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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.


Practical Pantry

Make Your Fridge Work for You

refrigerator2The new year is a great fresh start for most of us to get organized and think about ways we can streamline our lives to function more efficiently. I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution kind of girl; rather, I have found that creating routine cleaning and organization goals for set periods (like writing down on my monthly schedule to dust the blinds and change the air filters) works best for me. For others, a pile-up of disorganized stuff or unattended household projects is a great motivator to get in gear!

Whatever your habits, the refrigerator may be a place on your to-do list of things in the home that may need a bit of a New Year’s makeover. The fridge often becomes a victimized vortex of all your perishable purchases instead of an appliance that should be efficient and useful. And even when we keep it clean, placing items and food in inappropriate spots in the fridge can lead to waste and rot. Ultimately, you want your refrigerator to work for you—a tool that not only keeps things fresh but also aids in your success with meal planning, cooking and saving money.

So let’s get it in good shape! Start by taking every single thing out of your fridge, tossing whatever it super expired and/or disgusting. Wipe down all shelving using warm water and bleach, including all the cracks and crevices where dust, spills and food particles have settled. Once everything is nice and clean, use these guidelines to replace and store your items efficiently to ensure that nothing goes to waste again!

The Door

The fridge door is a few degrees warmer than the interior cabin. It’s also subject to the most temperature instabilities due to how often it’s constantly being open and shut. Therefore, never store your highly perishable items here like eggs, milk or other dairy. Store condiments like salad dressing, marinades, jams, jellies, bottled water and even juices here.

Upper Shelves

The upper portion of your fridge has the most consistent temperature, but it’s warmer than the lower shelving. Therefore, you may still want to avoid putting highly perishables there like milk, other dairy, and uncooked meats. This is a good place for things that won’t spoil, like ready-to-eat food items, beverages, herbs and leftovers.

Lower Shelves

This is the best place for foods that are very susceptible to spoiling and harmful bacteria. You’ll want to keep your raw meats, seafood, eggs and dairy here. Remember to place a “catch” container underneath raw meat packages in case of leaks. Nothing is worse than finding out that raw chicken juice has spilled all over the rest of your items!
Deli/Meat Bin: This drawer exists for a reason—it is often one of the coldest spots in the unit, making it perfect for what it was meant for: deli meats, cheeses and bacon.

Crisper Drawers

It’s important to separate most fruits from veggies, as some fruits emit ethylene, a chemical that may wilt vegetables prematurely. The low-humidity bin is perfect for most fruits like apples, peaches, pears and avocados. The high-humidity drawer is better for your veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. Also, though you should wash your produce before using or eating, it’s important not to do this too soon, as extra moisture can cause these items to wilt and rot prematurely. Save the washing for right before use.

Some Other Guidelines

Besides item placement, it’s important not to overcrowd your fridge so that air flow is efficient. Remember that most shelving can be adjusted height-wise, so you can fit taller items in the appropriate spots even if you don’t think you can.

To be sure you are not wasting what you buy and store, it’s imperative to inventory your fridge regularly, perhaps even twice a day. This isn’t hard! Just take a glance in there every once in a while, making sure you move high-priority items that need to be eaten soon to the front. You can even choose to have a “need to eat soon” bin so that your family knows what needs to be eaten right away, like berries, yogurts, and other soon-to-expire food.

Lastly, when meal planning and making your list for the grocery store, inventory your fridge first! Do you have a half-used jar of hoisin sauce you don’t know what to do with? A bag of shredded red cabbage that still seems OK? Plan your meals around these items to ensure you are not wasting food and money. Your refrigerator should be like a living, breathing instrument in your home, not just a place to store and collect impulse buys. Make it work better and for you today!

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Defending Your Frugality with One Phrase

I’ll be honest—despite my best efforts to have a nonchalant attitude about it, I still get a little bummed when others don’t understand my frugal lifestyle, especially with food and groceries. OK, I’ll be even more honest—sometimes it really bothers me!

For me, it happens when a stranger eyes my coupon binder oddly in the aisles of the grocery store, a family members looking at me like I have five heads when I say we won’t go over a certain price per K-cup when ordering in bulk, or friends teasing me when I track my receipts for each lunch out or a Starbucks run. Let’s face it, it can get a little annoying always feeling like you’re the odd one out and dealing with others’ attitudes about frugality.

Those of us who practice thriftiness should be proud and confident, but I’ll be the first to admit that this can get taxing when you’re constantly dealing with remarks or attitudes that try to make you feel inferior or unusual.

