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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 Keep-It-Simple Mix and Match Meal Planner

So meal planning might be something that’s been on your New Year’s Resolution list for several months already. You know that it saves money in the long run, keeps you and your entire household more organized, and is essential for savvy grocery shopping and for keeping busy weeknights sane. But what happens when you sit down with pen and paper to actually go through with it? Are you overwhelmed at the thought of coming up with a week’s worth of recipes and dinners so much that you sit frozen, unable to plan at all? So often in life, when we look at a large task as just that, the sheer size of it all paralyzes us. But menu planning does not have to be like this. If you’ve read about my “Meal Planning 101” tips already, you know that I don’t think it is an arduous task at all once you break up the steps. But actually coming up with dinner ideas needn’t be, either.

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The key is to keep things simple, and stick with what you know. If you love to cook and experiment in the kitchen, you have a lot more wiggle room to plan for new recipes and ideas that get you excited. But if you don’t necessarily love cooking, or if you’re pressed for time on weeknights, don’t try to reinvent the wheel or overachieve! No one is looking! As long as you provide your family with a healthy meal that you’ve planned and shopped for, you’ve already accomplished lots and are on your way towards saving money others would waste on too much take-out food.

If the idea of coming up with lots of varied dinner ideas sounds overwhelming, you need to stick to a basic template from which to rely on while meal planning. Most meals are generally composed of a protein, starch, and at least one (try for more!) vegetables. This is a rather traditional approach to filling your plate, but there are obviously lots of other ways to make a plate of dinner, such as a large salad or a hearty sandwich. Below is a basic catalog of proteins, starches, vegetables, as well as different preparations you can experiment with. All you have to do is mix and match from the lists, and there is dinner! Then, repeat, repeat, repeat until your weekly meal planning is done! Play around with my lists, make your own, or add to them and soon you’ll realize that meal planning is as simple as 1-2-3!

• Grilled or sautéed chicken
• Steak
• Pork chops
• Shrimp
• Salmon, halibut, swordfish
• Sausage
• Scallops
• Bacon
• Eggs
• Pork tenderloin
• Ground meats (beef, mix, turkey)
• Whole roasted chicken or turkey
• Tuna
• Tempeh

Starches and Grains:
• Brown rice
• White rice
• Couscous
• Egg noodles
• Pasta
• Baked potatoes
• Roasted potatoes
• Yams or sweet potatoes
• Wild rice
• Quinoa
• Farro
• Lentils
• Breads such as baguette, ciabatta, Italian
• Macaroni and cheese
• Mashed potatoes
• Scalloped potatoes

• Salads
• Slaws
• Leafy greens (kale, collard greens, escarole, etc)
• Corn
• Broccoli
• Cauliflower
• Peas
• Spinach
• Peppers
• Mushrooms
• Carrots
• Asian veg (bok choy, Napa cabbage, snow peas)
• Green beans
• Cucumbers
• Avocados
• Asparagus
• Zucchini and other squashes
• Eggplant


Traditional protein, starch, veg plate
Cold pasta salads
Layered bowls
Wraps and burritos
Kebabs and grilled platters
Quiches and casseroles
Lasagnas and pasta tosses
Stir frys
Chilis and stews
Slow cooker meals

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Don’t Be Terrified of Tofu!

Though I’ll cook anything, I personally don’t enjoy red meat. In fact, I can actually be a pretty selective eater. As a chicken-only-ivore, it’s important for me to incorporate other sources of protein into my diet. When I was younger, I was terrible at this, relying mostly on pasta to get me through the week! As time has gone on, I’ve become much better at making sure my diet is more comprehensive to include lots of great protein choices besides chicken. Luckily, I love beans, nuts, and other protein-high sources like peas and chia seeds. And....don’t think I’m crazy, but I absolutely, whole-heartedly adore tofu!

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Hear me out! The stereotype is that tofu is gross, tasteless, slimy, and disgusting. But stereotypes are usually not accurate, right? Tofu may only come across that way because its “baseline” looking appearance is begging for manipulation, and if cooked with knowledge and love, it can transform into some of the most delicious flavors you’ve ever had. I’m serious! Tofu is not something to fear, but rather an ingredient that lends itself to lots of creativity. It’s super healthy; a wonderful source of protein and iron, and it’s super affordable!

