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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

Smart Tips for Grocery Shopping with Little Kids

When our son was a new toddler, a trip to the grocery store was always an adventure he looked forward to. In fact, it was often an actual destination for us when we were desperate to get out with our overly active and abundantly curious little guy. The sights! The colors! The smells! Watching and listening to the little train circling around above the dairy aisle was enough to thrill him endlessly. He was so curious about everything, it made sense for us to let him sprint down the aisles, look around, and then pick out a treat if he was good. Boom, Thursday morning activity, done.

As he got a bit older, I had to develop a few strategies to keep him entertained while I did longer shopping trips, as I was learning how beneficial and smart it was to shop less frequently. Keeping my little sidekick happy required some planning, but he still loved to be my companion, happily helping me pick the prettiest tomatoes and enjoying his treat along the way as he sat in the cart.

Let’s fast forward to life now with that same boy as a tween middle schooler. Staying home alone for a long period of time is on the close horizon but not something he’s quite ready for yet. And since I only do two longer consolidated trips to the grocery store a month and that’s it, I’m there for a while. This means my preteen resentfully drags himself along with me. I’m certain that within a few months, he’ll feel more ready to opt out of coming with me and prefer to stay home, but in the meantime, there isn’t much I can do to help him feel better about being at the grocery store. He’s too old for the promise of a lollipop, too jaded and cool to help me pick stuff out, and too preoccupied with hurrying up so he can get on with his own life and meet up with friends. My, how times have changed!

Sometimes, I’ll see if he remembers the fun grocery shopping games we played when he was younger or wistfully remind him of how much he couldn’t wait to get to the candy aisle, but my nostalgia is lost on him. Oh, tweens! I can, however, use my prior experience as a one-time mom of a young one to help others who may be looking for some sanity-saving strategies for grocery shopping with little kids. Here are some tricks to help you get through the experience with as little stress as possible:

1 Plan Ahead of Time: Let’s face it. Grocery shopping is not a kid-centric experience. After all the bouncy places, parks and playdates that you fill your kids’ time with, it may be a hard switch to sit still and focus on something that requires them to behave, be quiet, and do something that’s not about them. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead and anticipate everything they may need. Don’t head to the store on a whim with kids, but rather, spend some time thinking about the shopping trip and prep your arsenal ahead of time. You can even designate a specific tote to be your “grocery shopping” bag filled with snacks, books, small toys, treats like lollipops, puzzles, and other small trinkets to keep hands busy, as well as wipes/diapers and “snuggle friends.” Perhaps the contents of the tote can stay in there full-time, so your children know those items only come out at the store, therefore making it something to look forward to. And while you’re planning, make sure the kids are fed and hydrated before heading out!

2 Find Your Family’s “Sweet Spot”: Going grocery shopping first thing in the morning sounds like a smart idea, but perhaps your children behave better right after naptime in the afternoon, or after a few hours when they’ve had a chance to play freely first. You probably already instinctually know when your kids’ “sweet spot” is for good behavior. Try to plan your shopping trip for this time, and plan the rest of your day accordingly.

3 Set Expectations: A lot of us may threaten consequences in the midst of a meltdown or bad behavior, but that is ineffective, because the children have already stopped listening. Even very young children thrive and actually want you to set your hopes for what you expect from them, even if it doesn’t seem like they do. Before you head to the store or get out of the car, articulate what you expect from them clearly. Will they each be allowed to pick out one special treat? Who will help push the cart this time? What will the consequences be for fighting, whining or running off? What will the reward be for meeting your expectations? Be clear and precise, and don’t enter the store until you’ve taken a moment to let them know what you expect from the trip.

4 Play Grocery Store Games: My son learned to read, in part, by playing grocery store scavenger hunt on those now-nostalgic trips. I’d make a simple scavenger hunt list of items for him to find, but he’d have to figure out what the word was first by sounding it out. If he found everything, he’d get a lollipop from my bag, which kept him quiet for the rest of the time. For younger kids not ready for reading, you can make a scavenger hunt list by drawing simple pictures of things they can find in the store. You can also quickly prep some “grocery store bingo” sheets ahead of time, or even just make a quick game of “how many things can you find that are purple?” and similar “I Spy”-type games.

5 Follow the “Halfway” Rule with Rewards: My trick for making the most out of a reward for my son while grocery shopping was to make sure he was given it halfway through the experience, not at the end. This way, the reward, whether it was a big lollipop or a new book in my bag of tricks, could keep him entertained and quiet the rest of the time, just as his attention span for whatever game I utilized was wearing. If you’re playing a game or just expecting good behavior while shopping, be sure to stop halfway through and reward your kids at that point with something that will also extend the life of their good behavior.

