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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 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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You Won't Miss the Meat!

There is a certain restaurant in town that has a burger on its menu that makes me crazy! Sometimes I crave it so badly I can’t stand it. It’s satisfying and filling, seasoned perfectly, and has all the sumptuousness that makes a burger so addicting. And…there happens to be no meat in it! Truth be told, I do not eat red meat myself, but I love cooking it for my meat-eating family members. But even my carnivorous husband loves to go meatless as much as he can. It’s important for health reasons, but even better for the wallet. Going vegetarian even occasionally can save you lots of grocery money, and building a meal around other protein sources that are very inexpensive like legumes, beans, or eggs instead of meat can add up to a lot of money saved!

It’s become trendy for both meat lovers and vegetarians alike to join in on the Meatless Monday movement, and here’s a great resource for why this is so imperative for health and environmental reasons. These things are important to me, but so is keeping my family happily fed in a way that fits my budget. It’s an antiquated notion that meals have to be built around a piece of meat, but luckily, so is the stigma against meatless dishes. Vegetarian recipes, especially veggie burgers, have come a long way and can satisfy all walks of life.

I adore making these super easy black bean burgers for the whole family. They satisfy my craving for that delicious favorite on the menu, and are a breeze to put together on a busy weeknight. There’s not a lot of cooking involved, as it’s more assembly than anything else. Best of all, a can of black beans will cost you about 50 cents as opposed to a pricier pound of ground meat. Even cooking this way once a week will add up to a lot of savings. Read on to see how to achieve a delicious meal for Meatless Monday or any night of the week!


Scrumptious Black Bean Burgers

Ingredients: (makes 4 burgers)

  • 2 cans black beans
  • 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup grated onion
  • ¼ cup finely diced red pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • Salt And pepper
  • Hamburger buns
  • Your favorite burger fixings and condiments: cheese (we love to use Munster or Swiss), lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, ketchup, etc

Drain and rinse beans. Place them in a bowl and use a fork (I use a potato masher) to mash them, making sure to keep some whole.

Add the breadcrumbs, onion, egg, red pepper, chili powder, salt, pepper. Stir until combined.

Form the bean mixture into patties.

Spray cooking spray on grill surface and preheat grill on medium heat. Cook patties approximately 5-10 minutes on each side, making sure not to flip too early. Cook until there are visible grill marks and patties look cooked through.

You may place cheese slices on top during the last few minutes of cooking to melt.

Carefully remove patties from grill and build your burger using your favorite toppings! 

Enjoy, and I promise - you won't miss the meat! 



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Easy Make-Ahead Breakfast Mini Muffins!


Who doesn’t like things in mini form? It’s a food trend that’s not just for kids, although children always seem to adore eating “regular” food items in smaller, fun-size bites. The mini muffin pan can be a parent’s best accessory, as there seems to be no end to the fun creations it can make! Earlier, I shared my recipe for easy lunchbox mini pizza muffins, and today I want to tell you how simple it is to create quick make-ahead breakfast muffins that can be prepped in advance, eaten fresh, or frozen to save for busy weekday mornings. They can really be eaten any time of day, and are even great for a quick, on-the-go picnic meal.

My son is a die-hard breakfast lover, and he could eat it all day long. And in fact, I serve up these breakfast muffins warmed up in his lunchbox for school, as well as for an easy dinner sometimes. And since I am not a morning person in the least, I make a huge batch on weekends and freeze them, so that when it’s time to feed him before the bus comes in the early morning, I can easily take a few out and warm them in the oven without having to think too much!

Best of all, a breakfast mini muffin is the perfect vehicle to get a few healthy items into your children without them noticing too much. I actually successfully tricked my son into thinking that finely chopped spinach was merely some dried basil, and he gobbled it up! You can add finely chopped up peppers or other veggies, as well as lean protein choices like turkey if you want. The possibilities are literally endless. Read on to see my recipe for a super easy Pancake and Sausage Muffin, as well as inspiration for how to do a Make-Your-Own Breakfast Mini Muffin Bar!


Pancake and Sausage Mini Muffins

These are sort of a riff on a pig in a blanket. They combine my own son’s two favorite things in the world  - pancakes and sausage – into a cute muffin that can be eaten any time of day.  We love them served with some warm syrup for dipping. We use turkey sausage but you can use any type you’d like.


  • 1 pound pre-cooked sausage links of any variety
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 cups  milk
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Syrup, for dipping
  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Coat mini-muffin cups with cooking spray.
  2. Heat pre-cooked sausage according to package directions and cool slightly. Drain any excess grease or moisture, then slice into 1” pieces.
  3. In a bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Then, add egg, milk, oil and honey into flour mixture. Stir until combined.
  4. Place a 1” sausage piece into each mini-muffin cup, making sure the bottom side is flat. Cover with batter, filling up ¾ of the way.
  5. Bake 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool 5 minutes before removing from pan. Serve warm with syrup or freeze in plastic bags to use later. Enjoy!