We all have our reasons for penny-pinching whether it’s because circumstances force us to be careful, or we simply chose to be budget-conscious. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. But all frugal-minded individuals can agree that the benefits of being economically savvy far outweigh any teasing we might endure. Not only are we saving our money, but we’re doing less harm to the environment, simplifying our lives, making way for bigger priorities, improving our health and developing a greater sense of gratitude for what we have.

These goals are the cornerstones of why I keep a practical pantry lifestyle for my family, and I’m sure they are for many like me. It may not always be easy for others to understand, but frugal-mindedness and budgeting, especially about meals and groceries, can be life-changing.

So, what is a thrifty girl or guy to do when faced with curiosity or criticism? First, it’s important to remember we owe no one an explanation. We need not justify our lifestyle choices or spending habits at all. And we need not apologize for any of it. That said, if the opportunity presents itself to discuss your household’s way of economizing, don’t make the mistake I used to make of saying, “I can’t afford that.”

Not only is this phrase negative and usually inaccurate, it does nothing to cast frugal choices in a positive light. Looking back, I realize many times when I said this, I could afford whatever was in question. I got used to not spending on money on it and probably convinced myself that I couldn’t afford it.

I learned over time that there is a much better way of tweaking your words to not only be more accurate, but to validate frugality at the same time. It’s simple. When you say, “I choose to spend my money on different things,” it accurately depicts your reasoning and reminds you why you are working so hard. This sentence can become a mantra for when penny-pinching, couponing, or saving up for something can get a little trying. Additionally, it can be a better conversation starter about life goals, what motivates us, and can encourage others to think the same way about how they spend their own money.

How about you? What do you choose to spend your money on when you’re not buying that fast food meal out, or when you’re driving an old car, or meal planning for the week instead of relying on restaurant trips?

As for me, whenever I eat containers of leftovers, save a dollar using a coupon, or pack sandwiches for our trip to the amusement park, I always remind myself of the bigger picture for our family—continuing to live debt-free, increasing the value of our house with proper maintenance and home improvement projects, and selling it for a pretty penny one day so I can live out the rest of my days as an old lady right on the beach and travel elsewhere. That kind of lifestyle is worth every take-out meal I don’t buy and every extra second it takes me to figure out which detergent has the best unit price per gallon.

What are your long-term goals? Can you choose to spend your money on different things now to make those dreams a more realistic future one day? It all starts with the right mindset, and the rest will follow.

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A Hungry Girl in Europe


Many years ago, I crossed the Atlantic alone for the first time to study abroad in Switzerland, something I had always dreamed of doing. Although I instantly fell in love with the country, I had a harder time feeling comfortable around the people and settling into the environment of the tiny, isolated town I was in. I wanted to leave. I was young and naïve, and if I could go back in time, I would have handled myself differently, but alas, that’s retrospect for you.

One morning at dawn, I took off alone lugging my giant suitcase behind me to the train station without telling anyone. I got on the northbound morning train and abandoned my study abroad program, the people I had met, and the money I had paid for the class. (Side note: I might have some issues with being a quitter, but that’s for another time). Even though that may have been a little cowardly of me, I knew I didn’t want to just go home completely but preferred to travel alone for a bit before my return. I headed for the medieval-ancient city of Lucern, and as soon as I got off the train, I instantaneously felt like I had arrived exactly where I was meant to be, even if it took an unintended way to get there.

I went sightseeing, devoured the unique culture of Lucern and ate like I had never eaten before. I was pleasantly surprised by the influences of the surrounding countries on Switzerland’s cuisine. There was hearty pasta, fresh seafood, bright sauces, scrumptiously diverse pizzas. Even now, years later, I can recall every meal with detailed, delicious reminiscence. When I returned to the U.S., I think my scaredy-cat escape from the program blinded some’s appreciation for what I had experienced. I remember my hairdresser disappointedly saying, “Didn’t you meet any men there?”

I hadn’t come back with some exotic European boyfriend, but I did come back with a love story that still lingers actively in my heart. Food connects us with world travel (and also our own self-reflection) so sacredly it is almost indescribable. In Lucern, I would sit alone at an outside café by journaling or reading and devouring gorgeous meals in complete solitude—and it was perfect. Sometimes, when we’re free from the distraction of conversation and being around others, food tastes more delicious, can be better appreciated, and provides savory memories with that much more exactness. Food can be the ultimate companion and a welcomed solace, especially when we’re taking time to get to know ourselves.

A couple of years later, I did wind up meeting a man and a few years after that, I escorted him back across the Atlantic and married him in my beloved town of Lucern. And although we had more than our fair share of amazing Swiss meals there (oh, the cheeses!), my heart still recounts my solo experience there years earlier with warm, mouthwatering, and loving food memories that I’ll never forget.

