozen immediately after being harvested. On the other hand, after harvesting, fresh produce still has to undergo travel and transport, so by the time you’re actually eating it, it is much older and less nutrient-dense than its frozen counterpart. Of course, fresh is best for certain recipes and snacking, but there are plenty of ways to use frozen fruits and vegetables on a regular basis to help stretch your budget.

3) Following the Sales TOO Well

If your favorite cereal is on sale 2 for $4, that sounds great, and you may want to stock up on it, or even believe that you have to buy two in order to receive the sale price. This is often untrue and you can just purchase one at $2. Do your research and read the fine print. Also, it’s important to check all aspects of the sale signs for an item, including how long the item is on sale. I’ll note an item on sale, but if it will still be that price for another two weeks and it’s not an emergency, I’ll wait to see if I get a coupon for it to use next time I shop. I’ve saved so much money this way. It also allows you the time to make sure you truly need the item and/or check its supply when you get home.

4) Ignoring Your Calculator

Just because something is on sale does not mean it’s the best deal for what you need. Often times, a comparable item that seems or looks like it may be more expensive than the sale item actually has a cheaper unit price. For instance, it may appear more logical for me to get the biggest bottle of the generic ketchup. But would the Heinz that is a little bit smaller but on sale have a better unit price? When you break down an item by measurement (per ounce, cup, etc.), which is cheaper per that measurement? If you’re as bad at math as I am, there’s an obvious solution – your calculator app! It takes less than a minute to figure out. Trust me, even though savvy shopping is my thing, I would be making the wrong choices many times without checking my math first.

5) Trusting the Cashier Too Much

Cashiers and all grocery store employees work very hard, and nine times out of 10, human error will not be a factor in why your grocery bill is high. But occasionally it will happen. You don’t have to eye what’s happening on the checkout line like a hawk, but maintain a little awareness, and be sure to scan your receipt afterwards. Many times, an item will mistakenly scan twice and that adds up over time! It happens to me a lot. A quick stop at the customer service line immediately afterwards fixes the problem. You should not be afraid to speak up if a sale you know is active does not discount on your bill, or if the cashier makes a mistake with your coupon or loyalty card. As long as you’re friendly and casual about it, you should not be ashamed or embarrassed to correct something to which you’re entitled.

Even if all of these factors may not apply to you, it’s still a great opportunity to assess your own shopping habits to see what else you can do to slash your grocery costs. Remember: a little bit of savings here and there is how wealth is accumulated, but small amounts are also how your money goes out the window! If you can think of a few minor adjustments to make it can add up to big savings in the long run!

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No-Fuss BBQ Classics

I once had a family member who was a good cook, but always tried too hard to make each side dish and course as elaborate as the entrée when hosting a holiday or having company. Often it seemed to just end in stress and failed recipes. This person never seemed to get out of that cycle of trying too hard to impress her guests, then ultimately failing anyway by taking too much on. I learned early from these experiences that when cooking for others and entertaining, simple is best! Hosting a holiday or party is not the time to try out fancy new recipes or complicated techniques. The majority of the time, your guests aren’t looking to be impressed by your culinary skills. Everyone just wants to feel comfortable and have a good time.

The general guideline I follow when it comes to hosting a meal for others is to let one dish shine, then keep it super simple with everything else. The way to make your guests feel at ease and relaxed is to provide enough recognizable and down-to-earth food. And the key to making everything delicious is often to concentrate on doing basic items correctly and avoid complicating things! When it’s summertime, having a backyard barbecue is the perfect way to not only get together with family and friends, but also to showcase this “keep it simple” concept. That said, you can still go beyond hamburgers and hot dogs and use the setting as an opportunity to try out some no-fail and no-fuss cookout classics.

My Easy BBQ Chicken is simple to make and hits all the right notes of sweet and savory grilled goodness. It can be the star of the show. Homemade cornbread is much easier to make than you might think and is a great accompaniment to the chicken. And finally, my sweet cole slaw is notoriously loved by everyone, but it’s seriously one of the easiest things I make. I’m revealing my recipes, but more important, the not-so-surprising secret that great home cooking is about simplicity and focusing on the classics. I hope you enjoy these dishes as much as I do!

Easy BBQ Chicken

Serves 4

• 2 teaspoons olive oil
• 1 shallot, minced
• ½ cup ketchup
• 2 tablespoons water
• 2 tablespoons honey
• 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 4 bone-in chicken leg-thigh quarters, skinned

1) Heat grill to medium high heat.
2) Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and sauté one minute. Stir in ketchup, water, honey and vinegar. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
3) Sprinkle garlic powder over chicken and lightly salt and pepper. Place chicken on grill lightly coated with cooking spray and grill until done, approximately 15 minutes on each side.
4) Baste generously with sauce, grill one more minute, and then turn over and baste again, and grill over side for 1 minute.