Tofu can be used in a variety of ways, especially as a meat alternative, but my personal opinion is that it is best in Asian dishes. The flavors of Asian cuisine – garlic, ginger, miso, soy, teriyaki, Sriracha (all my favorite tastes!) – fit tofu like a glove. It can take on these intense ingredients flawlessly and the possibilities are endless when it comes to stir frys and other Asian preparations.

My two secrets for making sure tofu does NOT become a victim to its yucky stereotype are: a) it needs to be pressed in advance to squeeze the wateriness out and b) it should be lightly tossed in cornstarch before cooking on a high temperature. Both techniques (read on to see how to do them) will ensure that the tofu is not mushy or gross at all, but rather firm, crispy, and ready to mingle with all the delicious flavors you introduce!

If you love Asian flavors as much as me, I challenge you to try this recipe and give tofu a chance. You might find yourself making it again and again!


Crispy Tofu in Sweet Chili Sauce

• 1 pkg. extra-firm tofu, drained
• Approx. 5 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
• 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
• 2 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
• 2 teaspoons grated peeled ginger
• 3 garlic cloves, pressed
• 2 cups bok choy, chopped
• 1 cup broccoli, cut into small florets
• 1/2 cup cornstarch
• ½ cup flour
• 2 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
• Toasted sesame seeds, optional
• Sliced green onions, optional

1) Cut tofu into cubes no larger than 1” and lay on top of a paper-towel lined plate. Cover with extra paper towels. Place the heaviest pan you have on top and let the tofu drain for awhile (I do this in the morning and stick it in the fridge). The paper towels should be soaked through.

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2) Combine chili sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic in a bowl, mixing thoroughly.

3) Combine flour and cornstarch. Toss tofu cubes in this mixture, shaking off excess.

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4) Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (I flip over the one that was pressing the tofu and use it!). Add half of oil to pan, then fry tofu on all sides until slightly crispy and browned. Remove tofu and set aside. Add remaining oil and stir fry broccoli and bok choy until crispy-tender. Return tofu to pan; cook 1 minute. Add sauce and toss everything together.

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5) Serve tofu mixture atop jasmine rice and top with sesame seeds and green onions, if desired.

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How to Make Meals Unforgettable

I think the sign of a life well-enjoyed is to be able to look back fondly at specific memorable meals experienced in one’s time on earth. To me, life’s just not worth living without the utter enjoyment and savoring of food. Food sustains us, but it also can bring joy, solace, and evoke beautiful recollections of certain moments in time. It doesn’t matter if a memorable meal is an emergency soggy picnic in the car during a thunderstorm or dinner at the most expensive restaurant you’ve ever been in – the only criterion for a special meal is that it stirs up great feelings inside when you think back on it, whether about the circumstances, the people you shared the meal with, or the food itself. Hopefully all three at once!

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If you find yourself unable to conjure up specific memorable meals the way I can, here’s a few words of advice on how to start making meals more unforgettable. If you go out to eat often, restaurant experiences become more habit than a luxury. Try to decrease the amount of times you dine out in order to increase your appreciation for the times you can. My family rarely goes out to eat, so when we do, we are so excited about it! The entire experience becomes something to savor, relish, and feel grateful for. When I see others who make dining out a very common thing, I also tend to notice these individuals often act more like they are “going through the motions” rather than truly enjoying themselves. This, of course, may not be the case for everyone, but when something becomes too routine, these things often become less memorable. Find a newfound excitement for wonderful restaurant meals by truly making them special occasions. (For my tips on how to dine out less, click here).