Makes about 4 dozen.



You can treat this concept as more of a muffin “bar,” where everybody can chose from different fillings to make their own mini “frittata” like muffins. It’s also a great way to have kids help out in the kitchen. Make a ton, bake, and freeze to use throughout the week. Decide on quantity of ingredients based on personal preference.




  • Container of Egg Beaters, or several fresh eggs, beaten
  • Fresh spinach, finely chopped
  • Diced or minced red or green pepper
  • Bacon crumbles
  • Cooked and diced breakfast sausage
  • Shredded cheese
  • Diced mushrooms or onions
  • Cubed ham
  • Other “omelet” fillings you enjoy
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and spray mini-muffin tin with olive oil.
  2. Set out individual bowls of all mini muffin ingredients. Have kids create their own favorite combination by sprinkling a few of the filling choices in the mini-muffin tray.
  3. Add beaten eggs carefully to individual muffin cups, covering fillings until full. Sprinkle with salt & pepper.
  4. Bake for 15–20 minutes or until set. Enjoy! 

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5 Ways You Can Cut Food Waste and Save $1,500 a Year

Who is responsible for 43% of the nation’s growing food waste problem? It’s not restaurants, supermarkets, or food-producing factories. It’s us as individuals! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average household loses $1,500 a year on the food it throws in the trash, which, multiplied by thousands of households across the nation, results in the staggering fact that 40% of food produced in the U.S. goes in the garbage. Think about that – nearly half of the food we produce rots in our landfills at the same time we continue to have about 48 million Americans living in food insecure households. It’s an equation that doesn’t add up. Moreover, it’s important to note that when you waste food, you are not only wasting the actual item, but the energy, water, and labor that went into producing it, making it a global environmental concern.

The problem has become so serious that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the country’s first waste-reduction goal, which aims to lower the nation’s food waste by 50% by the year 2030. More than anything else – whether it be my love of cooking, smart shopping, or being frugal – preventing food waste is simply paramount for me. It’s the chief principal that dictates and motivates every other food decision in my household. Whether it’s thinking about all the children in this country that do not know where their next meal is coming from, the people across the globe that don’t even have access to clean water, or my innate penny-pinching tendencies, not wasting the precious food I purchase is something I’m super passionate about. If these statistics don’t scare you enough to start cutting the food waste in your own household, think about the economical importance to your own finances. Imagine what you could do with an extra $1,500 a year? When you toss that container of leftovers you never got around to eating, or the rotten bananas you had planned to use but never did, you are literally throwing your money in the trash. Here are some simple and crucial ways to lessen your contribution to the food waste epidemic and get serious about not wasting your hard-earned money at the same time.

Meal Plan: I cannot stress enough that planning your meals is the most important strategy to saving grocery money – it trumps any other “tips” out there for spending less at the store. It also eliminates most of your food waste issues because you are shifting your mindset about the items you shop for. Everything that’s put into your grocery cart should have a specific intent. You’re no longer buying those beautiful peaches just in case you feel like making a cobbler, but rather, you’ve planned to make one and are shopping for the rest of the recipe ingredients, as well. When you know steak is on sale, you’ll plan to grill it up next Tuesday. The peaches and the steak will no longer sit in your fridge endlessly until they eventually go bad. Planning your meals is not overwhelming or rigid; it just keeps you organized and ensures that things do not go to waste. For everything you need to get starting meal-planning, see my blog post on it all here. 

Shop Less and Inventory More: Make less frequent trips to the store and you’ll slash your grocery costs and your food waste, because you are giving yourself less opportunities to buy things you won’t use. You’ll need to rely on what’s in the house to get you through to the next shopping trip, whether you’re out of bread or not. Challenge yourself to go without running to the store when you think you are low on staples. The more you meal plan, the more you will notice trends in how, what, and when your family eats, and you can shop more accordingly. For more tips on how to successfully shop less frequently, see my post on it here. Focus less time on stopping at the store to pick up a few things and more time taking inventory of what’s already in the house that can be used. You should be doing a quick scan of items, particularly perishable foods, every single day and trying to use them up.


