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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.


MWMG Pediatrics

Practical Pantry

The Chopstick Challenge

My 8 year old can’t be fooled. He’s too old now and jaded to fall for bribery and other tricks I’ve attempted over the years to get a vegetable down his throat. Most recently at Aidan’s well check-up, when his wonderful pediatrician tried again to have a serious talk with him about eating more produce, she suggested the idea of earning a trip to a Broadway show (something I’ve promised Aidan down the line) in trade of trying 50 new good-for-you foods. His response to her: “Nope, that’s not going to happen.” Yep, my strong-willed child is one step ahead of all of us.

As a mother, I’m constantly being taught that things can’t be forced. And, especially with regard to resolute children, things have to happen on their terms. I was reminded of both of these lessons the other day, when Aidan and I stumbled upon a great way to play around with food quite by accident.

While Aidan was getting a fork for his lunch, he pulled out a pair of bright pink flamingo kiddie chopsticks. “Hey, what are these?” he asked. I had completely forgotten about them! I’m not a very forgetful person at all, but it has been a busy few weeks and they totally slipped my mind. I had purchased them at World Market a month earlier in perhaps one last mom-of-big-kid optimistic attempt to encourage Aidan to explore healthy food in a fun way.

“Oh, yeah…I forgot about them,” I said, trying to think of something enthusiastic to say about the chopsticks without letting Aidan see my true motivation. Instead I continued plainly, “I thought you’d like to use them.”

Rather than calling me out on my newest trick to encourage good eating, Aidan appreciated the gift simply. “Thanks!” he said genuinely. He was having leftover pepperoni pizza, and instead of talking about how great the chopsticks would be for raspberries or peas, I just sat back and enjoyed watching Aidan successfully and sloppily get the cheesy pizza pieces into his mouth. He asked if he could try picking up marshmallows and chocolate chips with the chopsticks for dessert, and unlike my typical reflex to ask him to eat some fruit before a sweet, I let him. And together, we just had fun playing with the chopsticks.


Quite organically, Aidan and I started thinking of “chopstick dares” and soon, the “Chopstick Challenge” was born. Aidan decided on a few texture-based dares and I was able to throw a few of my ideas in too. The challenge was to see how many items on the list you could successfully pick up and eat using the chopsticks, such as "something slippery" and "something teeny." Unlike past attempts, there was no final reward or prize for eating healthier items – it was suddenly just all about the process.

Any strong-willed child loves a good challenge, and Aidan was too distracted by his determination to realize that he was actually eating some healthy things that fit the Chopstick Challenge categories (he actually ate pieces of salad – that’s huge!) But more importantly, I learned to relax a little and put my faith in spontaneity and child-led exploration.

If you try the Chopstick Challenge yourself, be sure to allow your kids to participate in creating the categories too. Their creativity and innovation in seeing what they can eat using just the sticks will lead the way to not only entertainment but growth for everyone. But most importantly, just have fun! 


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Outsmart the Supermarket!

The grocery store wants you to spend as much money as possible. You may not realize it, but supermarkets spend a ton of money each year working with industry analysts and consumer data specialists to track shoppers and develop algorithms and other strategies to increase consumer spending. This goes way beyond impulse candy bars at the checkout and giving out free samples. The marketing analysts have carefully tapped into every one of your senses as a shopper so that they may increase how much you’re willing to spend on products. These marketing strategies are more like magic tricks, ensuring the shopper doesn’t even notice how every single detail of a grocery store is thoroughly set up for the very reason of maximizing spending. Make no mistake about it – nothing is by accident! As a consumer, it’s important that you are aware of these strategies, so you can keep a clear head while grocery shopping and not be lured into spending more than you need to. Here are some of the most common approaches supermarkets employ to seduce you as a consumer:

  • Meandering Aisles: Years ago, grocery stores were composed strictly of straight rows of aisles with specific categories. Have you noticed that many now have smaller, more broken up aisles and zigzagged displays? This is not an accident. Stores would rather have you meander around casually rather than lapping through long aisles. The purpose is to get you a little “lost” and create the illusion that you’re in a bountiful marketplace to browse through leisurely rather than just running an errand with purpose. The goal? To get you to spend more time in the store, which will ultimately lead to more spending.


  • End Cap Confusion: An endcap is a product display placed at the end of an aisle. Most consumers believe that this the go-to spot for items on sale, but this is not always the case. Items are strategically placed here to get your attention, not because the item has the cheapest price.


  • Appealing smells and sights in the front: Supermarkets deliberately manipulate your senses when you first enter the store. Placing baked goods, delicious smelling rotisserie chicken, and colorful produce towards the entrance of the store activates your salivary glands and makes you more likely to purchase more. Even placing fresh flowers in the front is a marketing strategy that has been shown to put consumers in a good mood, which increases the likelihood that they will purchase more. 


