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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

Playing "Chopped" At Home with Kids!

My son Aidan LOVES watching Chopped and Chopped Junior. It took him several years to warm up to the idea of wanting to cook with me, but now he really enjoys it, and I’ve also gotten better at letting him do this own thing in the kitchen. Every time Aidan watched an episode of Chopped Junior, he would ask if we could have our own version of Chopped at home, where he is given four mystery ingredients and has 30 minutes to make a dish out of them. For some reason, it was one of those things I responded to with “We’ll see,” which as we all know as parents really means, “Yeah, let’s change the subject.” Even though having a Chopped-inspired activity at home sounded fun to me, I just put it off. 

But after the topic came up yet again, I realized that it would probably be a lot simpler to do than I first thought. And it was! It was a super fun activity that brought the whole family together and satiated Aidan’s desire to practice his cooking chops and creativity in an exciting way!

Doing a Chopped-inspired challenge had to be tweaked a little for our household, since we don’t have a family large enough for the show’s three rounds that end in eliminations. We simplified the process down into just one round, with me serving as Aidan’s sous chef to help and supervise and Daddy as both host and judge. Even though it didn't incorporate all the elements of the real Chopped, we all had a blast and it was probably easier and more kid-friendly that it was a simplified version! Here’s how we carried out our own Chopped Junior at home. You can modify it for your own children’s abilities and family size. It’s not only a great way to get the whole family involved and spending time together, but it can also promote creativity and encourage your kids to try new foods!

1) We made a makeshift Chopped basket and cloche, hiding the four mystery ingredients inside. Aidan lifted the cloche to reveal everything and we set the timer for 30 minutes. Then it was time to get moving!

2) We chose four “kid-friendly” ingredients that didn’t seem too overwhelming – frozen chicken nuggets, a cheese stick, rainbow Goldfish, and a mini bagel. Since this was just for fun and enjoyment, we didn’t want to force Aidan to use a super unusual ingredient or something that would turn him off, like his despised green veggies. If your kids are a little more adventurous, you can include something more unique or a food you’d love for them to try.

3) I stayed on hand to supervise the difficult stuff and assist with more risky tools like the food processor. Aidan really, really wanted to turn the Goldfish crackers into a dust, but I’m not ready to let him use a kitchen appliance like the Cuisinart on his own just yet! I tried my best not to offer many suggestions. If the end result was going to be gross or unsuccessful, that was part of the game!

4) Aidan felt the pressure of the ticking clock as he used his kid-safe kitchen tools to try his best to transform the ingredients.

5) Things started out neatly but as the timer counted down, we both felt the stress of it and the kitchen started to get messy. This was part of the fun! 30 minutes really goes by quicker than you think. You gain a huge appreciation for what the chefs really go through on the show.

6) With a few minutes remaining, Aidan started plating his meal for the judge. Since we only had one Daddy-acting-as-judge, he just had to worry about making one plate. You can totally tweak this to make it more like the show’s required four plated meals.

7) The tension-filled 10 second countdown began. “Time’s up, step away!” Aidan completed his dish just in time.

8) Aidan presented his dish to the judge and described how he utilized his four basket ingredients, as well as pantry items.

9) The finished product: A diced chicken nugget bagel panini with melted cheddar, dusted with Goldfish crumbs and a Ranch-Goldfish dipping sauce in the dish.

10) The Daddy-judge gave his analysis, which including both compliment and critique, just like on the real Chopped. No one was “chopped” this time, but Aidan has a super fun time and got the desire to play this “game” out of his system. He was able to exercise his creativity, bond with his parents, and we all learned that chicken nuggets and cheese on a bagel-panini dusted with Goldfish crackers was actually pretty good!

I hope you have fun trying your own Chopped-inspired challenges at home with your kids. It’s so much fun to do and a great way to spend time together!

