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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

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!

User Rating: 5 / 5

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Making Your Pantry Organized With One Simple Step

My husband is good at everything. He can calculate large mathematical figures in his head, juggle a career,fatherhood and his own personal interests seamlessly, make me laugh without even trying, and has crazy-accurate encyclopedic knowledge of all things music, movies, and pop culture. But most importantly, he is the “stable” one in the relationship. He always knows what to say, how to make me feel better, and how to handle any dilemma or social situation with poise and intelligence. One day a few years ago, after coming to him for advice yet again, I teasingly whined, “What do I ever do for you?” After a few too-long minutes of silence, my husband – God bless his heart – responded with all seriousness, “Well, you do keep an organized pantry.” It was instantly a hilarious moment and has become an inside joke that we refer to constantly, because he was being completely and legitimately serious. While I’d like to think that we can both recognize more noble traits that I bring to the table (maybe?) the truth is that he wasn’t inaccurate. I guess I do keep a pretty organized pantry! 

As silly as that may sound, having your food storage areas controlled and systemized is, in my opinion, one of the most effective practices to both limit food waste and eat frugally. Knowing you have a reliable and efficient pantry can allow you to meal plan quickly and knowledgeably. If everything is a mess, or even looks OK but there isn't a clear system, how are you best able to know what to eat and when, and what to buy versus what you already have? In order to start spending less at the grocery store, you need to keep one very important word in your kitchen vocabulary – inventory. I can’t stress this enough. An organized pantry allows you to inventory not only what you have, but lets you see how you use everything on a constant basis. You’ll learn to track patterns in your usage of items and ingredients, making it easier to know what to plan and shop for.

I don’t have the fanciest kitchen, and my pantry is just a closet. But I’ve developed a “Bin System” over time, and it works so well for me I’d love to share why. Whether you have a small pantry closet, a bigger fancy area with lots of built-in racks, or even just an area of cupboards you use as your pantry, the Bin System is adaptable to work for any space. It’s super simple. Essentially, the Bin System consists of grouping like-items together into categories, and designating a clear storage bin (I like these inexpensive ones from Target) for each, as opposed to just putting things on your shelves. That’s it!

Here’s why my Bin System works so well:

1. Visibility. Clear bins allow you to see everything easily.

2. Clean-up. The bins are ideal for containing spills and for easy clean-up when there is a leak or mess. For example, those little dusty-looking bits of pasta that seem to fall out of their cardboard boxes only stay at the bottom of a bin, rather than the entire shelf. A drippy bottle of soy sauce will not destroy the entire pantry anymore. You can empty a bin, wipe it clean, and refill.

3. Mobility. It’s so easy to take the bins in and out of the pantry. Rather than futzing around for that bottle of red wine vinegar behind everything else, or trying to find that bag of ground flaxseed you're sure you bought once, the bins pull out effortlessly and you’ll know exactly which one to look in. The ease of this is also great for kids, who can pull their own designated bins out to find what they are allowed to look for. You can even “assign” a bin to each family member if you want to.

4. Consolidation. Every time you shop and add things to the pantry, the bins are great for consolidating and condensing items to save space (e.g. that last granola bar can be squeezed into the new box and you can better clear out unnecessary bulk and packaging).

5. Fast inventory. The simplicity and portability of the bins make for efficient inventorying when menu planning. Does a recipe call for one cup of cocoa powder but you can’t remember if you have it or not? Just pull your baking bin out and check.

Here’s a look at how I make my pantry work for me:

• My bin categories include: rice/pasta, bottles/oils/vinegars, breakfast/cereal, bagged snacks, kiddie snacks, grown-up snacks, and the “Naughty Bin,” which is for all naughty things my kid is not allowed immediate access to, such as Halloween candy. My two baking bins are separated into things I use all the time, like bags of flour and sugar, and baking miscellany, like lollipop sticks and specialty sprinkles.

• Everyday items like peanut butter and plastic wrap are organized on a rack hanging along the door.

• Large items and breakables such as giant containers of vegetable oil and cooking wines are lined at the bottom, as well as our stock of K-cups.

• As for canned goods, I’ve found this is one category that I prefer not to bin. Rather, I use a step shelf organizer to line them in rows.

There are a million and one pantry “hacks” out there to try, but for me, simplicity is best, and the Bin System can’t get any easier. Play around with it and see what works for you. If your food storage areas are already super organized, you can experiment with labels and more creative methods to house your stock. But just remember to keep it simple. In the end, your pantry should work for you so you can maximize efficiency and time, when it comes to both food prep and making a grocery list. Let the Bin System work for you!

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Irresistible Chocolate Nut Oat Bars


I’ll be honest – sweets don’t really do it for me. I’ll pass on donuts, pies, candy, and most pastries in exchange for something savory and salty any day. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this. I love chocolate and ice cream. And then there are these special chocolate nut oat bars that I’ve been making for years – they are downright dangerous if I’m around them. It’s funny that I typically describe myself lacking a sweet tooth, because when I decide to bake a batch of these bars, I simply cannot control myself!

I obtained the base recipe when I was in middle school, taking an extracurricular cooking course with my friend. I still remember standing in the Home Ec classroom, the classmates I had, and some of the cute things we cooked together. What fun! These bars were totally delicious, and when I brought my container of them home, my mother fell in love with them too, so much so that the recipe made it to her “special binder.” Years later when I moved out on my own with my future husband, I sneaked the recipe away from her, tweaked it a little, and now it resides in my special dessert recipe binder. We try to eat very healthy in my household, so I’ll try to avoid baking these as long as I can, until the craving becomes too great and I have to give in!

What does it for me is the sour cream chocolate ganache in the middle. Hear me out – if you’ve never melted chocolate with sour cream when baking, you have to try it. It blends together to make the most tangy, addicting, “je ne sais quoi” flavor I’ve ever had. That chocolately ganache combined with the sweet oat base and the textural crunch of the walnuts is a combination that is simply irresistible to me! My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Sometimes I get a little possessive of my most secret recipes, but I am happy to reveal this one to you now. These bars are too amazing not to share. Let cool completely before eating- they need that time to “meld.” Then, pour yourself a cold glass of milk and indulge! I hope you enjoy!


Irresistible Chocolate Nut Oat Bars


  • ½ lb unsalted butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup flour
  • 4 cups quick oats
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • ½-1 cup chopped walnuts
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease s 12 x 9 baking pan.
  2. In a bowl, cream butter, sugars, and vanilla until light and fluffy with hand mixer. Beat in eggs. Stir in oatmeal and flour.
  3. Press about 2/3 of the mixture into the pan, pressing down slightly. Reserve 1/3 for the topping.
  4. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt chocolate chips and sour cream, stirring constantly to avoid burning and until fully incorporated. Remove from heat and spread chocolate mixture over the oat mix in the pan.



  5. Add chopped walnuts to the reserved 1/3 oat mix and drop onto the top of the chocolate layer in little blobs.




  6. Bake for 30 minutes or until top turns golden brown. Cool completely before cutting into bars. Enjoy! 


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Postpartum Support Virginia

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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.