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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

5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Eat Their Packed Lunches!

Another day, another lukewarm yogurt coming home in my son’s lunchbox. The ice pack I’ve carefully put in to keep everything fresh until his lunch period is now at room temperature. I have to dump the cheesestick too, no longer edible after sitting in his backpack all day. “Oh, I only had time to eat half my sandwich,” Aidan says as I sadly put the rest in the trash. But what’s this? The cookie is gone? Hmmm.

If this scenario sounds similar, I’m glad I’m not alone in the struggle to get my kid to actually EAT his packed lunch every day! There can be so many factors preventing children from eating most of their lunch, from a too-quick cafeteria period to the influence of what other kids are bringing to being full from the cupcake brought into the classroom for someone’s birthday. I’ve been disappointed many times to find Aidan coming home with most or at least half of his lunch still in his Thermos, untouched. Lunch periods go by very quickly, and any parent who has been allowed to visit their child during lunchtime knows how chaotic the cafeteria can get. It’s like a bunch of animals have just been released from captivity! It’s no surprise that sometimes children have a hard time actually eating in that environment. For Aidan, it’s the perfect storm of being a very slow eater with selective tastes paired with wanting to spend time talking to his friends. I don’t care so much if he finishes everything, but not wasting perishable food is an important value in our household, so that’s the bare minimum I hope for.

Finally, after a few years of just being frustrated about this, I’ve discovered a few ways to alleviate the issue and help Aidan actually eat his packed lunch! Read on if you’ve ever unzipped a lunchbox at the end of the day and sighed with frustration!

Make it a Game: You’ve got to try this! Aidan and his friends at school love riddles. In the past when I’d stop in the cafeteria to say hello, sometimes it would get a little awkward trying to make conversation with all the classmates who were excited that a parent was there. So I’d prepare a riddle for them to mull over while they ate. It was a big hit, so I decided to bring the riddle game directly into the lunchbox. I leave a riddle for Aidan to try to figure out with his friends during their lunch period, but I don’t give the answer. He only gets it when he returns home with most of his lunch eaten. My son is too smart to fall for most parental tricks like this, so I was blown away when he hopped off the bus the first time with his guesses to the riddle….and an empty lunchbox! Here is a great site for kid-appropriate riddles. We do it every day now! 


Involve the Kids: Let your children assist with preparing and packing their own lunches for school. They naturally enjoy helping with things, and it will give them a sense of autonomy and control over what goes into their lunch. If packing healthier items is important to you, let the children select a more “fun” side to go along with the carrot sticks you put in there. Working together will demonstrate teamwork and letting children have some control will give them a sense of pride in what they have packed for themselves.


Lower Your Expectations: Consider that you may be providing too much food for one meal. It’s normal and instinctual for us to want to leave our children very prepared when they are not with us, and this can translate into how much we pack for them in the lunchbox. What if they get hungry? What if this isn’t enough for them? Unless your child is directly telling you that they are still hungry after eating everything in their packed lunch, it’s best not to overdo it. If they are already eating a complete breakfast and dinner as well, they just need a simple lunch to get through the day, especially since younger grades still have snack time.


Keep it Simple: The Pinterest pages and school lunch blogs have beautiful images of creative lunches to make for your children, but most days, kids don’t need fancy things or artfully-crafted sandwiches. I love a good fun food recipe, and when Aidan was younger, we had fun turning cheese slices and waffles into dinosaurs, flowers, and other works of art. But for school lunches, it’s best to keep it simple. Kids these days really don’t have a lot of time in the cafeteria, and they truly are too busy talking with friends and just want to decompress from academics. Save the artsy creations for the weekends, when you can surprise them with a pancake monkey face. For packed lunches, even just cutting sandwiches differently one day is creative enough for you both. Speaking of simple, make sure your kids are able to open all their containers and food packages easily. That might seem obvious but sometimes a kid might not bother with that yogurt or snack mix if he can’t open it. He may not want to waste time keeping his hand raised while the cafeteria aides make the rounds helping out with this. Don’t go crazy searching for the best Bento boxes out there – when it comes down to it, foil and plastic wrap are fine enough sometimes!