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Second Chances

My son Aidan won’t eat a single vegetable. Not one! As a veggie lover, this can break my heart if I think about it too much. As a mother, it drives me crazy and worries me that he is not getting proper nutrients from a well-rounded diet. I have tried everything to expand his palate, including making fun games out of using chopsticks, finding ways to help him actually eat his lunch, letting him discover the joy of cooking, even making edible sensory food! All of these strategies have helped some, but Aidan’s strong will and “supertaster” senses dominate. But my son’s selective tastes have made me recently humbly realize that I can’t be too hard on him because...I am also a “picky eater!” As much as I love to cook and love to eat, there are just a lot of foods that I don’t care for and are not part of my diet. Luckily, these include a lot of things that probably shouldn’t be there anyway, like pastries and red meat, but there are plenty of other nutritious things that I wish I would eat, if it weren’t for my own selective food habits. How can I expect my child to overcome his unwillingness to try new foods if I don’t do so myself? This insight was very eye-opening.

Then I realized...what if I gave some foods I have always disliked a second chance? Might this inspire Aidan to give some more things a try? Moreover, if, after all these years, I discovered I actually liked something I thought I never did, would that help my son realize that tastes can change for the better over time?

Regardless of the outcome it had on Aidan, I decided to give two veggies I’ve never liked a second try recently – radishes and asparagus. I’m a huge advocate of what fiber can do for a person’s overall health, and asparagus is a great source of prebiotic fiber, which is what “feeds” the good bacteria that live in your gut, almost acting as fertilizer for them. Asparagus is also packed with antioxidants, folate, and vitamins A, E, and K. As for radishes, they are also a great source of fiber, and are also high in vitamin C, folate, and potassium. Both veggies are also a great way to “eat your rainbow.”

I decided to roast the asparagus, bringing out an earthy richness to them that I had never experienced before. Using some of my favorite things to roast with, garlic and lemons, helped elevate the taste and eliminated any blandness that existed in my inaccurate memory of asparagus. And in all honesty, I really liked them! They are a perfect accompaniment to a succulent chicken or roast and a starchy side, like risotto or mashed potatoes. And knowing that I am eating such a nutritious vegetable that offers me benefits I cannot find in many other things sealed the deal for me. I now incorporate roasted asparagus into my meal planning regularly. It will never be my favorite, like my beloved yam or beet, but who knew – I actually don’t mind them!

As for radishes, I can’t remember what exactly turned me off about them, but I just know I’ve always put them in that category of “things I don’t eat.” But I’ve discovered that I actually, honestly, love them now. All it took was a little pickling. Pickling, which basically means that you’re preserving something using a vinegar or brine, adds an acidic quality to the radishes that are a great note on your palate to brighten up a salty or rich dish. Radishes naturally add texture, brightness, crunch, and color to a meal, and the pickled salad I make with them is the perfect complement to grilled proteins, nutritious rices, or even stir frys.

I’d be lying if I said that Aidan magically starting enjoying vegetables as soon as I gave my old aversions a second chance, but there have been fruitful take-away lessons from the process. Firstly, I’ve learned that it’s silly and just plain wrong to assume that if you don’t like a certain food, you’ll always feel that way. That might sound obvious, but if you’re not actively thinking about what you don’t like to eat, you may not realize it. Also, it made me understand that there are probably a bunch of other things I haven’t eaten in years that I might enjoy now. What a wealth of opportunity! If there is hope for this picky eater, maybe there’s hope for others, including my own son!

So what foods have you always disliked or downright hated? Maybe it’s time to give them a second chance! Keep reading for my asparagus and radish recipes!


Pickled Radish and Snap Pea Salad

• 1 cup thinly sliced radishes
• 1 cup fresh sugar snap peas, trimmed
• 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• One tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Combine vinegar and sugar in bowl, whisking until blended. Add radishes and snap peas, toss to combine. Let stand. Top with toasted sesame seeds to serve.


