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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

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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Get Excited for Salad Again!

I get it. Eating healthy can seem like a bummer sometimes. Fitness, a healthy lifestyle, and eating well are huge priorities in my household, but so are enjoying food, savoring home-cooked meals, eating together as a family and indulging in yummy treats sometimes! I will never be one of those people who eats clean 100 percent of the time, but let’s face it–the older we get, the more important it is make smart choices with what we eat. (Hello, slower metabolism!) This doesn’t mean you can’t indulge once in a while, but preparing whole, unprocessed food yourself at home most of the time is the best way to ensure a healthy diet and make those occasional treats more permissible when they happen.

So, does this mean that having a boring salad for lunch every day is the only way to eat clean? Well, yes, and no! But, wait! I’m here to break the salad stereotype! If I am sitting down to a bowl of plain lettuce, tomato and cucumber as my meal, I’m not going to be super enthused either. But here’s the thing–salad has come a long, long way! And there are so many new ways to define what a salad is these days. This is good news. A salad need not be a bunch of lettuce and passé toppings in a bowl anymore. As we learn more about healthful eating and the benefits of different types of fiber and nutrients, the salad spectrum gets bigger, wider, more colorful, flavorful, international, vibrant, texture-filled, dynamic, and hence–much more delicious!

For me, a good salad must be comprehensive and satisfying with plenty of fiber, texture, protein and color. And I always need to fire up my BBQ to convert vegetables and meats into even more tasty grilled salad components. This chicken summer salad is my absolute favorite, and it meets all of my exciting salad must-haves. Creamy avocado provides healthy fat, grilled corn, red onion and tomatoes provide texture, fiber, color, and the deliciously simple marinated grilled chicken is so sizzling and yummy, you’ll completely forget you’re eating a “boring salad”! Best of all, every single element of this salad is clean, unprocessed, and whole “real” food. Try it and you’ll be convinced that wholesome eating never has to feel like punishment!

chicken saladSensational Grilled Chicken Summer Salad

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 2 ears of corn
  • ½ red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cups romaine or green leaf lettuce, cut into bite size pieces

1) Preheat grill.
2) Combine lime juice, honey, ¼ cup olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper together, whisking until emulsified. Pour about two tablespoons of this mixture on top of chicken breasts. Set the rest of dressing aside.
3) Add oregano and hot sauce to chicken, and turn chicken so that all sides are coated. Allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes, or several hours, if possible.
4) While chicken is marinating, lightly drizzle a touch of olive oil on ears of corn or spray them lightly with cooking spray. Place corn on grill and cook the corn, occasionally turning on all sides until lightly charred and darkened in a few spots. Remove and let cool. Holding each ear of corn perpendicular to the cutting board, trim off corn from the ear with a knife. Set aside.
5) Place chicken onto grill and cook until done with prominent grill marks on each side. Remove from grill, cool slightly and slice into strips.
6) Place avocado, corn, tomato and onion in a bowl. Add the reserved dressing from Step 2 and gently stir to combine.
7) To assemble salad, place lettuce on top of plates or serving platters. Top with avocado/dressing mixture and sliced chicken.

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The Importance of Family Meals

The family meal is a lost art in today’s rush-around society. Jobs, extracurricular activities and a family’s hurried way of life might make it seem like sitting down together for dinner can be impossible. I’ll agree that some nights may be impossible, especially during certain seasons and activities. But the benefits of shared mealtime as a family are immeasurable and abundant, and it’s crucial that we stop viewing dinnertime as a burden and more as a priority and a vital opportunity to reap its many advantages. Why is family mealtime so imperative? Here are just a few reasons:

Strong Relationships: The interpersonal connections that the dinner table can offer provide an opportunity for all family members to connect with each other, open up and engage in real conversation free from judgment or distraction. Several studies show that teens who eat dinner with their parents are more likely to share personal information. Dinnertime is also a safe haven where all family members can decompress from their day, let down their guard and be real with one another, which helps bonding between individuals.

Academic Success: Research reveals that frequent family meals are more influential than sports, homework or even the amount of school instruction for high achievement scores and overall grades. Conversation around the dinner table also boosts a child’s vocabulary and literacy skills.

Good Eating Habits: Children who eat home-cooked meals consume less sugar and more vitamins, fruits and vegetables. Studies also show that teens who eat more meals at home are less likely to be obese and more likely to maintain good health habits once living independently.