Think Outside the Bread: My son is more of a “hot lunch” person just like me. In fact, when I have to pack a picnic lunch for myself, I actually have a hard time coming up with different ideas, as I’m not much of a sandwich person. What do your kids naturally love to eat? How can you translate these foods into lunchbox items? For example, Aidan loves bagels, but I’ve found they can get too hard sitting all day. Instead, I spread a little cream cheese on bagel chips  and pair with a few other sides. They stay fresh without getting soggy or stale. What about turning every kid’s favorite food, pizza, into lunchbox-friendly pizza muffins that pack well? Breakfast for lunch? Grilled cheese and chicken nuggets stay warm in a hot Thermos too! See here for my post on other great picnic meals. They can translate easily into a packed lunch for school.

Finally, take the pressure off both yourself and your children. I have struggled with this as well but when we encourage eating too much, we are engaging in a control issue with our children and that will make them even less likely to eat their food. You can have an honest talk with your children about eating their lunches, and it’s good to educate them on the difference between perishable food, which we unfortunately cannot save after a long, hot day in the backpack, and non-perishable items, which can be brought home and saved if time runs out. But beyond that, children will pick up on our stress and it won't help. As with all food and eating issues, our goal as parents is to remain consistent and model good eating ourselves. Other than that, we can just hope for the best! I encourage you to try some of these tips for your school-aged children. Best of luck! 

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Fast and Fabulous Homemade Frappuccinos!


I confess – I may be a little obsessed with frappuccinos! Not being a coffee drinker (although, what am I waiting for, I can barely function the first few hours after dragging myself out of bed!), I prefer the chilled, chocolately, whipped cream-topped goodness of a perfect frap! It all started many many years ago when I met my husband, a serious coffee drinker and lover of Starbucks. To us, a perfect date was and still is sitting at Barnes and Noble reading quietly together in the café section or cozying up at Starbucks in deep private conversation. But instead of a hot cup of coffee on these dates, I got hooked on sucking down those amazingly creamy, satisfyingly sweet fraps! These days, I only treat myself to one occasionally since their richness conflicts with my regularly healthy diet, but I still get excited when I do indulge.

But here’s the problem: they are utterly and inarguably overpriced, especially since Starbucks keeps creeping the price up 15 cents or so every couple of months. The older I get and the more conservative with our hard-earned money, the more I cannot bring myself to spend about $5 on what is essentially a fancy milkshake. At first I thought there was no way I could replicate the perfect texture of my beloved chocolate chip Frappuccino; it’s so good I thought its appeal must be some sort of barista magic that you shouldn’t even attempt on your own. But after experimenting for a bit, I settled on a DIY version that is just as yummy, incredibly fast to whip together, and the most important to me – I can make it for pennies. In fact, I prefer my own homemade Frappuccino – or “Caffrey-ccino” as we like to call them in this house, over getting one at Starbucks any day, and I’m pretty sure I’ve saved a ton of money because of it! If you have a blender, you can become your own little barista and whip up some amazingly cheap and just-as-delicious “Caffrey-ccinos” of your own. Read on for my versions of Pumpkin Spice and Double Chocolate Chip Fraps!


Double Chocolate Chip “Caffrey-ccino”


  • 1 to 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup milk (any kind will work)
  • Approx 2 cups ice (you may find you’d like to add a bit more depending on how thin or frothy you prefer)
  • 1/4 cup chocolate syrup plus more for topping
  •  1/4 cup chocolate chips
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Whipped cream


Place everything except whipped cream into blender and blend away, making sure ice is fully broken down. If it’s too liquidy you may add more ice. Pour into cup and top with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. That’s it! This yields about 2 servings for me, but it may depend on how much/little you like to have at once!


