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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

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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How to Relax When Kids are Helping in the Kitchen



My husband and I realized something recently. We were tired after working together to get dinner on the table. I was busy prepping side dishes and retrieving things from the back door as he was grilling on the deck and handing finished items to me one by one. Finally seated to eat, my son Aidan asked if we could get him some more milk to drink. “You are a big boy, you can do it yourself,” we said, too worn out at that point to get up again.

As Aidan brought over the huge gallon of unopened milk, he paused and said, “But how do you pour it?”

We both realized that our 8 ½ year old had no idea to pour his own milk because….we had always done it for him! But how could this have happened? He likes to cook and bake with me, and helps set the table, and I’m always encouraging him to learn more kitchen skills. Then I had an epiphany. Yes, Aidan helps me cook and prepare food, but I usually hover over him and tell him it’s my turn when something gets difficult, and am at the ready with a paper towel when spills are imminent. What good is his occasional exposure in the kitchen if he knows I’ll always be there to help, to rescue with the hard stuff, and to clean up after him? What am I teaching him about his own ability to do things if I only let him do the easy stuff? In order for Aidan to truly learn, I had to become less of a control freak.

But how? Relinquishing control over my kitchen, my “domain” in the house was not easy, but I’ve learned to let go because I realize that Aidan is getting older and soon will not be a child any longer. I want him to have mastery over important life skills, but I also want him to feel confident and trusted. If my issues with letting my kid help cook sounds at all familiar to you, read on to see how I’ve learned to allow myself to let loose and for Aidan to have the learning environment he deserves:

Realize The Importance: Cooking and preparing food is not just for fun, it is an essential life skill that is invaluable for all walks of life. If one doesn't learn the fundamentals of food preparation at an early age, it is that much harder to incorporate later on. Think about the big picture. Children who learn to cook will be less likely to survive on constant processed food in college and will be better suited to provide themselves and their own future families with healthy, nourishing meals for years to come. Cooking helps children practice literacy and math skills, as well as fine motor skills and learning about nutrition, science, and cause and effect. Plus, children who help prepare food are more likely to try said foods and expand their palates. 



Set Yourself Up for Success By Setting them Up For It: No, you don’t need to have fancy kitchen equipment to teach basic cooking skills, but having a few items that are just for the kids will thrill them and loosen you up if you know everyone has their own items to use. I dedicated one drawer in the kitchen just for Aidan’s tools. They are a mixture of kid-safe versions of regular kitchen item like knives, and smaller gadgets I was fine with passing onto him. Giving Aidan one of my old wooden spoons that was “just his” to use brought such a smile to his face. When you see how happy your children can become by being independent, it helps you relax about given them that autonomy.


Find the Right Time: It may not be easy to have kids help out in the kitchen when it’s a busy Wednesday night, or when you’re rushing to eat before soccer practice, so make sure to experiment with times that work best for everyone so that you don’t feel rushed, pressured, or impatient. Weekend mornings are a great time to invite children into the kitchen to help with easy breakfast recipes like pancakes or smoothies. When do you usually feel most relaxed? Perhaps kids can stir the sauce for Sunday dinner or you can let them stay up a little late one night to help make special brownies. There are plenty of times where you’ll need the kitchen to yourself, but find other times you can practice working on your own patience while your kids are learning to cook.



Walk Away Sometimes: Here’s the biggest take way I’ve learned while loosening my controlling ways in the kitchen: teach your child a task and then walk away as they do it! This helps you resist the urge to interfere and it also instills trust in your relationship. Obviously safety comes first, so do not practice this when knives or heat are involved with very young children, but you can let kids mix and stir, pour certain items, read a part of a recipe and follow it, or other easy steps all without you even in the room. If you don’t have anywhere else to go, pretend that you do. Trust me – it’s been a great strategy for both of us! We both learned a lot, such as that Aidan is better at cracking eggs than I am, something we would have never known until I stepped away. As children get older and your grip loosens, you can experiment with what else they can do without your input at all.




Let Them Fail: This is a tough one for me, but it’s absolutely essential that our children actually fail at things and move on from mistakes. Consider the kitchen a wonderful opportunity to practice this fact of life on a small scale. If they spill the milk, it’s OK! If they don’t spoon the cookie dough onto the tray the right way, the world will not end. If they lift the hand mixer out of the bowl while it’s still on – hey – now they know what happens when you do that AND they can help clean up the mess! Something that’s been a wonderful strategy for both Aidan and me has been our “no hands” challenge. I literally will keep my hands behind my back the entire time and Aidan has to prepare something age appropriate from start to finish by himself without my help at all. He felt so independent when he cooked his own scrambled eggs from scratch, even when he burned his hand a little by touching the wrong part of the skillet. As counterintuitive as it may sound to not want to help with stuff like that, this is truly how children learn, and how WE learn that they don’t need us for everything!




Finally, savor the moment. I still have years until my nest becomes empty, but I’m getting all too aware of the fact that my child is growing up. Every moment and every day we have with our children is, well…all that we have. I realized that I don’t want to spend that time with Aidan being too overprotective or self-interested, even when it comes to something as simple as having him help in the kitchen. I want him to have great memories of standing on his “helping chair” at the countertop with me, stirring concoctions together, licking the batter, and failing and succeeding together as a team. I want to enjoy the experience as much as he does, and that kind of joy can only come when a parent is patient and understanding and trusting. If you have ever struggled to find these traits while letting your kids help to cook, trust me that once you let go, your kids will appreciate being in the kitchen so much more. Good luck! 

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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.