  • Cross promotions: Cross promotion takes place when supermarkets will place like items that pair well together in the same display. For instance, having a refrigerated basket of fresh mozzarella next to tomatoes in the produce section so the consumers will more likely pick up both at the suggestion that they will make a nice caprese salad. While this isn’t an entirely bad idea, it’s something to be mindful of. You’re much more likely to buy that more expensive dip if it’s placed right next to the potato chips rather than all by itself in the dairy aisle.


  • Sales on Multiples: 2 for $3.00 may sound like a great deal on that expensive shave gel your husband prefers – but most sales like this don’t actually require you to purchase two in order to get the discounted price of $1.50 each. It’s a marketing strategy to make you believe the offer is too great to pass up. Note that some sales on multiples do require you to purchase both, but if you’re unsure of the signage, always ask. Remember, you shouldn’t be buying more than you need, otherwise the sale is not economical for you.


  • Premium selection at counters: The butcher, deli, seafood, and bakery selections purchased at their respective counters does not necessarily mean they are any fresher, healthier, or higher quality than the same items located down the aisles. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking assistance from the knowledgeable employees working behind these counters, you can usually pick up packages of the same items they dish out for you elsewhere in the store and there is a bigger variety in price. ​


  • Bulk isn’t always best: I am usually a huge fan of promoting bulk buying, but the largest size of an item isn’t always the cheapest. Grocery stores know how to advertise their bulk and family-size items to make all largest versions of items sound like the best deal so consumers will naturally select them. However, the best deal is actually based on unit price – this is the price per ounce, size, or unit of something. You need to compare the unit price of items to see what size is really the best deal. If the store does not identify unit price, this is where your calculator comes in handy.


  • Remodels and layout changes: Do you ever step into your grocery store one day realizing that they’ve changed the layout around and you suddenly can’t find where anything is? This is completely intentional. Stores undergo many remodels and plan-o-gram changes (diagrams showing where retail items should be placed) to get you to think something is new and different when it’s really not – it’s just been rearranged. Stores know that most shoppers are running in to just grab a few things (see here for more of why that is an economical no-no). 


  • Produce Placement: Stores will almost always place beautiful produce in front because its attractiveness and bright colors puts you in a good mood. Marketers depend on the benefit of this - if you buy lots of healthy produce, it will make you rationalize the other things you put in your cart afterwards. The pay-off for the store? You’re ultimately buying more.​



  • Misleading flyers and circulars: Just like with endcaps, not everything advertised in a store’s weekly flyer is actually on sale. Marketers depend on the fact that the majority of consumers can’t remember the regular price of most items other than milk, bread, and eggs. What may seem like a sale price on a circular is actually just that particular item being advertised. Make sure to double check the regular price versus sale price in store. 


I often think of my shopping experience as sort of a battle between the marketing specialists and my shopping savvy – and I always like to win. We can’t blame supermarkets for trying their best to make you spend money, but it makes it all the more important that as a consumer, you arm yourself with the knowledge of these strategies so you can be sure to ignore them as much as possible. Being an aware, smart shopper will give you more confidence that you can stick to a budget and be more mindful of what you’re spending. Good luck out there! 

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We All Scream for Smoothie Cream!

I’ve mentioned that my son Aidan is a pretty picky eater when it comes to healthy things, but he loves smoothies and shakes, so I try my best to incorporate them into his diet on an almost daily basis so I know he’s getting some fruit! And even though he can slurp one down eagerly, there’s always that little bit of leftover smoothie in the blender that I was never sure what to do with! Aidan and I came up with a fabulous way of saving our leftover smoothie and it has been a hit in this house. We turn it into “Smoothie Cream,” our healthier version of ice cream! It’s simple, delicious, resourceful, and the best part is that we don’t waste one drop of the ingredients we’ve put into our smoothie.

All you have to do is pour the leftover smoothie contents directly from the blender into a freezer-safe container and freeze. When ready to use, take the container out and let it defrost slightly until you can break it up a bit with a spoon and it has the consistency of a very thick shake.

The amount of time it takes to defrost to this point depends on the quantity you’ve frozen. You can speed things up by zapping it in the microwave for 30 seconds or so. And that’s it! You have what we call Smoothie Cream! Call it whatever you’d like, but I guarantee your kids will love it just as much as real ice cream! It’s so refreshing and a great, healthy addition to complete or end a meal.

If you don’t have your own tried and true smoothie recipes of your own, here is our favorite base way to prepare one. You can play around with the ingredients and the possibilities become endless. No matter what kind of smoothie you like to make, I promise your whole family will love Smoothie Cream as much as we do!


