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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

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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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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Easy Ways to Include Children in Giving Back and Ending Hunger

A few weeks ago, I stressed the importance of not wasting food (see my post on it here!) not only from a personally financial standpoint, but environmentally speaking, as well. Avoiding food waste is something I’m uber-passionate about, but it’s not just because I live a frugal lifestyle and hate to waste a dollar on a cucumber that I let go to rot. It’s also because for as long as I can remember, I’ve been particularly mindful of just how many people in the world are hungry and food insecure. It breaks my heart to think that as children in this very country and around the world do not know when their next hot meal will be, more fortunate individuals are dumping containers of perfectly good leftovers into the trash and never getting around to using up the items that have sat on their pantry shelves for months. If we are lucky enough to have the luxury of wasting food if we want to, then it’s essential we use our good fortune to remind ourselves of those who do not have that luxury, and help where we can.

I’m certainly far from the most altruistic and charitable person. I can improve a lot in that category of life, for sure. But I realize one of the best ways to perpetuate altruism is by trying my best to instill this trait as a parent. This is harder than it seems. One can’t force young children to be charitable, and as parents, we want it to come naturally. But what I’m learning is that the best way to impart selflessness is simply by introducing issues you are passionate about and providing age-appropriate opportunity when possible. The rest will develop organically when it’s time.

As far as our own household, we try our best to expose our 8 year old, Aidan, to the truth of the issues we care about as much as we can. When it comes to the food insecure, there are plenty of simple ways we have been able to include Aidan in helping. I’d love to share how rewarding they have been. I encourage you to give some a try with your family!



STOP Hunger Now: We recently participated in our first Stop Hunger Now meal-packaging event at Fredericksburg United Methodist Church. This is an amazing organization that engages volunteers to package meals for the globally undernourished. When I heard about this event, I was thrilled to learn that young children could also participate, which is often not the case when it comes to other volunteer-based experiences where food handling is involved. To say that it was a rewarding experience would be a vast understatement. We worked with other volunteers to prepare and package meals that will go to an undernourished population. Aidan was able to help scoop rice into the packages, slip in the vitamin packs, and “run” the prepped packages to the weighing station. Every time we reached another 1,000 count of meals packaged, the whole room would cheer and celebrate. It’s hard to motivate an 8 year old to step aside from his everyday life to do something that’s completely not about him, but my heart filled with warmth when I saw how excited he got every time we reached another 1,000 meals. It was so satisfying to be able to tell Aidan that someone in the world suffering from hunger will be nourished from the very meal he just prepared with his own hands. It makes the whole concept so tangible. This, of course, won’t completely end Aidan’s pickiness over vegetables, or his occasional wasted packed lunch at school, but perhaps the next time I talk about hungry people in the world, it will have more meaning, and he’ll feel proud that he did his part to help out. For more information about Stop Hunger Now events, visit here.




Fredericksburg Area Food Bank: I try to remind my son that it’s not just third world countries that have people suffering from hunger. Right here in our own town, there are plenty of food insecure families that need assistance. The Fredericksburg Area Food Bank serves not only the Fredericksburg region but many surrounding areas, and they are always looking for more donations and have plenty of volunteer opportunities. Because Aidan is not old enough to participate in many of the opportunities available, we have instead focused on donating grocery items for their food bank. I encourage Aidan to use some of his own money for donations, and I will “match” that amount. At the grocery store, Aidan can pick out whatever non-perishable items he would like to donate. The food bank has been gracious enough to take him on a little private tour when we’ve dropped items off. I was happy he got to see volunteers working on separating and organizing items, as well as the areas where individuals can come to utilize the food bank and shop for their families. It’s humbling to remind ourselves that not everyone has the luxury of picking and choosing whatever items they want from grocery stores. For more information about the many ways in which you can get involved with the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, click here.