Lemony Roasted Asparagus

• One bunch fresh asparagus
• Extra virgin olive oil
• One lemon
• One clove garlic, minced
• Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Break off tough, woody ends of asparagus. Line on a baking sheet or stoneware and add minced garlic. Squeeze ½ the lemon over the asparagus and place a few lemon slice in the sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the asparagus, and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands or tongs, toss everything thoroughly to coat and spread asparagus back in a single layer. Roast in oven for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until crispy-tender.


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How Much You Really Should be Spending on Groceries

In today’s blogging and social media world, there are so many catchy “headlines” to indicate how families can live on astronomically low grocery budgets. “How I feed my family of 5 for $150 a month!” or “We Live on $40 a week!” While they can be helpful and inspiring, I personally feel like these types of articles have the potential to make readers feel bad about themselves and promote standards that seem so impossible, it turns people off to the whole idea of shopping frugally altogether. That’s obviously not the goal of the writers and their grocery budgets are admirable, but probably not feasible for all folks.

So what’s my advice on the matter? Here’s what I think it comes down to: one grocery budget does not fit all! There are so many factors that come into play when determining what you should be spending at the grocery store, it’s impossible to recommend an actual amount. I know we are a society of quick fixes and easy answers, but I’m sorry to tell you that just like losing weight or anything worth working toward, there are no quick fixes to trimming your grocery budget – it just takes a bit of a learning curve and cultivating some different skills over time. This may not seem like a convenient or trendy answer, but it’s the truth. Remember – slow and steady wins the race, and this is always true when it comes to household finances. But don’t be discouraged! Having control over what you spend on groceries is one of the most powerful ways you can save your hard-earned money. You can have mastery over how much you decide to spend if you’re willing to commit to it.

Instead of worrying about an actual number, focus on these “commandments” on frugal grocery shopping, and I promise you’ll be well on your way to success.

Ignore Other People’s Grocery Budgets: There is no sense in comparing your family’s needs to anyone else’s, and this goes for grocery shopping as well. If you think, “How can that family of six spend just $400 a month when I only have two kids and we spend double that,” don’t worry about it! You don’t know if that figure includes what you would consider groceries. Everybody has different dietary needs and preferences. There is no right or wrong here. Some people prefer organic ingredients. Some families make their own cleaning products. Also, consider this: that friends of yours who only spends half as much at the grocery store as you may be spending a lot more on take out, fast food, and restaurant meals. In my household, we might have a larger grocery budget than families twice our size but we almost never go to restaurants. We’ve all got to get food somehow! In other words, it’s all relative. Don’t compare yourself to what anyone else does!

Track What You Do Spend: So, I just told you not to concern yourself about what other people spend at the store, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore what you spend. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from. Begin by writing down everything you spend for one month. You don’t need a fancy app or website to help you track things. Just literally jot it down. Include everything, even a stop for a quart of milk. You might be amazed at how much you’re actually spending. The next step would be to determine if this amount feels right to you, or if it seems out of control. It may take several months to get a sense of this. Once you’ve set a budget goal (maybe just try $30 less a month), it’s important that you continue to track what you spend in order to stay on budget. This is not arduous. Keep your receipts, scribble the info down in a notebook, add up the total at the end of the month, and you’re done. Your totals are going to fluctuate from month to month, but overall you’re going to look at the average.

Focus More on How You Grocery Shop: Evaluate what your shopping habits are really like, because this is what affects your grocery bill more than what you’re buying. Do you meal plan and make a list? Do you stop at the store on the way home every night? Do you restock items you’re worried you’ll run out of too often? Are you just overwhelmed at how much your family eats to think about anything else? My biggest piece of advice about spending less at the store is to shop less often. Everything you need to know about how to make this work is here.

Meal Plan: Repeat after me: I have to meal plan if I want to spend less on groceries. This is your new mantra. Menu planning is not overwhelming after you get started, and do have the time for it if you want to make a change in your spending. Having a meal plan puts you in control of what you are choosing to buy, when, and how much. It keeps you organized and saves time in the long run because you’ll always have a blueprint to rely on. For my complete tutorial on Meal Planning 101, click here.