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Secondly, embracing a slower lifestyle in general can help you be mindful of the present moment of your experience, particularly with dining. Whether it’s a beautifully prepared meal at your favorite restaurant or the slightly-wacky brunch your kids put together on Sunday morning, these meals are appreciated more when you have less on your plate and aren’t rushing around and multitasking. Food and eating aside, spend some time making sure you are living intentionally and focusing only on what’s most important to you, whether it’s family, career, or your health or home. Next, make sure that your time aligns with these values. So often we find ourselves doing things we really don’t want to do just out of routine or because we’ve never really thought of what life would be like without doing it. When you strip away tasks or pursuits that don’t really matter, you have time to concentrate on what really does. Simplifying your life opens up the opportunity to savor food and the beautiful experience of sharing it with others in a way you may have never considered before.

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Next, practice mindfulness during mealtime and work towards using all of your senses during a meal. Shut off electronics, put away phones, and don’t rush through the food! Unforgettable meals eaten with appreciation are just not for your taste buds. It’s true that we eat with our eyes first. What colors do you notice? How are things plated? How many different types of textures are on the plate? Notice smells, scents, undertones of each item. Feel things if you want (yes, even adults can play with their food)! Be attentive to your environment, whether you’re having a simple breakfast at the kitchen table with your kids or you’re dining at a hot spot on the beach boardwalk. What sights, sounds, and happenings are going on around you that you may have never noticed before? Perhaps you and your children can spot new birds out the back window during that breakfast that will open up a new conversation about nature, or you’ll heard the crash of the ocean while cracking that crab leg in a way you’ve never quite heard before.

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Finally, go into every meal without pretention or expectation. I promise this will always leave you pleasantly surprised and with great appreciation for the experience! Don’t go looking for problems with the food, and if the wait service is less than stellar, who really cares? Just focus on being grateful for the bounty in front of you, and the communion you can build by sharing it with those you’re dining with. If you go into a meal having no expectations for its greatness, you’ll never be disappointed! Rather, you’ll discover new things to savor and enjoy, and you just might be making a sacred memory in the process!

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5 Easy Ways to Make Sure The Rest of Your Family Isn’t Wasting Food!

It’s always interesting to observe what other people are buying while at the check out line in the grocery store. You can learn a lot about how people live just from looking at what’s moving down that conveyor belt! But it’s also enlightening to hear what people say about their supermarket purchases, as well. The other day at the check out line, I overheard a woman making conversation with the lady behind her. “My husband doesn’t like any of the snacks I buy, but eats them anyway and then he complains about how much money I spend on groceries. Why does he think I’m here so often?!” The small talk was all in lighthearted jest, and I’m sure the woman doesn’t mind that much that her family gobbles up everything she buys, even if it makes her go to the store a lot. After all, we all have mouths we need to feed, and sometimes it seems like they are endless pits that are never satiated!

But the woman’s joking comment reminded me of how often it seems like the main grocery shopper in a family gets frustrated with how much food the rest of the family members go through. We all need to eat, especially those growing teenagers, but could it be more that spouses and children are being wasteful about the food in the house, which just makes the shopper have to go to the store more and more? This is an issue that can be fixed! If you feel like you provide enough food for your family but they somehow tend to plow through everything uncontrollably, here are a few easy ways to help everyone get on board with eliminating waste when it comes to the food you buy. You’ll save a ton of money and get a handle on your household’s food consumption in no time!

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1) Make it a Team Effort: This is the most important rule when it comes to not spending a fortune at the grocery store as well as not wasting precious food. Everyone in the household has to be on board. Do you pack leftovers for lunch but are married to someone who gets take out every day? Does your spouse make the kids one thing for dinner but if they don’t like it, will prepare a second meal? It’s hard to change people, but when it comes to financial priorities, some things are not negotiable. Have a family meeting to discuss what your goals are in terms of being a bit more conservative about food consumption. Stress to your family members the impact that being mindless with food can have (for all my tips on avoiding food waste in general, as well as scary statistics about how much money a household throws in the garbage when they waste food, click here). Someone is going to have to become sort of a “food watchman,” a family member in charge of overseeing the input and output of food in the house. This might fall to you, or it might be fun to assign this job to a kid who likes leadership roles. The food watchman’s job is to keep an eye out for food that is being wasted, as well as reminding the rest of the family what perishable stuff needs to be eaten soon.