Debra’s Roasted Garlic, Sun-Dried Tomato and Olive Tagliatelle

TagliatelleThis pasta dish is inspired by one of the first meals I had on my own in Switzerland. I had it while sitting outside in the heart of old town Lucern, and I took my husband back to the same restaurant years later. I recreate the dish for my family every once in a while, and when I do, I feel like it is embracing me with memories of my experience there. It’s my homage to solo travel, for courageousness to dine alone, take a trip alone, and experience life alone without needing someone by my side to do it!

Roasted garlic is the star ingredient taking this to an entirely new level, making it sweet and intensifying its rich flavor. Combining it with gently sautéed olives, savory sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh spinach pasta creates a flavor-bomb of a dish that is unforgettable and unique. Pair this with a grilled baguette topped with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes and curl up to enjoy—whether sharing with loved ones or blissfully and perfectly by yourself, just like the first time I had it! Enjoy!

• 4 tablespoons butter, divided
• 5 cloves garlic, peeled
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• One pound fresh spinach tagliatelle (or other flat pasta such as fettucine)
• ½ cup black olives, sliced
• Approximately ¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil and roughly chopped or sliced
• Salt and pepper, to taste

1) Heat oven to 350 F.
2) Place peeled garlic cloves in a small roasting pan or oven-safe dish and drizzle a tablespoon of oil on them, tossing gently. Place in heated oven and roast approximately 20 minutes, or until lightly browned and sweetly fragrant. When cooled slightly, give cloves a rough chop.
3) Cook tagliatelle according to package directions, seasoning the cooking water with salt. Drain and set aside.
4) Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a sauté pan. Sauté garlic, olives and sun-dried tomatoes about 5 minutes, or until fragrant and softened slightly. Season with salt and pepper.
5) Toss the drained tagliatelle with the olive/garlic mixture, gently tossing until all pasta is coated and loosened. Season with more salt and pepper if necessary. Enjoy!

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Mommy’s Umami!

I recently shared a photo of my favorite lunch to make for myself on Facebook, and much to my surprise, friend after friend started eagerly asking for the recipe. I was taken aback because I know there are a good amount of “food-pic haters” out there who roll their eyes at those who share pictures of food and meals on social media. I try not to post food pictures too often, but when I do, I am always pleasantly surprised at the positive feedback and reactions I receive. I think it proves that food is often the common denominator linking people and experiences together. We all eat, we all enjoy food and a lot of us enjoy cooking it. So, I say—why not share these positive things? I’d much rather look at beautiful food images than read negativity on social media!

The picture of my simple bowl of ramen got so many people asking for the recipe that I decided I should probably showcase it as a Practical Pantry highlight, and let me tell you, it is a superstar as far as practical meals are concerned! Those who enjoy ramen go to great lengths to find the best spots for it. But I’ve discovered that making a delicious and cozy bowl of ramen at home is very possible!

There is something so humble about a simple bowl of noodles and broth, yet, this ramen dish is absolutely my ultimate definition of heaven. I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I certainly have one that craves all of the flavors and tastes contained in this meal. It is simply perfect! If you’ve never heard of umami before, you’ve probably tasted it. It is the category of taste that can best be described as savory; an almost mythical je ne sais quoi flavor that doesn’t fit the other categories of taste such as sweet, sour, bitter or salty. It’s that mysterious and yummy taste you experience when eating mushrooms, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, meats, miso and broths. It’s what I seem to crave all the time, and this ramen is like an umami bomb that satisfies all!

Besides being completely satiating and delicious, this ramen is super easy to pull together. It’s a frequent recipe in my lunch rotations, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I usually make it just for myself! I believe it’s important to “cook for one” a lot and make yourself hearty meals with as much love as if you prepared them for others in your life. Cozying up on the couch alone with this warm, nourishing and simple bowl of ramen is definitely my ultimate version of self-care! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Maybe even enough to happily share a picture of it!

Easy Miso and Mushroom Ramen

● 4 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
● ⅓ pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced
● 4 bunch scallions, sliced
● 1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
● 3 cloves garlic, minced
● 6 cups vegetable broth
● 2 tablespoons miso
● 2 tablespoons soy sauce
● 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
● 12 ounces fresh ramen noodles or four 3-ounce packets dry ramen (discard flavor packets)
● 2 heads baby bok choy, quartered lengthwise
● 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
● 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1) Heat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook until they slightly brown, about 4 minutes. Remove from pot.

2) Reduce heat to medium and add remaining 2 teaspoons oil. Add half of scallions, ginger and garlic. Cook for about 2 minutes until fragrant, stirring constantly. Add broth and bring to a boil.

3) Add miso and whisk rapidly until smooth and incorporated. Add soy and sesame oil.

4) Add noodles and bok choy. Continue boiling until noodles are cooked through and bok choy wilts slightly. Reduce heat to a simmer.