Pumpkin Spice “Caffrey-ccino”


  • Approx. 1-2 cups ice, depending on texture preference
  • ½ cup brewed Pumpkin Spice coffee, brought to room temperature or chilled
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon Pumpkin Pie Spice plus more for topping
  • 1 cup milk (you may sub vanilla ice cream if you would like it to be creamier)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Whipped cream, for topping

Place everything except for whipped cream in blender and blend away, making sure ice is fully broken down. Pour into a cup and top with whipped cream and sprinkle a bit more Pumpkin Pie spice on top. Enjoy! 

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10 On-the-Go Picnic Dinner Ideas for Busy Families

10:00 p.m. It looks like a tornado has swept past my kitchen, but it is just the aftermath of an intense night of extracurricular activities. A backpack leans against a table. Homework folders that need to be signed lay atop it. My pocketbook and keys are thrown across the dirty kitchen table that has yet to be wiped down. Pungent dirty dishes line the countertops and fill the sink. We’ve just gotten my son to bed after a long night of a play rehearsal (his extracurricular activity of choice), and it’s close to 11:00 before I am done cleaning everything up and resetting for the next day.

Luckily, this scene is a distant memory. In the past, when Aidan had a long night at a rehearsal, I’d still try to cook a simple yet regular dinner so we could eat together early before heading out in order to avoid take out or fast food. Given the crunch between the bus stop, homework, and leaving the house on time to make his activities, my only choice was to leave the kitchen and dirty dishes a mess while gone and work on it late at night once we all got settled back home. After awhile of doing this, I realized there had to be a better way! As much as sitting down to a family dinner at the table is super precious to me, it’s pretty much impossible on certain nights when kids’ activities dictate otherwise.

It sounds so easy to pull into the drive through or throw a few Ritz crackers in your mouth and call it dinner on crazy activity nights, but convenience food can add up big time, and you owe your health and your sanity more than this if crazy nights are a regular thing. The whole family needs healthy fuel for energy and to make it through a sports season or whatever else everyone has going on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little fast food, but you need a sustainable plan for how your family will eat on crazy nights. (See my post on overall meal planning here as well as ways to help you eat out less here).

Enter the Dinner Picnic! Rather than spending money on overpriced takeout, create your own by prepping and packing portable dinners to eat “on the road” or at the sporting and/or extracurricular activity of the night. At first it might sound tedious to pack a second meal of the day after dutifully preparing your kids’ lunchboxes, but all it takes is a little forethought and food prep. The key is to find what works for you – maybe you can prep your picnic dinner before everyone wakes up in the morning, or the evening before if you’re a night owl, or you could even do a big Sunday cook for the upcoming week where you cut up fruits and veggies and cook some proteins to use for the days ahead. Nothing successful is sustainable without a plan, and if you can find a prep plan that works for your family, you will make great strides in eating healthier and alleviating some of the Crazy Night stress! Here are some of our tried and true ideas for busy night dinner picnics!

Grilled Cheese on a Stick: Prep a bunch of grilled cheese sandwiches as you regularly would. After cooling a bit, use kitchen scissors to cut up the sandwiches into small cubes. Before heading out, heat them up in the oven, then string onto wooden skewers or lollipop sticks. Pair with some carrot sticks or fruit for a yummy meal!


Grilled and/or Rotisserie Chicken: This versatile go-to can be used atop salads, or put into wraps or sandwiches for a quick meal. I love to pair grilled chicken slices with couscous and veggies for a cold or room temperature complete salad. You can grill off a bunch of chicken breasts all at once at the start of the week, then save to throw into your picnic dinner choices when needed. Rotisserie chicken is the greatest go-to tool in your easy dinner arsenal for similar uses. Check out how to make your own rotisserie style chicken here.


Make-Your-Own-Subs: Stock up on everyone’s favorite cold cuts, then pile them up in delicious sub or club rolls with cheeses, meats, and condiments of your choice. You can purchase this bread ahead of time during your larger shopping trip, freeze, and defrost the night before using. Pair with some chips or potato salad and you’re good to go!