Loisann’s Hope House: The Hope House is a non-profit organization that assists homeless children and families in the Rappahannock Region. In addition to providing shelter, case management, and day care, they also provide general housing assistance, and of course, that also includes food and personal care items. I have enjoyed including Aidan in helping me donate to this wonderful local organization. It has opened up a lot of conversation about homelessness, food and job insecurity, and resources for those in need. I think it’s so important that our children are taught and then reminded that not everyone may have the security that we might take for granted. As with the Food Bank, Aidan has helped me contribute to the Hope House by using some of his money to purchase items to donate (see their current wish list here), and then bringing them by to drop off in person. The Hope House has always been so appreciative of anything that individuals can donate to help the families they serve, and I’ve loved watching the personal responsibility Aidan is able to show when he stops by to contribute. I can see the wheels turning in his head about the children that are being housed and provided day care by the Hope House, and how different their experience is from his own. Explaining the circumstances that can lead to food and housing insecurity can be tricky with a young child, but it has to start somewhere. For more information about the Hope House and for ways you can help, visit here.

Whether you live in the Rappahannock region or elsewhere, there are plenty of opportunities to get your children involved in helping to alleviate food insecurity for those in need. In addition to larger organizations likes Stop Hunger Now, check out your local food bank to see how your family can be of assistance. Contact homeless shelters in your area to discover ways in which you can donate and volunteer. Have family conversations with your children about world hunger, the food insecure, and help them to brainstorm ways in which they might be able to assist. Perhaps your children have ideas of their own, such as initiating a food drive at their school, or asking for donations for the food bank in lieu of birthday gifts. Finally, continue to be mindful of your family’s own responsibility with food, shopping, and waste. Encourage your children not to waste food and connect the dots for them about how this goes hand in hand with hungry people elsewhere. It’s never too early to start helping those who would otherwise go without! 

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Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup is a Cinch!


Playdates are invaluable for children but they can also be a precious source of solace and friendship for moms, too. One cold winter day last year, my son got together at a friend’s house while the moms socialized in the kitchen. My friend who was gracious enough to host a bunch of children at her house was also nice enough to feed us all a wonderfully warm and inviting lunch. As the kids ran throughout the house and hollered down in the basement, we cozied up to hot chicken noodle soup and rosemary bread with butter. My friend had just gone shopping and raved about the delicious chicken noodle soup that her wholesale club sold. It was simply the best chicken noodle soup I have ever had - tender slices of carrots, comforting noodles, and succulent hunks of rotisserie chicken all held together in perfectly salty broth.

It was also a game changer for me, as I had never thought to use such large pieces of rotisserie chicken for this type of soup. I remember my mother boiling a whole chicken on the stovetop when she was trying to get the meat for soups and stews, and the smell of it always turned me off. I had never really attempted to make homemade chicken noodle soup before but once I had this amazing lunch at the playdate, I realized I could use my favorite go-to method to make rotisserie chicken at home for it. I was determined to try to replicate this wonderful soup as best I could and though I didn’t get it quite the same, I’ve come to love my version just as much. To me, nothing says comfort like egg noodles, and I’ve added some unexpected creaminess by using evaporated milk as a finishing touch to the broth. Best of all, it’s super simple to whip together and the perfect meal for a cold night. As fall ends and winter sets in, nothing gets better than a bowl of this cozy and comforting chicken noodle soup! Try my recipe and see how easy it can be!


Debra’s Easy Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup


  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped or sliced carrots
  • ½ cup-1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ¼ teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 6 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 cups rotisserie chicken meat (see here for my easy method for making it at home)
  • 2 cups uncooked wide egg noodles
  • 1 cup evaporated milk



  1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, sauté the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in oil for 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Stir in the flour, oregano, thyme, and poultry seasoning until blended, sauté about one minute longer. Gradually add broth and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.




2. Stir in the chicken and noodles, simmer for about 10 minutes or until noodles are cooked. Reduce heat. Stir in the evaporated milk and heat through. Season with more salt and pepper as needed.  


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