Debra’s To-Die-For Coleslaw

Serves 4

• 1 (16 oz) bag coleslaw mix
• 1 small onion, diced
• 2/3 cup light mayonnaise
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1/3 cup white sugar
• 1 tablespoon white vinegar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon poppy seeds

1) Combine mayonnaise, oil, sugar, vinegar, salt and poppy seeds in large mixing bowl, whisking until thoroughly combined and sugar is dissolved. Add coleslaw mix and onion, and toss gently to combine.

Super Simple Homemade Cornbread:

Serves 6

• 1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal
• 1 cup flour
• ¼ cup sugar
• 3 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• ¼ cup vegetable oil

1) Heat oven 425 F.
2) In a mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and whisk thoroughly. Add milk, egg and oil. Whisk until blended.
3) Pour into 8x8 greased pan. Bake about 25 minutes or until golden brown.

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The Split Table: How to Cook for Both the Vegetarians and Meat Eaters in Your Family

A few months ago, my husband announced he was going vegetarian. As the main meal planner, grocery shopper and cook of the house, I got nervous! Even though we’ve never been huge carnivores (I don’t eat red meat), I’ve based our family meals around classics and favorites I’ve cooked for years, which includes lots of chicken, fish and occasional red meat—for him. Although we already eat a lot of plant-based, meatless dinners, I was initially overwhelmed at the thought of coming up with a protein alternative every night. And, ironically, I used to be full vegetarian many years ago (I went back to chicken and fish and was not ready to give them up).

How much more complicated would it be to menu plan for separate dietary needs? What if I wanted to plan for chicken parmesan one night and couldn’t think of what else my husband could eat?

As it turns out, I’ve come to find that meal planning and cooking with a vegetarian in the house while there are still some meat-eaters is not hard! As a lover of food and all things culinary, I’m more inspired than ever to discover different dishes, flavors and ingredients. It’s no more expensive, and it’s encouraged all of us to eat even more plant-based meals. There is a more thought involved when I’m initially meal planning and preparing my shopping list, but this pays off in the long run and provides the blueprint for our eating and food habits to be successful for the week. So whether you’re trying to accommodate vegetarian eaters in the household, or simply looking for ways to transition your family to a more plant-based diet, here are my tips to alleviate any thoughts of feeling overwhelmed by the task:

Approach It with the Right Attitude

Be supportive of those in the house that are going meatless and don’t harbor resentment about how it might make things more tricky for you. Be inspired and focus on taking on the challenge with excitement and energy.

Take It Slow

My first instinct was to research and buy every fancy “fake meat” product in the store and figure out the tastiest ways to use it right away. Don’t worry about that—start small. Experiment with one or two veggie or meat substitute products and master a few recipes and techniques before moving on. Pace your grand ideas and remember: not everything has to be gourmet cuisine.

Meet in the Middle with Meat and Veggie-Friendly Meals

Keep in mind that many dishes can accommodate both a meat component as well as meatless proteins. For instance, you can do Taco Tuesday but be sure to have beans for your vegetarian. I love doing tons of “make your own” type meals such as burritos, grain bowls and wraps where you can provide a bunch of different ingredients and components from which everyone can build their own plates.

Embrace Global Cuisines

There’s a whole world out there filled with herbivores who have mastered delicious food! Take time to research and explore different cuisines and you’ll find a wealth of ideas for vegetarian meals. For instance, you can make a Mexican bean and rice casserole one night, a tasty Indian vegetable curry the next, and a Chinese tofu stir-fry the next. So many international cuisines rely heavily on spices, herbs and other flavor enhancers that make anything absolutely delectable!

Separate Proteins to Add Later

You can still make the base of your favorite casserole or one-pot meal and simply add the different proteins later on to accommodate for different eaters. For instance, I made a chicken and white bean chili, but I cooked the chicken separately. After plating my husband’s chili with extra white beans, I combined the chili with my portion of chicken, and it was a win for everyone. Don’t forget you can also go “halfsies” on certain items. For example, if you’re making lasagna, you can add crumbled Italian sausage to just half and keep the rest meatless.

Load Up on Resources

The library is your friend! So are bookstores, food magazines, Pinterest and the huge wide world of online recipes and meal ideas. Commit to spending a bit of time leafing through some vegetarian cookbooks at the library or bookstore and jot down ideas. Google ingredients and play around with what you can discover and incorporate into your own meal planning!

online recipes

Keep it Simple

Don’t forget that you might already be eating more meatless than you think. Some simple dinner ideas that everyone loves and don’t take much thought at all include grilled cheese and tomato soup, macaroni and cheese, different types of salads, and pasta with a simple sauce. It’s super easy to whip up homemade pizzas that you can customize with both meat and veggie toppings for everyone. Another favorite in my household is bean tostadas–just spread some refried beans on tostadas shells, melt some cheese and load up on other easy toppings like pico de gallo and sour cream. So simple and yummy!