family waste 2

2) Stick to Snack Rules: Yes, kids (and everyone) need snacks, but that doesn’t mean that the pantry should be a free-for-all. Whether or not you believe in designated snack times, or if children are allowed to graze throughout the day, you can still set up some guidelines that the family needs to stick to. This can be as simple as not allowing your family to open a new box of a dry snack like crackers or chips until an-already opened one is completely finished. This is why things go stale and hence, why things get wasted! Nobody wants to eat that little handful of Cheez-Its that have gone soft and gross in the pantry. In my own household, no one is permitted to start a new cereal until the first one is totally gone. It might sound harsh, but this will prevent food from going stale and compel everyone to actually eat what is already available. If you follow my guidelines for saving money by shopping less, you already know not to stock your house with a ton of stuff at once. But I get it, sometimes I’ll stock up on dry snacks if the price is right, too! If this is the case, you can always hide a few new boxes of things until opened snacks are finished. Seriously. For more tips on organizing your pantry, click here.

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3) Label Food by Priority: Perishable priorities - this is the phrase that we live by in my house. It means that every day, you are making an effort to eat and utilize the most perishable food in the house, and prioritizing your meals and snacks around what’s most perishable in order to not waste anything (for instance, snacking on raspberries first and saving the apples for later in the week). For tips on menu planning with this in mind, click here. This is the heart of frugal eating and shopping, and how you’ll learn to not spend a fortune at the grocery store. You can make this habit easy for your family by spelling things out for them. For example. when I get home from the store, I check the expiration dates on the yogurts I’ve bought, and number them with a marker based on what’s going to expire first. You can do this with lots of things. Encourage your family to eat them in order. Organize your fridge so that produce to be eaten first is in the front, and move things you’ve just bought to the back. You can even make a daily “Things That Need to Be Eaten Soon” Post-It to leave in the kitchen so your family knows. I know all of this may sound a tad silly written out, but I promise you – it is not silly, time-consuming, nor difficult to do in real life, and it is how you will save money in the long run. Spending five minutes a day inventorying the house’s supply of food pays off big time!

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4) Give Them Some Perspective: It’s sometimes easy to forget how many individuals are food insecure and downright hungry out in the world. When you take some time to think of others who are not as lucky as you might be in terms of having food, it helps everyone appreciate what’s in the fridge and actually eat it. For ways to include your children in helping the hungry, see here.

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5) Love Leftovers: I don’t know when eating leftovers became something to begrudge, but it certainly shouldn’t be. Sorry, this is one of those non-negotiable things I mentioned above. Repeat after me: eat leftovers, eat leftovers, eat leftovers! Your household grocery budget will not decrease if your other family members are not in agreement about this. Those three extra chicken nuggets, scoop of rice left in the pot, and half a yam that no one wanted at dinner? Yep, that’s someone’s lunch the next day. And once you start realizing how much money you’re saving by doing so, everyone will learn to love and look forward to them. If you don’t eat what’s already in the house, what you’ve already made, or what you’ve brought home in a take out container, you are literally throwing money in the trash.

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Finally, be realistic about what your family’s food needs are and adjust your shopping as necessary. Track patterns and make sure you are only supplying things that your family truly does enjoy and eat. It’s great to introduce new foods and try recipes, and it is important to encourage trying new healthy things, but a lot of food can be wasted if you do this to excess. I think it’s a very common thing, especially among good-intentioned moms, to have some anxiety over making sure our kids are always well fed and that food doesn’t run out. But it’s OK to calm down about this a little. Your children will not starve if you don’t have forty different snacks in the kitchen to meet each of their needs. Learning to use up what you already have and not have too many choices is good for all aspects of life. Not having everything you could ever want breeds creativity and gratitude, even if it’s just about how else you can make a sandwich when the bread runs out. So good luck, and remember, it is a team effort!