Making Smart Life Choices: Research makes the connection between family meals and a lowered risk for depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and risky behavior such as smoking, drug use and violence.

So how does a family engage in significant meals when life is so busy? The good news is that the benefits of mealtime can still be gained without a rigid schedule or gourmet food on the table. It doesn’t always have to be dinnertime, and it doesn’t always have to be a glamorous, elaborate meal to be meaningful. The mere act of eating together will not transform a parent–child relationship, nor will a meal you spent three hours cooking. It’s about what happens around the dinner table and how you best use your time together that matters. Here are ways you can improve your family’s mealtime and make the most of the experience:

Make the dinner table a technology-free zone. No real conversation will happen if individuals are attached to their devices. In today’s society, sometimes phones are a crutch for those who are less talkative or social. While no one should feel pressured to have to talk, making mealtime phone-free can pave the way for deeper connections.

The dinner table should be a no-judgment zone. Individuals should express themselves and share experiences they had without fearing critique.

While you want the mood of mealtime to be lighthearted, also strive for table manners and a certain level of decorum. Mealtime is a place for everyone to sit down, take their time and leave gross bodily functions and rude manners aside! And no rushing! Practice mindfulness, appreciation of the food and company and be clear that complaining about food is not appropriate.

Involve the whole family in meal planning, cooking and table setting and clearing. Not only will this establish routines and chores for your children, but it sends the message that mealtime is a sacred, important time for the whole family. Allow the kids to choose the menu occasionally, or even cook the whole meal themselves!

Remember to have fun! Play word games, ask silly questions or even play “Would You Rather?” Sometimes children open up about their lives the most when they are caught off guard and are busy engaging in something else.

Remember that it doesn’t have to be dinnertime. You can establish a special Saturday morning breakfast tradition, or even a Sunday lunch. You can create memories and share a meaningful meal together even if it’s a picnic on a blanket before soccer practice, too. That said, if your lives are too busy for family dinners most of the time, reevaluate everyone’s schedules and see if you can streamline things for the sake of connecting more as a family. The benefits and sacred time together at mealtime can be irreplaceable!

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Easy Arancini!

I’m not one to encourage stereotypes, but when it comes to food, I feed people like an Italian grandma! I always seem to make too much, especially when it comes to extravagant Italian dishes. I am happy when the recipients of my food are fully satiated and feel a little guilty for indulging too much. The funny thing is—I have absolutely no Italian heritage! Ancestry aside, I think the thing that bonds all home cooks together is simply our love of feeding those we care about. It’s how we express our affection and concern for loved ones, even if we may go overboard sometimes!

Big batches of decadent Italian meals are a cornerstone of my home cooking. They are comforting, usually inexpensive, and easy to pull off! While Italian cuisine is healthy overall, I admit that the more American-Italian dishes that rely on lots of cheeses, sweet red sauces and pasta can be considered more of an occasional treat. My homemade arancini may be one of these!

Arancini sounds like an intimidating recipe, but it’s simply a stuffed cheesy rice ball—think “fried risotto.” There are many different ways you can stuff your basic Arancini, including the addition of ragù or meat sauce, and even vegetables like peas. But in its most simple form, a good Arancini ball needs only rice and cheese. Don’t be intimidated! They sound fancy but they only take a few simple steps to pull off. They are hearty, creamy, comforting and unique. Be sure to pair them with a crispy salad and lots of red sauce for dipping. And if they seem a little too rich to eat all in one sitting, the best part is that they make great leftovers!

Debra’s Easy Arancini
Serves: 4

2 ½ cups chicken broth
1 cup Arborio rice
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup Parmesan cheese
1 whole egg plus one egg yolk
1 cup flour
2 cups breadcrumbs
3 egg whites
2-3 ounces mozzarella, cubed
Vegetable oil for frying
Favorite red sauce, for dipping


1) Cook Arborio rice according to package directions, substituting broth for water. Season with the butter and salt to finish. Let cool.

2) When completely cooled, stir in Parmesan cheese, then mix in whole egg and egg yolk. Continue cooling.

3) Lightly beat egg whites, then spread flour and breadcrumbs on separate plates or shallow bowls.