Stop Wasting Food: The average American household throws $1,500 worth of food in the trash annually. Not being mindful about utilizing everything that you do buy perpetuates your overspending because you are replacing items that you’re already spent money on and wasted. Even if you think you don’t waste food, there is always room for improvement. Scanning your perishable food items and making a point to use them should be a daily habit that is simply part of your lifestyle. For more tips on avoiding food waste, see here.

Recognize the Grocery-Dining Out Connection: If you’re looking to not spend as much money on groceries, chances are you might also be overspending on restaurants, take out, and convenience food. Take a look at the big picture and continue to track your spending to find out where your money is going. If you only spent $300 one month on groceries, that sounds great, but did you also spend $250 on fast food and dining out? Dining out, while a wonderful treat every once in awhile, is just that – a treat. It is all overpriced to account for overhead, and you can make similar meals for so much less at home. For tips on how to actually dine out less, click here. And, for great on-to-go meal ideas for busy families that are always on the run, see my blog on it here. It might mean that your grocery bill actually goes up, but the overall amount you’re spending on what goes in your family’s mouths goes down in the long run.

Finally, be realistic. You have to put a little work into practicing the above habits to see if you can lower your grocery bill over time, as well as observing your spending habits over the course of several months. If you are already doing everything you can to reduce your grocery bill, consider this: maybe that’s the best it can ever be! As your family grows or as your children get older, you will also have to make adjustments and realize that you may have to spend a little more. Your grocery shopping and budget are like living, breathing parts of your life that may fluctuate and ebb and flow over time. But it’s crucial to be as mindful as you can by meal planning, utilizing what you buy, and not running to the store more than you absolutely need to. And remember – no comparing yourself to others! Good luck!!

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Embracing Failure in the Kitchen

Food bloggers can make it look so easy. Great photography and lots of editing can present the yummiest, most perfectly-highlighted, mouth-watering dishes right there on your computer screen. It all looks so delicious and simple to do. I guess the same can be said about everything in today’s social media world. Don’t we usually only see the best Christmas photo of our friends’ children and not the crazy outtakes? The lovely-dovey selfie of a couple, who may have just had a terrible fight that morning? The photo album of a family’s gorgeous vacation shots, all without reveal of the tension of a road trip and sibling rivalry along the way?

I personally enjoy seeing the “positives” of someone’s life, even if it may have taken a few outtakes to get there. For me, it sure beats negativity, which can be so abundant in today’s quick-typing world. And as for food blogging, it’s obviously more appealing to show the beautiful, finished result rather than the mess and murk of the mistakes that may have come beforehand. But as a food blogger, it’s important for me to be real about how things go in the kitchen, because I would never want to isolate people or make readers feel like they could not attempt a recipe if it looks too intimidating or arduously nice-looking. Luckily, I don’t have the best camera, so I think my photos looks pretty mundane if you ask me! But it goes beyond that. It’s also about being down-to-earth about how mistakes, flops, and messes are a normal part of cooking.

These are some of the realities about what happens all too often in my own kitchen:

• I am a HUGE klutz, in life and certainly as a cook. And in the stupidest ways! No, seriously....I have dropped a knife directly onto my foot (blade pointed down), I cut my arm badly with kitchen shears by opening a bag of potato chips, and I’ve had a million and one burns and scars just from being clumsy while cooking. We all gets some burns here and there, but mine are just senseless and avoidable. Once I foolishly checked on a casserole in the oven without mitts on, touched the top of the heating element with both thumbs and seared the skin practically off. I’ve rubbed my eyes directly after touching the seeds of jalapenos and there seriously isn’t a week that goes by where you won’t hear a glass breaking somewhere in the kitchen. And the worst of all, a few years ago, I had to go to the ER for the worst corneal abrasion the doctor had ever seen because of a....Ziploc bag. I was spinning and bagging lettuce at the time, and well, as any clumsy person will agree to, sometimes you just don’t have an answer as to how exactly you hurt yourself with that random object!