Plan Ahead, Plan Ahead, Plan Ahead

Repeat after me–meal planning is essential! This goes for whatever types of diet you eat, but it’s especially important when making accommodations for vegetarians. It’s crucial to not only plan dinners in advance, but to also spend a little time thinking about what your vegetarian would have available for lunches, breakfasts and snacks. I wasn’t great at this in the beginning of my husband’s journey, but I’ve learned it’s important to plan ahead for meatless meals he can easily bring to work or on the go. Some great ideas for your busy vegetarian’s lunches include healthy frozen rice, bean, and cheese burritos; protein pack Bento lunches with eggs; fruit and nuts; egg salad; veggie and hummus sandwiches; and quinoa/roasted veggies bowls. And of course, don’t forget about good old peanut butter sandwiches!

Remember that no matter what your family’s dietary needs may be, it’s important to not get yourself stuck in the trap of becoming a short order cook. Your family members—vegetarian or not—have to respect what you’ve chosen to plan for and cook, and it’s imperative to include everyone in the planning to some degree so that gratitude and teamwork can be maintained. Making meals that work for both meat eaters and vegetarians is not only doable, but also a fun challenge that can open up a lot of new possibilities. Good luck!

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Easy Mix and Match Lunch Bowls!

Though it feels like I might literally live in the kitchen sometimes, I still dislike the trendy term “meal prepping” regarding cooking. I feel like it might intimidate folks about how much time it takes to whip together some healthy and yummy meals, especially for weekday lunches.

Meal prepping for the entire week ahead is all the rage these days, but I don’t think it always has to be that ambitious or extreme. That said, a little thought about what you might like for lunch in the days ahead goes a long way. I’ve found that lunch is the meal that often gets forgotten about the most, even for the most vigilant meal planner. In the past, I’d take the time to diligently menu plan for each dinner and remember all the snacks, breakfast items, and school treats to add to the grocery list, but I’d always forget that I needed to eat lunch every day myself! These days, I’ve learned to incorporate weekday lunch ideas when I sit down to menu plan, and it’s been a fool-proof way to guarantee I am not standing in front of the open fridge wondering why there’s nothing for me to eat. Having a battle plan for lunches keep things interesting, eliminates the monotony of that same ol’ sandwich, and ensures that you aren’t reaching for unhealthier impulse buys at the drive through. And it is much more economical to plan!

If a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is your typical preferred lunch scene, that’s fine! But nothing beats a comprehensive lunch bowl because it is so healthy and well-balanced. So, what is a lunch bowl? It’s kind of a loose term describing a mishmash of components that hit lots of healthy and nutritional notes. Ideally, there is a grain, veggies, protein, perhaps a sauce or dip, a garnish, and lots of texture and contrasting flavors. Does that sound overwhelming? Please don’t be scared – healthy grain-based bowls are easy to prepare and usually involve minimal cooking technique. Best of all, the components you plan to use can be prepped ahead of time and you can make enough to enjoy a few days in a row (or to share between family members).

So how do you build a tasty lunch bowl? All you have to do is make and keep a handy list of your favorite components and mix and match as you like to create endless possibilities. Here is a quick list to get you started!

Grainsgrains

• Brown rice
• Couscous
• Quinoa
• Jasmine or basmati rice
• Farro
• Barley
• Wild rice
• Soba noodles

 

greensVeggies

• Avocado
• Carrot
• Cucumber
• Leafy greens (kale, fresh spinach)
• Sweet potatoes
• Beets
• Edamame
• Radishes

noodlesProteins

• Hard boiled eggs
• Grilled or rotisserie chicken
• Tuna
• Tofu or tempeh
• Shrimp or salmon
• Chick peas, black beans or other beans

sauces in spoonsSauces and Drizzles

• Greek yogurt
• Tahini or soy sauce
• Your favorite vinaigrette
• Sriracha or sweet chili sauce
• Green Goddess dressing
• Light mayo or extra virgin olive oil

avocadoToppings/Garnish

• Toasted sesame seeds
• Chia seeds
• Sliced almonds
• Chopped scallions
• Crumbled feta or bleu cheese

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Rappahannock Area Court Appointed Special Advocates

CASA is an advocacy center serving children in the Greater Fredericksburg area comprised of Fredericksburg City and the counties of King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford. Its mission is to advocate for and locate permanent homes for abused and neglected children who are navigating the court system.

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