Breakfast-for-Dinner Burritos: Cook a bunch of breakfast burritos in advance, wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze. They defrost easily and can be zapped in the microwave before leaving for the Crazy Night picnic. To make, all you have to do is combine your favorite breakfast items like scrambled eggs, sausage or bacon, cheese, and diced peppers and fill a flour tortilla, rolling into a burrito. That’s it!


Mini-Meatballs: Whether you make your own meatballs or buy frozen, these are a great picnic dinner option. Wrap in foil after warming or reheating for your on-to-go picnic. Little Tupperware containers of ketchup, red sauce, or BBQ sauce make great condiments.


Pizza Muffins: see my blog here on super easy pizza puffs that pack well and are fun to eat!



Chicken Salad: We love to make mini chicken salad sliders on sweet Hawaiian rolls for picnics. They pair great with pickle spears and potato chips or veggies for a complete on-the-go dinner.



Pasta Salad: Cold pasta salads are the easiest thing to prep and pack! You can make it a thousand different ways. Add some cubed ham for protein and peas for fiber. Change it up and use tortellini or even ravioli.


Turkey or Pepperoni Pinwheels: Pinwheels are a cute alternative to a traditional wrap. Simply lay your cold cuts 0nto a tortilla and roll tightly. Use a serrated knife to cut into small pinwheels and arrange tightly in a portable container. You can add cheeses, lettuce, tomato, and condiments to fill out the pinwheels. Pair them with some freshly cut fruit or veggie sticks and dip and it’s a healthy way to fill up on the go.


Casseroles divided up: Take your hot dinner to go by making everybody’s favorite casserole dish and divvy it up into individual hot Thermos containers. This applies to soups and macaroni and cheese too! Keep it simple – baked ziti or a chicken rice casserole will go a long way on nights you need to eat fast.


Sometimes there is no way to prevent the Crazy Nights, but a little preparation can go a long way in saving some money while still providing nutritious food to the family. Invest in some great coolers, Thermoses, and food containers, and make sure the car is loaded with cups, napkins, paper plates, and utensils. On the go dinner picnics might just make your busy weeknights a little more enjoyable. Good luck out there! 

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DIY "Rotisserie" Style Chicken


God bless the inventor of the Crock Pot. As much as I enjoy spending time in the kitchen and concocting meals from scratch, I also LOVE efficiency, and things can’t get any easier than when the Crock Pot comes out. It’s like performing domestic magic – throw a few ingredients inside, press a button, and presto – a few hours later, you’ve got a succulent and aromatic meal that feeds an army. For those that feel inept in the kitchen or those that fear they don’t have enough time to cook, the mighty Crock Pot is always the solution. You don’t need to have amazing culinary talents to use one, and all it takes is a few minutes in the morning or even the night before to get things together before heading out for the day.

I love making stews, chilis, and even soups in the Crock Pot, but when I tried doing a whole chicken a few years ago in one – it was a game changer! Quite simply, I will never use store-bought rotisserie chicken again! Seriously – if you’ve never cooked a whole chicken in the Crock Pot before, it is a revelation that you’ve got to try! What’s so great about it, besides how easy it is to do, is that it’s cheaper than buying a pre-made rotisserie one in the store. When whole chickens are on sale (69 to 89 cents per pound is a pretty good range), you can stock up and freeze them to make whenever you want. You’ll also usually get more meat out of it, because I don’t know about you but I sure feel like those store-made rotisserie chickens seem to be getting smaller and smaller!

Best of all, doing a DIY rotisserie-style chicken in the Crock Pot lends itself to so many great uses and recipes. It’s a great main course on its own with some tasty sides, but it’s also so resourceful to break down and shred for chicken salad, enchiladas, quesadillas, casseroles, hot dips, wraps, soups, and sandwiches. All the chicken practically falls off the bone when done, making it a cinch to break down and utilize as much meat as possible.