6 Delegate Simple Jobs: Sometimes, it’s easier to just do everything ourselves, but remember—kids are not tag-along accessories. Our goal is to teach them life skills for when they’re ready to emerge out into the world on their own. Give out simple, age-appropriate jobs that they can do at the grocery store to both keep them busy and help you out. Older kids can walk off a bit to find you a funny-looking pineapple, and they can figure out simple math and calculations. Younger kids can put non-breakable items in the cart and put things on the conveyor belt for you. Contributing, even in small ways, makes all children feel valued, needed, and empowered.

Finally, please stop worrying about what strangers and other people out in public think about the way you are parenting or the way your kids are acting. I truly think this mentality actually sabotages how our kids do act, whether you realize it or not, because it means your focus is not solely on engaging with them, but rather what others may be thinking when your 3-year-old has a tantrum or your kindergartener is whining for something. When you’re with your kids somewhere, try your best to be 100 percent engaged with them, and act as if you have blinders on to everything else around you. Trust me—no one else is noticing what your kids are doing as much as you may think they are. Childhood goes too fast, and you can chose to take something as mundane as grocery shopping and turn it into an opportunity for bonding and education for everyone. Good luck!

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Indian for All!

As much as I’ve always loved food and cooking, there has been one type of cuisine that has eluded me. For most of my life, I had never tried Indian food. It was just something I figured I wouldn’t like, as I’m not one for too much spice or curry flavor. I never gave this exclusion of mine much thought until my husband got into Indian cuisine and begged me to try it, claiming I would love every single thing I would try. He became obsessed with this idea, not understanding why I was so resistant. The thing about me (if you haven’t figured it out by now) is that if I’m going to spend money, I don’t want to waste it! What if I paid for my Indian lunch and didn’t like a thing? That’s not something this frugal girl likes to take a chance on. But one hungry day, I found myself giving in and alas, we headed to my husband’s favorite new spot for some Indian for a spontaneous lunch buffet.

Not to sound dramatic or anything (and another thing to know about me is that I do not like to exaggerate at all), but if I had to describe what Indian cuisine is like for someone that has never tried it before, I would simply say this: It is like your taste buds are truly tasting food for the first time. It feels like the culinary equivalent of those with hearing loss who receive cochlear implants and can suddenly hear. As if the world was black and white for your whole life and now you can see in color. OK, you get the point. But that’s truly what happened to me. I slopped a bunch of items I wasn’t sure of onto my plate, tasted them all without exactly knowing what I was eating, and I thought to myself, “So that’s what flavor is.” Truly, it was a transformative meal and experience for me. I also felt like a fool for waiting so long to try this amazing, complex cuisine.

Since that day, I’ve not only eaten more than my fair share of Indian lunches with my husband, but I’ve found a new appreciation for the complexity, diversity and skill of the cuisine. And, like with anything when it comes to food, I’ve tried to replicate the flavors and dishes at home. Much of it continues to baffle me when I’m trying to make it in my own kitchen, including how in the world our favorite Indian restaurant can make cabbage—CABBAGE!—so utterly and insatiably delicious, but I like to keep trying. If you’ve never had Indian before, I’d encourage you to give it a try and see how flavor, spice and comprehensiveness can really be achieved with simple ingredients. If you’re a beginner like I was, here are some simple and approachable recipes to get you started at home. It’s only just the beginning of such a respectably developed cuisine, so get out there and don’t be afraid to give more a try!

Easy Chicken Tandoori

Serves 4
• 1 lb. chicken, cut into pieces (such as breasts, legs, etc.)
• 1 cup plain yogurt
• 1 lemon, juiced
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 clove garlic, pressed
• 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
• 2 teaspoons garam masala
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1 tablespoon minced cilantro, if desired

Remove skin from chicken pieces. Place in a shallow dish. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with salt and lemon juice.

In a medium bowl, combine yogurt, onion, garlic, ginger, garam masala and cayenne pepper. Mix until smooth. Spread yogurt mixture over chicken. Cover, and refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight.

Preheat an outdoor grill for medium high heat, and lightly oil grate.

Cook chicken on grill until no longer pink and juices run clear. Garnish with cilantro. Serve over basmati rice and naan bread.

Spiced Cabbage with Peas

Serves 4

• 1 medium green cabbage, chopped
• ¼ cup frozen peas
• 1 onion, chopped
• ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
• 1 teaspoon turmeric
• ¾ teaspoon coriander powder
• ¼ teaspoon red chili powder
• 1 teaspoon garam masala
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Heat oil in large skillet. Add mustard seeds and sauté for one minute.

Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes until translucent, stirring.

Add the chopped cabbage, stirring consistently.

Add in peas, salt, pepper, turmeric, coriander, red chili powder and garam masala. Mix to combine, make sure all the cabbage is coated with the spices. Cover and allow the cabbage to cook through until soft, stirring occasionally, about five minutes.

Serve hot with naan bread. Enjoy!

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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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