5) To serve, use tongs to divide noodles until shallow bowls. Use a ladle to pour broth and vegetables on top of noodles. Top with the rest of the sliced scallions, sesame seeds and red pepper flakes.

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The Case for Coupons

couponsIf you saw my coupon binder while I’m grocery shopping, you might assume that I spend a lot of time cutting coupons, shopping at various stores scoring the best matches on sales and stockpiling items since I get them for free. All of these assumptions would be false. While my coupon binder is quite organized and pretty, the truth is that I’m not a big couponer at all. I rely on meal planning, using what’s already in my house and not wasting anything. That’s how I succeed at smart grocery shopping. And I never, ever buy things I don’t need. That said, using coupons is definitely part of my shopping savvy. From my experience, there are a lot of misconceptions about using coupons. This perpetuates judgment against those who coupon and prevents newcomers from trying it at all. And yet, I still strike up conversations with fellow shoppers who desperately wish they could be organized and budget-friendly about grocery shopping. It’s time to debunk some of the misconceptions about couponing since the practice can save lots of money over time.

I don't have time for that

If you’re not out to be the next Extreme Couponer, then clipping a few coupons each week isn’t that time consuming! Cutting coupons from my weekend paper takes me 20 minutes at most. This includes looking through the flyers and cutting and organizing them into my coupon binder. If someone says to you, “I’ll pay you $10 to sit down with this cup of coffee for 20 minutes,” you’d do it, right? That’s exactly what’s happening when you cut some coupons each week. You’re earning money by using your scissors for a few minutes. I find it quite relaxing. In terms of time spent using the coupons, not to worry. You should meal plan before shopping to save money and using your food, so all you’re doing is spending a few extra minutes at the store seeing if some of the coupons you have should be used. Trust me, using coupons does not take up much time at all!

Coupons are only for unhealthy things

This is not true. There are plenty of coupons for healthy items, including organic choices, ingredients for different dietary needs like gluten-free, as well as produce, whole grains and healthy dairy items. If a coupon allows you to select from any variety of the item, you have the ability to choose the one that best fits your dietary needs. Also, you grocery shop for more than food, right? The majority of my coupon savings comes from those I use for health and beauty items, cosmetics and paper and cleaning products. Even if you never use coupons for food items, I guarantee you’ll still save a ton on these categories alone.

Its really not worth the effort

Since I’m a financial and budgeting geek, I keep track of how much manufacturer coupons save me. On average, I save about $50 a month on coupons from my Sunday paper (this figure excludes store coupons and coupons obtained elsewhere). My weekend-only newspaper subscription practically pays for itself the first month I use coupons. That $50 doesn’t sound like a lot to extreme couponers, but I’m not trying to be extreme. That said, $50 a month equates to $600 a year. Again, if someone said, “Hey, do you want me to hand you $600 this year? All you have to do is use a pair of scissors a few minutes each weekend” wouldn’t you agree? Think of it another way: $600 can pay for admission to a Disney park for your entire family for a day. Isn’t that worth it?

It's embarrassing to use coupons

Trust me, no one is watching. No one cares. You know how you’re usually busy being self-conscious, or negotiating with your kids, or talking to your husband on the phone or making to-do lists in your head as you shop and run errands? Well, so is everyone else around you. They are not thinking about how you are handing the cashier a couple of coupons. If someone does notice or even mentions something, it’s a great opportunity to explain why you use coupons (see #3 above). When this happens to me, the fellow shopper always responds with a heartfelt, “I don’t blame you, I wish I could do that too.” Perhaps you’ll inspire more people to save their money! Also, it’s part of the cashier’s job to know how to deal with coupons, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. I stopped apologizing a long time ago for doing things I have every right to do.

Generic is less expensive anyway

I’ll always buy generic if I can since it usually is less expensive than name brands. That said, if you can pair a sale on a brand name item with a coupon for it, it very well may be much less expensive than the generic version. This is the smartest way to use your coupons. For example, Cascade might be $5 while the generic dishwasher detergent is $4.29. But let’s say Cascade is on sale for $4.50, and you have a $1 off coupon. Now it’s only $3.50, making it less than generic. Trust me, these little calculations account for major savings over time. And they only take, what, 30 seconds at most to figure out?

The most important takeaway about using coupons is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you save $2 on a box of couscous and that’s it, that’s $2 still in your wallet, right? You don’t have to be an extreme couponer to reap the benefits of something that the manufacturer is handing you to try. Like anything, when it comes to grocery shopping savvy, there is a learning curve that occurs over time. But if you never put in the time to get started, you’ll be missing a great opportunity to discover how much smarter you can be at shopping, and how much money you will be saving long-term. Trust me!

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