Front Load: Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most likely victims of food waste. Consumers throw out over half of the produce they purchase! Over time, I’ve learned that the trick to preventing produce rot is not in the storage, but in the scheduling of using them. When you meal plan, “front load” your produce in order to maximize freshness and avoid rot. This means that you’ll try to eat/cook/use up the highly perishable items at the “front” of your meal cycle, and taper off towards the end of the cycle with less perishable produce. For example, plan to eat/use your bags of fresh baby spinach, raspberries, and bananas within the first few days of purchase. Other produce, like a head of cauliflower or beets can wait a bit longer. If you prefer to supplement your produce mid-meal-cycle, that’s fine, but be mindful of it. So for instance, if your kids gobble strawberries every day but you have another eight days before your major shopping trip, by all means, stop and get another pint. But limit your shop to just that item, and continue to offer less perishable alternatives like apples and citrus fruits.


Commit to Leftovers: Did you know that 96% of leftovers would be eaten more if you knew what was actually in your containers? Invest in some nice plastic storage containers and commit to actually eating what you pack away! Don’t be a food snob about eating leftovers – they are delicious and certain meals (eggplant parmesan and stuffed pasta come to mind) actually seem to get better as time goes on! Eliminating food waste can only happen if you make a point of eating leftover odds and ends of food. Is there a clump of wild rice, a few pieces of broccoli, and ½ a chicken cutlet still in the pots and pans after dinnertime? If you put these things together in a container, it makes for a hot lunch for someone the next day that’s probably much larger and more satisfying than what’s in a Lean Cuisine box. Using up perishable food should be something that’s always a conscious priority.


Relax about Expiration Dates: Don’t fret too much about “sell by” and “best used by” dates. A lot of food waste occurs when consumers get too nervous that something, particularly dairy and meat items, are going bad when they aren’t. Food safety is something to take very seriously, but first educate yourself on what each type of label actually means. Here is a great resource to help clear up the confusion.


Finally, for these goals to work, everyone in the household has to commit. If you have a spouse or a family member that isn’t really a fan of leftovers or doesn’t seem to mind when produce or dairy items have to be chucked when they go bad, talk to them about your goals and why it is so important for both an individual family and the environment. Encourage each other to eat up what’s in the house, and perhaps even some “tough love” is necessary to get everyone on board. Model gratitude for the food you have. Beyond helping to save the environment and what’s in your wallet, you’ll also be nurturing creativity as you look for ways to use up food items hanging out in the fridge. Resourcefulness is a wonderful trait that, once honed, can inspire you in so many ways. Join me in preventing food waste ASAP! 

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Make Your Own Taco Bowl!


Did you know it’s a cinch to make your own taco bowl or “shell” using just a plain tortilla? It’s so easy to do and also so much healthier than the fried version. There’s no need to buy packaged taco bowls – all you need is a mixing bowl, a tortilla, and the oven! These homemade taco bowls are great for upgrading boring salads and they elevate a simple weekday dinner meal into something kid-friendly and fun. I like to make large ones for the adults in the house, and a “mini” taco bowl for my son. And everyone’s favorite part is eating the crunchy bowl when the fillings are gone. This can be a great selling point for your kids – when you’ve cleaned your “plate” you actually get to eat it!

We love using them for traditional taco salads or fried chicken salads, but they’re really a great vessel for anything – steak, rotisserie chicken, grilled veggies, you name it! They are also a fun way to use up leftover fixings from taco night or can be used for my personal favorite, rice bowl night. You can prep them in advance the night before or that morning and then throw everything inside when it’s dinnertime. What can be a quicker meal than that? Read on to see how easy it is!

What You Need:

  • Flour tortillas (whole wheat is fine too), any style or size will work, but largest will obviously make a bigger bowl
  • Butter or margarine
  • Glass or metal oven-safe mixing bowl slightly smaller than tortilla


Step 1:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread about one teaspoon (just a thin coating) of butter or margarine on one side of tortilla.


Step 2:

Turn the mixing bowl over and lay on top of foiled-lined tray. Place tortilla, butter side down on top of bowl and press all sides against it, keeping your hands in place for a few moments. Bake for approximately 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned, hardened, and crispy.


Step 3:

Remove from oven and carefully peel away from mixing bowl. Place taco bowl right-side up and bake for another few minutes, allowing the interior of the bowl to firm up a bit more. Repeat the procedure with more tortillas as desired.


Fill with your favorite salad components and enjoy! Here are our favorites:

“Leaner Taco Salad”

  • Shredded lettuce
  • Sliced tomatoes
  • Sliced red onions
  • Turkey or vegetarian chili
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Sour cream

Fried Chicken Salad


  • Brown rice
  • Grilled steak or chicken (omit for a meatless dish)
  • Grilled or sautéed onions and peppers
  • Shredded pepperjack cheese
  • Avocado
  • Sour cream
  • Scallions
  • Black beans
  • Click here for my rice bowl night concept


What other things would you love to put in your homemade taco bowl? The choices are up to you! 

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