• I spill things. A lot of things. All the time. In disastrously messy ways. That take forever to clean up. I hear my husband saying, “what happened?” from the other room. A lot.

• I’m awful at baking. Simply awful! I’m getting better, and I enjoy doing it, but I just don’t have the knack for certain skills involved with it. I’m too impatient for it. I can’t seem to let a cake bake without opening the oven door to check things, and I can NEVER let a baked good rest and cool off long enough, which, I’ve learned, will result in a crumbled mess every time. My baked goods are....unattractive, to say the least.

• I start off very neat while cooking, but by the end, the kitchen is a horror show of strewn-about items and pots and pans. Dirty dishes are everywhere, bits of food are scattered about in every nook, and the sink is overflowing with way too many tools for the job. It’s like a culinary tornado spun its way through the room.


• Like anyone, I’ve had my share of utterly failed dishes that wound up being completely inedible. We still shudder at the “cigarette-tasting shrimp” dinner I made one night 15 years ago. And just last week, we sat down to a lemon linguine I was looking forward to but the whole thing was so bitter and disgusting, it was unpalatable. I tried to doctor it up with sugar and diluting it with pasta water, but I only made it worse. As much as I hate to waste food, sometimes you’ve just got to dump your failed creation in the garbage and head out to Wendy’s for dinner, which is exactly what we did.

As much as blunders in the kitchen can be frustrating, mistakes are a wonderful opportunity to learn, cultivate skills, and teach our children about overcoming disappointment and failure. Error breeds creativity and innovativeness, as we work to figure out what might work better. It can help us remember that anything truly worth learning takes some time, patience, and trial and error along the way. We practice humility as we dump that unrisen ball of dough into the trash when we thought we knew how to make bread from scratch. We can learn to face our fears in the kitchen. After all, making a beef Wellington no longer seems overwhelming once we’ve dropped the entire dish of our first attempt onto the floor. Once we see that kitchen slip-ups aren’t the end of the world, we learn to loosen up. They’ve certainly helped my very structured self to be more spontaneous! Finally, mistakes can truly breathe real life into the kitchen and make family memories, much more so than if everything was always perfect.

And most importantly, they teach perseverance. When we’ve failed at a soufflé or a stir fry dish or anything else in life, are we going to give up and never try again, or shrug it off and keep going? When we have the resolve to be persistent, beautiful and delicious things can indeed happen. It’s a lesson we all could use a refresher on every once in awhile.

Many years ago I was making a special chocolate mousse cake for company. The recipe called for tons of ingredients and had many tricky steps. I baked everything perfectly and watched patiently as it baked slowly in the oven. But then, my old rashness got the best of me, and I did not allow the cake to cool completely before trying to free it from the springform pan (and mousse is not flexible on this)! Suddenly, the entire cake ripped, sank, and sort of exploded right onto the glass oven top in a big brown heap. It was all over. It could not be rescued. And in one of my most pathetic moments ever, I took to the chocolate heap with a fork, crying and nibbling at the scattered remains like a sad vulture. I haven’t tried to attempt that cake again in all this time, but, determined to learn from my mistakes, I recently dusted off the old recipe and got to work.

I took the finished cake out of the oven like I was rescuing a fallen bird's egg and let it cool completely without messing with it. And it came out of the pan! It wasn’t perfect, but....I did it, and it was delicious. And this time around, I didn’t have to scrape it off the stove to have a bite. ;)

Do you have a memorable cooking disaster? I’d love for you to share the story!

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No Fear of Frying!

