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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

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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10 Easy Ways to Prevent Food Waste

As both a homemaker and a frugal-minded individual, one of my biggest passions and concerns is avoiding food waste. When I see a cucumber go rotten before I’ve had a chance to use it, I can get so upset not only because I’ve just wasted my money, but also because household food trash accounts for 43 percent of the nation’s entire food-waste problem, which is an issue that has mounting global and environmental ramifications. What incenses me more than dumping out spoiled milk from my own fridge is the fact that most folks do not think twice about the consequences of chucking their uneaten leftovers into the garbage or buying another pint of strawberries when they have one behind the eggs about to go bad.

Besides wasting your money, wasting food does serious damage to the environment, as food in landfills produces incredible amounts of methane, which is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In addition, when you waste food, you are also wasting the resources like energy and water that went into producing it in the first place, making the effect on the environment even more nonsensical.

There are many ways to limit your household’s food waste, but the most important way to approach this ongoing problem is simply awareness. Being mindful of the choices you make with food every day, including what you are buying and how you inventory what’s in that fridge, should become a lifestyle choice and a daily habit that can bring a lot of change. The process of limiting your family’s food waste doesn’t have to be taxing. Here are ten additional simple ways you can change your habits to lessen your contribution to the food-waste crisis.

1) Compost: Instead of throwing your produce in the trash where it will eventually produce dangerous methane, composting allows it to break down and be recycled back into the earth. And the process couldn’t be easier! Even though we do not waste much food in our house, it was still incredibly eye-opening to see just how many little scraps of produce we generate from cooking. Even if you do not want to compost, at the minimum, use your garbage disposal for vegetable and fruit scraps instead of the trash. It’s not ideal, but it is better than food being sent to the landfill.


2) Buy Ugly Produce: Supermarkets are designed to routinely chuck produce that looks ugly or imperfect into the garbage. It may seem like a small thing but being the customer that buys the weird-looking but perfectly edible potato or misshapen pear does make a difference and saves that piece of food from being wasted.


3) Use Smaller Plates: When we use big plates to serve ourselves and our family, we might be actually piling up more food than we can eat, creating more food waste. Use smaller plates and start off small with portions.

4) Use Your Freezer: The freezer stops the clock on food, making it your best resource for helping to avoid things going bad. Have a handful of raspberries getting mushy in the fridge? They may be too unpleasant to eat fresh but rinsing them off and freezing them just bought you an ingredient for a blended fruit smoothie.

5) Label: Research finds that 96 percent more leftovers would be eaten if we knew what was in the containers! Keep a roll of masking tape near the fridge and write down the contents of each leftover container or Tupperware item so that all family members know what they can eat.

6) Use Technology: The USDA has a free app called FoodKeeper, which helps to educate you on food storage and safety.

7) Buy Local Produce: Buying local helps the environment tremendously. When you buy local, you are cutting down on the time and resources that went into production of similar produce elsewhere. Keep in mind that transporting produce long distances uses a great deal of fossil fuels.


8) Know Your Fridge: Did you know that the air is colder on the lower shelves in your refrigerator? This makes it the better section to store things like meat and dairy, so they have less chance of going bad too soon.

9) Trust Your Nose: “Sell-by” and “use-by” dates can get people confused and nervous, allowing lots of unnecessary waste of useable food. These stamped dates are intended more for retailers to know when to pull an item from the shelf rather than for safety. A better tenet to follow is to simply trust your sense of smell. Your nose will tell you if milk has soured or if that ground beef has gone bad. Focus on using these items before they’ve had a chance to get to that point.


10) Educate Others: It’s imperative to enlighten others about the impact of food waste on the environment, as well as how easy it can be to save food and money by simply making more of an effort. Share tips with others and stress the importance of what simple changes can do.

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A Comforting Classic

chix rice soupAs much as I love cooking, I’ll admit that it’s harder for me to get motivated sometimes in the dead of winter. It seems like cold weather brings out everyone’s love of baking and hearty favorites like comforting casseroles and hearty roasts, but personally, I’d rather be having picnics outside and firing up the grill in the sun! While winter can certainly get me in a cooking funk, I can still find a little solace in the coziness of being in the kitchen by using some of my favorite tools and techniques. I recently treated myself to a huge and heavy Dutch oven – a multipurpose pot that can do anything. I love it for roasts and stews, but it lends itself perfectly to the ease of homemade soup.

Even if you don’t have a Dutch oven, making a pot of homemade soup is one of the easiest and most economical dinners you can whip up any time of year. The great thing about soup is that the ingredients always yield a bountiful amount. When you pair a great homemade soup with some crusty bread on the side, you not only have a complete meal for the whole family, but a bunch of leftovers, too!

What I love about this wild rice and chicken soup recipe is that it connotes a cozy “guilty pleasure” meal, but it’s actually quite healthy for you! And it could not be simpler. The large hunks of rotisserie chicken meat are satisfying, the vegetables and rice are filling, and the not-too-rich creamy broth allows you to snuggle up with a comforting bowl of hot soup without feeling too much guilt. It’s just an all-around comprehensive easy weeknight meal to enjoy! I may still be dreaming about the beach and barbecues during these cold months, but this soup can provide me with a little comfort along the way!

Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken Soup

• ¼ cup butter or margarine
• ½ onion, chopped
• 3 carrots, sliced
• 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
• 3 celery stalks, diced
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 3 cups rotisserie chicken, shredded
• 4 cups chicken broth
• 1 cup light cream
• 1 tablespoon flour
• 1 cup long grain wild rice mix

Melt butter in large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat and add onion, carrots and celery. Cook for 3 minutes until crisp-tender, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms, season with some salt and pepper, and cook until mushrooms are soft. Add in shredded chicken and broth. In a small bowl, whisk the flour and cream together, then add to the soup. Bring to a boil and add rice mix. Cover and cook for approximately 30 minutes, until rice is tender. Season with salt and pepper. Enjoy!

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For new and expectant mothers in the Fredericksburg area, Postpartum Support Virginia stands as the help and support for women and their families who are experiencing postpartum depression. Founded in 2009 by Adrienne Griffen, Postpartum Support Virginia offers one-on-one support, free peer-led groups, a robust site of information including screening and diagnosis overviews, fact sheets, and training sessions.