Read on to see how the Crock Pot can transform a basic whole chicken into the easiest go-to method you’ve got to try!

Step 1: Spray Crock Pot with some cooking spray. Make several balls of foil and place at the bottom (this will “lift” the chicken up a bit and prevent it from laying too much in its own juices). Place fresh or defrosted whole chicken on top.


Step 2: Prep the chicken with seasonings and aromatics of your preference. I usually do a take on“40 Clove Chicken” by placing tons of garlic cloves (you don’t even need to peel them) inside the bird as well as on top and around. It creates wonderful flavor and aromatics, and don’t worry – that much garlic does not overpower! You can also throw some cut up citrus around, or carrots and onions. Season the top of the chicken with salt, pepper, and other herbs of your choice. I like to use this rotisserie chicken seasoning. The more aromatics you prepare at this point, the more flavorful the chicken will be when ready! Don’t be afraid – it needs it!


Step 3: Set Crock Pot on low for 6-8 hours and let it do its thing all day!



Step 4: (Optional) If you are not using the meat for another purpose and/or would prefer to have crispy skin, remove chicken from the Crock Pot when done and transfer to an oven safe baking sheet or dish. Set the broiler on high and place chicken on top rack of oven, allowing the broiler to crisp up the skin for a few minutes. Watch carefully so it doesn’t get overdone! If you don’t eat the skin or don’t care about how crispy the outside gets, skip ahead to Step 5!


Step 5: If eating/using straight from the Crock Pot, carefully remove the chicken with large tongs. The chicken will start falling off the bone easily as you break down into breasts, legs, wings, thighs. There is almost no effort! Some of the skin may be soggy – just remove to expose the meat and slice/serve as preferred.



The chicken is ready to eat! Although, I wouldn’t guarantee it makes it to the table – it’s so succulent and delicious you might have a hard time preventing yourself from eating all of it straight out of the Crock Pot. Enjoy! 


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Simple Steps to Dining Out Less

It’s estimated that the average American family spends about $225 a month eating out. That adds up to $2700 a year just on food away from home, not including any groceries. However, I’d bet that that is a low estimate for some families, who seem to rely on fast casual meals and restaurants more often than not to get through the week. In fact, recent studies point out that for the first time in history, Americans are spending more at restaurants than they are on groceries. There’s nothing wrong with going out to eat. But when a family is looking to cut back on food expenses, there’s always a lot of emphasis on reducing grocery bills but not nearly enough on the obvious decision to eat out less.

Remember – a plate of food at a restaurant is going to cost you much more than if you prepared the same dish at home mostly due to overhead and mark up – you are paying not only for the meal but the nonfood costs of the establishment such as labor, rent, utilities, and marketing. This is obviously how restaurants make a profit. And while one could argue that sometimes it’s worth it to avoid shopping, cooking, and cleaning up, this philosophy might be better suited for going out to eat more seldom rather than the norm. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly think of other things I’d need that $2700 a year for! For families who might like to cut back on eating out expenses but may not be sure how to make that happen, here are some totally feasible steps to get you started:

Get introspective: Take a few moments to think about why you find yourself going out to eat so often. Is it a hatred for cooking or a feeling of inadequacy in the kitchen? Do you feel like your family’s schedule is just too hectic for anything else? Be honest with yourself. For some, maybe paying for nice meals at restaurants is a status symbol. Or do you just enjoy the sheer convenience of it? The better you are able to pinpoint why you spend so much money on food away from home, the better you’ll be able to develop strategies to deal with the reasons behind it all.

Get real about how much you’re actually spending: If you don’t already keep track of what you spend, start by writing down every dollar your family dishes out on food and drink away from home for at least two months. I can guarantee that you’ll be blown away by the numbers. Many do not realize how quickly a trip to the drive through or a night of pizza delivery will add up when you’re also stopping for coffee often and going out to eat several times throughout the month. Don’t beat yourself up over the total – just use it to recognize how much of your money goes down your throat before even stepping into the grocery store.