4) Using clean hands, scoop about two tablespoons of rice mixture into a ball, then insert a cube of mozzarella in the center, using your hands to hide it with the rice.

5) Roll the ball in the flour lightly, then coat in the beaten egg whites, then breadcrumbs. Lay out on wax or parchment paper, and repeat using the rest of the rice and cheese until all balls are formed.

6) Heat oil in a deep fryer or wok, and carefully fry a few balls at a time until golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Serve with warmed red sauce for dipping!

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The Freezer is Your Best Friend!

I’m not a huge fan of a big “Sunday cook,” where you cook, prepare and store food in advance for the entire week. But that’s just me. I say, whatever works best for you to both utilize ingredients and save yourself some time, go for it! I personally prefer to cook dinner fresh each night based on the main plan I create and shop for in advance. But either method is fine to avoid food waste and spending unnecessary money on impulse takeout. Although it’s not my preference to make enormous batches of casseroles and dinners ahead of time and freeze them for the future, I do still appreciate the benefits of my trusty freezer.

Storing food items, ingredients and leftovers in the freezer can be like magic—you are literally stopping time, which can help you save money on the things you have bought, as long as you eventually use them! Too often, the freezer is stocked with good intentions, but the contents are forgotten about. You can avoid this by constantly inventorying your fridge and freezer and planning future meals around what’s inside. It also takes a vow of commitment to make sure you decide you’ll eat that Tupperware container of leftover lasagna in the freezer for lunch rather than buying something new. But this kind of dedication is not hard, especially when you realize how much money you’re not spending when you focus on eating up what you already have!


In our house, the freezer serves as a tool that stops time on perishable ingredients we don’t want to waste (the last few strawberries that have gone mushy become a frozen ingredient for a future fruit smoothie!), but also houses certain items that help get us through the busy week. In particular, we love to stockpile breakfast items after cooking huge batches on a weekend. As much as I love to cook, I am not a morning or breakfast person, and luckily my husband happily embraces his role as the breakfast chef of the house.

Our son is a ravenous breakfast lover, preferring hot pancakes or waffles and bacon over cereal daily. This kind of meal can be hard for me to fathom so early on busy school mornings but using our freezer to store big batches of my husband’s weekend cook-offs of pancakes and Belgian waffles is a lifesaver. I can simply take a few out of the freezer and pop them in the toaster when we’re rushed for time and I’m morning-grumpy. We also regularly freeze batches of homemade French toast and breakfast muffins, too. Quite simply, it takes the guesswork out of busy weekday mornings while also providing a home-cooked hot meal! If you are still purchasing frozen pancakes and waffles at the store, consider investing in a good griddle and inexpensive waffle maker to create the same items at home for much cheaper!

In addition to our stock of breakfast items, I also like to freeze school lunch choices that also help me through the weeks when packing my son’s lunch, such as leftover pizza slices and soups. I recently started making homemade pretzel bread and balls and it has been a huge game changer for packed lunch options for my son, who is not a sandwich kind of kid. I simply make a big batch of them when I have time, then store them in a gallon-size freezer bag after they cool. On a weekday morning, I take a few out to thaw, then stick in the oven to warm through. I pop them in a thermos and my son can enjoy a hot and fun lunch. Here’s my easy recipe for homemade pretzel bites that you can enjoy fresh or freeze for later!

Freezer-Friendly Pretzel Bites

● One package pizza dough, thawed at room temperature
● 1/3 cup baking soda
● 1 egg, beaten
● Coarse salt, for sprinkling

1) Preheat oven to 450 F.
2) Bring a small pot filled with 5 cups water to a boil. Add baking soda.
3) Roll small pieces of the dough into tiny balls. Drop into boiling water. Cook about 2 minutes or until slightly puffed. With slotted spoon, remove balls and place on paper towels. Transfer to greased baking sheets.
4) Brush balls with egg; sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until dark golden brown.
5) To freeze, allow to cool completely, then place in large plastic bag.
6) For re-serving, thaw desired amount completely, then reheat in oven at 350 F until heated through and soft again.

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Cooking Autism, Inc. is driven to help children with neurological disorders (including autism) learn how to cook. Participants are encouraged to pick up critical communication skills, learn how to work as a team and be more independent. They can build skills in math, reading, and science, and learn about cooking-related topics such as health and nutrition.