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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

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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A Meal to Remember

It was 2007—the last of our “pre-child” and parenting years. The end of that season of life when you could leave everything behind, travel whenever you wanted to and savor every last moment of the experience, whether it was sleeping in late in your kid-free hotel room or relishing the invigorating feeling of getting a little lost while sightseeing. Don’t get me wrong, vacations as a family have been some of the most cherished moments of my life as a mother. But there is something so sacred about traveling together just as a couple, or even alone. I’ve been grateful to do both in my life before parenthood many times, and for me, part of what makes this kind of voyage so memorable is the great food. It’s always about the food, isn’t it?

It was during one of these last little trips as a couple that I had one of the best meals of my life. My husband and I took a little weekend getaway to Mystic, Connecticut. We toured the aquarium and the beautiful seaport, loving the historic and nautical ambience of the town. On our last night there, we decided on a beautiful oyster house restaurant directly on the water. Back in those pre-parenthood days, the wait time to get a table didn’t matter, and I recall that we waited for about two hours—definitely a sign of a popular restaurant! Even though we were starving at that point, the wait was worth every minute because we scored the perfect patio table outside on the water. And the timing was perfect, too. The sun was melting gorgeously into the water, providing a blissful sunset as the backdrop to our dinner.

I ordered these creamy, cheesy, luscious “seafood skins,” a riff on a potato skin with loads of fresh crabmeat and shrimp, all held together with some kind of secret sauce that’s been haunting me all these years. It was simply one of the best meals I’ve ever had, not only because the dish was unforgettably delicious and because the scenery was stunning, but because that night lives on in my memory as a symbol of our couplehood and how sacred and perhaps indulgent those long, kid-free dinners out can be. For me, food is often the link between experience and memory, and whenever I make these crab-stuffed twice-baked potatoes, it brings back cherished memories of that night. They may not be the real thing, but they certainly are still super yummy and representative of that special time in our marriage. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Cheesy Crab-Stuffed Potatoes

● 6 baking potatoes
● 4 tablespoons butter, divided
● 1 medium shallot, diced finely
● 3 cloves garlic, minced
● 2 cups cooked crabmeat
● 1½ cups grated cheese (cheddar, provolone, or Muenster)
● ½ cup sour cream
● 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
● Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Prick potatoes with a fork. Roast in oven until cooked through, about 45 minutes to an hour.

While potatoes are cooking, melt two tablespoons of butter in pan. Add the shallots and sauté for a few minutes. Add minced garlic and sauté a few more minutes. Add the crab and cook until heated through. Set aside.

Allow potatoes to cool. When cool enough to handle, slice potatoes in half, then use a spoon to scoop out the interior, placing it in a bowl. Add the shallot and crab mixture, remaining butter, cheese and sour cream. Mix until well blended. Add parsley, and season generously with salt and pepper.

Fill potato shells with the crab filling. Top with extra parsley if desired. Bake until cheese has melted, around 35 to 45 minutes.

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Love Pie

It had been a culminating season of built-up stressors and a particularly emotional week. The tense political and societal climate was continuing to brew and make me feel hopeless and sad, the hurricane devastation in the South had made itself known to the rest of the country, and a friend’s beloved family member had passed away untimely and unfairly. With so many significant and confounding issues swirling around me, I couldn’t seem to find my way out of a profound funk of vulnerability and helplessness. Sometimes, it seems like this earth is given more than it can handle at a time, and as one tiny inhabitant of it, it seems like my small contributions could never make a dent of difference.

berry pieI couldn’t bring my friend’s loved one back to life, nor could I dry up all the flooding of increasing natural disasters, but I could continue to do what I love and what perhaps I do best. I could cook. I could make food from scratch with my own hands and fingers, and feed the ones I love. Provide sustenance to them and serve my love and compassion on a plate bubbling with goodness and tenderness. Treat them to something sweet, perhaps a bit too indulgent, and use the earth’s bounty to fill it with fresh ingredients and natural deliciousness.

You see, when everything seems to be going wrong, or when I feel like I have no control over tragic or chaotic occurrences, cooking is my therapy and my way to give something selflessly to those that I love. This is true for many people and home cooks. There is something indescribably cathartic about cooking, especially when just for others. To take a bunch of separate ingredients, use a bit of science, heat and strength to transform them into something that provides nourishment and pleasure for someone else—well, it’s one of the best acts of kindness I can personally think to do. It is pure, complete love on a plate.