I must have ordered the Fried Tempura Chicken salad at one of my favorite local restaurants at least fifty times. And that’s saying a lot, because I actually rarely go out to eat! Once I tasted the way the salty, savory lightly-fried chicken pieces paired with its crunchy, crispy salad components, all melding together with a delicious tangy dressing, I was hooked! I’ve never ordered anything else from there - never even thought about doing so - because that salad is just amazing!

But as you might be learning, I also love to save money by not going out to eat too much, and I just completely love trying to replicate meals at restaurants at home. Yes, I certainly have a thing for DIY menu items! So I have been making my own version of this salad for a few years now, and while it can’t compare to the restaurant’s original, it’s delicious and comprehensive all the same!

I think some home cooks may be afraid when they hear the word “fry,” for both health and technique reasons. But let me reassure you that a little frying can be OK as part of a regular diet and it isn’t hard to do! Here’s why:

• It’s all about balance, isn’t it? If you're having a fried item, be mindful to pair it with fresh, wholesome components to make the meal. My tempura fried chicken sits atop fresh and nutritious mixed greens, tomatoes, carrots, and jicama (which, by the way, if you've never heard of or tried, you must! It's loaded with nutrients and adds a marvelous sweet crunch to any salad or slaw)!

• Since you are doing frying, you get to control the amount of oil used as well as the type of oil. I prefer to use vegetable oil, but oils such as peanut, canola, sunflower, and extra virgin olive oil are good sources of unsaturated fats. You also get to control how well you “drain” the fried item on paper towels to soak up excess oil afterwards, something that may not be done as thoroughly at restaurants.

• You don’t need a fancy or expensive, separate kitchen apparatus to deep fry. You can use a large skillet, a Dutch oven, or my personal favorite – a wok! It’s easy and doesn’t require additional tools.

• You can reuse your frying oil by letting it cool and using a funnel to pour it into a clean jar and storing in the fridge. This ultimately will lessen the cost, as oil can be a pricy item.

If I’ve intrigued you to trying some deep frying, here’s how I achieve my tempura chicken by frying at home in just a few easy steps. You can apply the same basic technique to anything!


1) Prepare your frying station. Get your wok or fryer ready, line a nearby countertop with paper towels for draining, and be sure to have a large, slotted spatula as well.

2) Pour about a quart of oil into the wok first, then heat on medium-high. In order to make sure your food is cooked through and to achieve a crispy coating, it’s important to make sure your oil is hot enough. Don’t be intimidated by this factor! You don’t need a special type of thermometer. My trick: when you think your oil has had a few minutes to heat up, run your fingers under some water and “flick” your wet fingers over the oil. It’s ready if the water that you’ve flicked in makes the oil bubble a lot and get noisy. If not, try again in a few minutes. Remembering that cooking is mostly about instinct will help you relax about technique!

3) Carefully drop a few pieces of the chicken (just toss chicken tenders or small pieces and about a cup of tempura mix into a Ziploc bag and shake until lightly coated) into the oil. The pieces will rise to the top. Allow to continue frying for several minutes as you gently turn the pieces over a few times with the spatula. Fry until medium-brown, then lift carefully and drain well on paper towels. (If you fear you haven’t cooked your chicken through, you can always cut a piece open and check for doneness). Remember, if your oil isn’t hot enough, your items will not cook, and you will not achieve a good crust!

4) Finally, season your fried chicken with a little bit of salt after draining.

That’s it! So if you’ve ever been intimidated by the thought of deep frying at home before, please don’t be. It’s super easy and can add a delicious component to your home repertoire. Read on to see how I build my Fried Tempura Chicken Salad. And good luck frying!


Debra’s Crispy Tempura Chicken Salad

Tempura fried chicken pieces (see above) + mixed salad greens of your choice + diced plum tomatoes + shaved or finely julienned carrots + jicama, cut into matchstick-sized slices + your favorite dressing (Ranch or honey mustard is a perfect match).
Don’t forget a few slices of crusty bread on the side and you’ve got yourself a delicious, well-rounded restaurant-worthy meal!

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Cooking Autism

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.