Start small: As with everything else in life, it’s all about baby steps. Wean yourself slowly. Make a budget and stick to it. Think about what might be a realistic reduction in expense for your family and set yourself up for success by not making the budget too low. You’ll never feel a sense of accomplishment if you make unrealistic goals.

Meal plan and anticipate busy nights: Combat the need for convenience meals by planning out your week and anticipating what nights you’ll need an “easier and quicker” meal. Then, fill out the rest of the week with simple meals you can prepare at home.  When you meal plan, you maintain control over when you chose to go out to eat, making it all the more budget-friendly. If you know you’ll have an opportunity for a date night on Friday, cook the other six nights that week. If take-out might be easier on the way to gymnastics, try to commit to home cooking the rest of the week. Every little bit of savings helps. For my complete set of guidelines on meal planning, especially for busy schedules, check this out.

Forget about being a foodie: If lack of culinary expertise has you eating out more often than not, that doesn’t need to be an excuse for all the spending. You don’t need to be the next Julia Child to feed your family most nights of the week. Grilled cheese and tomato soup? A steak on the grill with a salad?  A rotisserie chicken with some rice from the pantry and peas from the freezer? Most dinners like this require little cooking knowledge and are more about assembly than anything else. Also, if you’re serious about reducing your spending, there’s no time like the present to practice basic cooking skills.

Recreate the restaurant experience: Some feel like the caliber of cuisine is far superior at restaurants. Sure, this may be true at some establishments, but like most families, you might be spending most of your money at fast casual and sit down chains where sometimes the food is just mediocre and the service less than stellar. I love trying to recreate items I’ve had out by using copycat recipes or just experimenting at home. You can find a bunch of copycat recipes just by searching online. Some of my favorites include this copycat Chick Fil A chicken nugget recipe and this take on Panera’s Cheddar Broccoli soup. You may discover you can even achieve better results!

Stay focused on your goals: If you’re trying to reduce your eating out spending for financial reasons, have some set goals in mind (saving up for Christmas shopping or a major purchase, paying down a debt) and remember that small reductions in spending add up remarkably. Perhaps you are trying to reduce for health reasons. Stay motivated by remembering that when you prepare your own food, you are controlling the ingredients. As you acclimate to eating more home cooking, you soon discover that your body can’t handle restaurant food like it used to! I think this is a testament to how more healthier it is to consistently commit to home cooking.

Do your research: When you do go out to eat, you can still be cost conscious. Check menus in advance online to get an idea of prices, call ahead about any specials, look for Groupons and other deals. Commit to only patronizing establishments you have coupons for or find deals on, such as restaurants that have “kids eat free” nights.

Finally, make dining out more sacred than standard. Going out to eat or getting treats should be reserved for special occasions and fun spontaneous excursions. If you go out to eat too much and “normalize” it as the way your family eats most of the time, you are taking away the specialness of it, as well as wasting a lot of money, because now it’s become a habit rather than an occasion. Remember that going out to eat should not always translate into being a form of entertainment or just a way to pass the time. I don’t agree that it should never be, because it’s fun and enjoyable and a great way to get together with those you love. But balance and moderation are key. You’ll have a much more amazing, memorable experience trying that new steakhouse in town or being blown away by the burger in the hole-in-the-wall establishment everybody’s been raving about if you haven’t just eaten out two days prior. Keep the joy of dining out joyous by keeping it sacred and reserved for the right moments. Your wallet – and your waistline- will thank you in the long run! 

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Pouches' Community Corner

Trains, Planes and Automobiles Kids' Race Series


From a small beginning, Cathy Weise of the Ron Rosner YMCA has developed an ambitious three-race series for kids for this summer, with the help of The Great Train Race, Shannon Airport, Dominion Raceway & Entertainment, the Fredericksburg Area Service League and Race Timing Unlimited.

Great Train Race Director Jennifer Taylor was one of the first on board.