I’ve never been good at sharing my feelings of affection with others. Perhaps I am a bit of a cold fish. It took me weeks and weeks to uncomfortably reciprocate my first “I love you” to my husband many years ago, after the poor guy had no problem offering me his sentiments. I’m not a hugger or a touchy-feely kind of woman. I don’t get that warm, mushy feeling when I see little babies, and I am better at offering a devil’s-advocate perspective rather than sympathy when others have problems. But despite this, I do feel things intensely. In fact, my heart is a deep, deep cavern of emotion and sensitivity, and it can ache all the same when others are suffering and when the world seems bleak. Cooking is my heart’s language to convey its love and solace.

On this particular day of helplessness, I decided to make a berry pie for my family. I headed to the farm to pick some fresh raspberries and blackberries. The tiny scrapes on my fingers from thorns were soothing as I felt good about using fresh, local and healthy ingredients. I returned home to knead my homemade pie crust. After letting it harden and cool, I was having a difficult time rolling it out and into my pie pan. It was starting to break and fall apart, so similar to how I felt the rest of the world seemed to be fracturing lately. I ditched my rolling pin and pressed the dough into the pan with just my hands, each indentation feeling restorative as I was able to mend it and eventually transform my broken dough into a proper and fitted crust. I mixed the berries with sugar and poured the sweetness into the pan, baking until perfectly bubbly and melded. I fed my family the sliced treat, watching lovingly. I don’t like pie, but I somehow felt better and just as nourished as they enjoyed it. If I can feel helpful and beneficial by cooking for my family, how else could I put this toward assistance for others? Could I feed more people? Could I help with hunger in some small way? Suddenly I started to realize how small and intimate acts of benevolence can be the stimulus for larger ones.

Cooking for loved ones might not change the rest of the world, but it’s where selfless love can begin. And right now, it seems the world needs all the love pie it can get.

Pie Crust Recipe

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine. Add the shortening and pulse a few times until coarse crumbs form. Pulse in the butter until just combined. There will be some pea-sized pieces remaining. Pulse in the vinegar and 2 tablespoons ice water until the dough starts to come together but is still crumbly, adding more water if needed. Turn out the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and pat into a small circle. Wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Roll out the dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface; then ease into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing the edges. Refrigerate until firm, at least 20 minutes.

Fill with your favorite pie filling and bake until golden brown.

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Mouthwatering “Monster” Chicken!

“We’re having Monster Chicken tonight!” I love saying this to my son, who gobbles up this scary-sounding, yet delicious dish. Truth be told, it is not frightening at all! Our family’s nickname for the easy go-to recipe came about because of the star of the meal—Muenster cheese. When you’re a busy parent, it’s crucial to have an arsenal of simple yet satisfying ideas for dinner that your kids will actually eat, but what makes dinner planning all the more enjoyable is when you can have fun with the process and even come up with nicknames that make food and ingredients less intimidating and more approachable to children. Not only is “Monster Chicken” a yummy and kid-friendly dish, it is easy to prepare! It’s been a family favorite for years.

Muenster cheese is a semi-firm mild cheese that is easy to work with. It is perfectly salty, a bit nutty, yet tame enough to complement the rest of the ingredients of a recipe without being overpowering. I love to use it on burgers and veggie patties, but because it has great melting properties, it’s delicious in mac and cheese recipes as well as atop casseroles like my Monster Chicken. You start by making every kid’s favorite—chicken nuggets—in a homemade form, add some earthy mushrooms, chicken broth and cheese, then bake until ooey, gooey and simply scrumptious! A bit of magic happens to the chicken in the oven. The chicken broth and cheese meld together into a luscious, flavorful sauce that is irresistible.

By calling the dish “Monster Chicken,” the less familiar cheese becomes accessible to finicky eaters. Best yet, they hardly notice the mushrooms hiding in the casserole. It’s super easy to pull together, and when paired with some rice and a vegetable, makes for a quick and complete weekday dinner for the whole family. I hope you love it as much as my family does, but be forewarned—everyone will be fighting for the cheesy leftovers!

Muenster Chicken

● 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
● 2 eggs, beaten
● 1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
● 1 tablespoon garlic powder
● Salt and pepper, to taste
● ½ cup sliced mushrooms
● ½ cup butter or margarine
● ½ cup reduced sodium chicken broth
● 4–5 ounces grated Muenster cheese

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine bread crumbs, garlic powder, and salt and pepper in a large bowl until blended. Dip chicken into beaten eggs, then dredge in breadcrumb mixture, shaking off excess.
2) In a large skillet over medium heat, heat butter until melted and slightly bubbling. Sauté chicken until lightly browned, approximately 5–6 minutes on each side. Drain chicken on paper towels.
3) Place chicken into a greased baking dish. Top with sliced mushrooms, then pour chicken broth on top. Sprinkle grated Muenster over chicken and mushrooms.
4) Bake for 30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbling.

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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.