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How My Outdated Kitchen Reminds Me of What’s Important

It took us 330 miles to find a home. My husband and I happened to be raised in an area of the country that has an extremely high cost of living, including outrageously priced homes and property taxes that are more than quadruple what the national average is. When our son was born, we knew that in order to buy a single family home, we’d have to move. More, we wanted a parent to stay home to raise Aidan, and so living on one income would only be possible in an affordable town. We were blessed to successfully relocate to such a place, fall in love with our new surroundings, and eventually purchase the house we adore. But sometimes good fortune can adversely skew perspective.

When we were house hunting, our budget (which would have maybe bought us a one bedroom shack back where we grew up) suddenly allowed for a decent sized home. The only thing that was truly on my wish list was a nice enough kitchen (and perhaps a small island in it). I visited many houses for sale, but, like Goldilocks, nothing felt just right – not even the house we’d eventually buy. On my first visit to it, I liked everything else about the home, but the kitchen was boring and basic, and it made me think that the house was not the one I was looking for. But I never got it of my mind, and kept comparing every other house to it during my search. Finally, I decided to look at the house again, and as soon as I entered it for the second time, I knew immediately that it was indeed our home. I could see my future teenage son galloping down the stairs and out the door right in front of me, a happy phantom that allowed me to feel assured that this was where he was supposed to grow up. Outdated kitchen and all!

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Over the years, I continue to have a love-hate relationship with my kitchen. On one hand, I am grateful for the working appliances, the lovely view of the yard out the bay window, and the abundance of cabinet space.

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On the other, I fixate over the peeling spots on the floor and burn marks on the icky Formica countertops. I get frustrated about the strange way the fridge is encased by unnecessary walls and the griminess of the plain brown cabinets. First world problems, for sure! For, everything is spacious and functional, just begging for a little update.

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Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve been settled in the house for a little over six years or perhaps I watch too much HGTV, but lately I’ve been antsy to see what we can do to spruce up the room I spend about 98% of my time in. For some handy couples, it may be no big deal to have a DIY weekend of home improvement projects, but.... we’re not that couple! Though we’ve come a long way in our skills as homeowners, there are some things that are just out of our realm of expertise, like updating kitchen fixtures and intensive painting projects.

But more importantly, even a DIY slow-approach kitchen facelift can certainly add up. As much as I fantasize about what we could do to spruce up the room, my lackluster kitchen reminds me every day of something much more significant. Living with our plain kitchen is a financial choice to avoid spending money on what isn’t necessarily essential, at least in the present-day. Its current just-fine state reminds me of the true meaning of what frugality equals for our family. We drive super old cars and shop at consignment shops and sit at the mismatched kitchen table we got at Big Lots for 100 bucks a decade ago that’s being held together in some places with duct tape because....none of these material things matter as much as what our bigger priorities are. For us, those are having an at-home parent for our son and his busy life and avoiding spreading ourselves too thin by rushing around and working too much. This takes lots of sacrifice and constant money-watching. That may not be for everyone, but it’s what’s important to us.

So even though painting the cabinets and replacing countertops certainly won’t break the bank, holding off on it a little longer is not a bad choice either, as it allows us to spend money on more important things. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we decided to take the first step towards fixing up the kitchen by replacing our rusty, deteriorating range hood by having a newer cabinet and over the range microwave installed, both our hot water heater and washing machine decided to die!

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Our new microwave was on back order for months, so it allowed us to focus on replacing the other essential appliances. By the time we finally had the conversion done, it felt that much more rewarding!

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Over time, I’m sure we’ll make some more steps towards prettying-up the room, but in the meantime, my boring brown kitchen is a good reminder of why delayed gratification, patience, and simply waiting to indulge in something have been the cornerstones for how our family lives – these practices have allowed us to live on one income and slow down life to a speed that doesn’t stress any of us out too much. All rewards, whether purchasing a new car, going on a fancy vacation, enjoying retirement perks, or even sprucing up an outdated kitchen, are relished so much more when they are earned slowly over time. They are that much more satisfying in the end when you’ve crept frugally up to them over time rather than on impulse.

I once read something that has stuck with me ever since – that homecooked food, made with love, tastes just as good coming out of an outdated yucky kitchen than it would in an expensive, top of the line one. And indeed, it certainly does.

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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.