Easy Beginner Fruit Smoothie

Serves 2


  • Approx. one cup ice
  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • ½ cup milk
  • One teaspoon vanilla extract (you may omit this if you prefer)
  • Approx. 1-2 tablespoons white sugar (you may use honey, another sugar substitute, or omit completely – it’s your choice!)
  • One cup fresh or frozen fruit of your choice (frozen fruit will enrich the thickness)
  1. Combine all ingredients in blender. Blend until thick and smooth and desired consistency. Pour into glasses and enjoy. Freeze the leftovers for future Smoothie Cream! 

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Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta

There is nothing quite like the sweet juiciness of a perfectly ripe cherry tomato in the summer. Right now, it’s prime time for these little jewels of the garden, and their scent and taste are always nostalgic for me. Growing up, we had a huge garden and my father grew everything he could think of – green beans, zucchini, sunflowers, eggplant, but most important to me – the beautifully bright cherry tomato. His efforts would yield hundreds and it was my job to harvest the red little gems off the vine and bring them into the house. Unfortunately, most never made it very far – I’d pop tomato after tomato into my mouth right then and there standing in the garden, excited to find yet another bright red beauty hiding behind some leaves.

            Despite my love of cooking and utilizing fresh food, I’ve yet to start a garden of my own. I have the perfect spot carved out in my backyard, but I just can’t seem to get it together in time to start the process. One of these days! In the meantime, I continue to have a love affair with cherry tomatoes this time of year and fortunately, I’ve learned to save some for recipes without snacking on them all first (although that’s still my favorite way to eat them)! If you’ve never tried roasting tomatoes before, you need to make my Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta ASAP. Roasting tomatoes changes so much about the vegetable – the process transforms it into something delectably sweet and rich, with a depth of flavor that is intense, concentrated, and unlike anything else! Roasting tomatoes is an absolutely great way to use up tomatoes that might be a little past their prime or a little softer than you’d like. The great thing about roasting vegetables is that it does not discriminate against less than perfect ones – all tomatoes convert equally into the intense flavor that only roasting can bring out. The best part is – it’s super easy to do! It’s an inexpensive, simple summertime dinner that I know you will love. You can also use the more economical grape tomato for this recipe. The combination of sweet garlic and rich roasted tomatoes, all topped with fresh mozzarella pearls is irresistible. Happy roasting!


Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta


  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved (you can also use grape tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 12-16 oz mezzi (small) rigatoni or other small tube pasta
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil or oregano (or dried if you’d like!)
  • Approx. 8 oz fresh mozzarella pearls (ciliegine)
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss tomatoes with about 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper and spread on stoneware or lined baking or roasting sheet. Roast about 20 minutes, flipping halfway through until the tomatoes are softened and mildly charred.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package instructions. Reserve about ½ cup of cooking water. Drain pasta.
  3. Heat remaining olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook a few minutes until fragrant and lightly browned.
  4. Add pasta to the skillet with garlic and oil, and add tomatoes and any scrapings from the roasting pan. Add reserved pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce a bit. Stir in herbs and season with more salt and pepper. Sprinkle a handful of the mozzarella on top. You may also drizzle a bit more olive oil on top if you’d like. Enjoy! 

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DIY Greek Yogurt and Easy Tzatziki!

Greek yogurt is all the rage these days, and with good reason. It fares better than regular yogurt to some degree in terms of lower sugar and sodium content. But both Greek yogurt and regular, low-fat plain yogurt are about equal when it comes to calories. Further, regular yogurt actually has more calcium than Greek yogurt. For most people, I think the appeal of Greek yogurt comes down to consistency – regular yogurt is notorious for being runnier and thin compared to the thick, uber-creaminess of Greek yogurt. Unfortunately, Greek yogurt can also be much more expensive! Want my secret to making your own “Greek” style yogurt for a fraction of the cost? All you have to do is drain your regular yogurt to attain the same rich results! Here’s how to get that wonderful thickness:

  • Several hours before use, line a small bowl with paper towels and drop your regular yogurt on top.
  • Cover, refrigerate, and allow to “drain.” The liquid will saturate the paper towels leaving behind a much thicker yogurt on top! That’s it!

You can utilize this technique for everyday snacking, for making creamier baby and toddler food, enhancing smoothies and shakes, or as an ingredient for my favorite way to use plain yogurt – Tzatziki! There is nothing more refreshing and delicious than a good Tzatziki sauce, and the best part is – it’s super healthy! If you are not familiar with Tzatziki sauce, it is a traditional Greek yogurt and cucumber based condiment served with grilled meats, vegetables, and gyros. It’s also lovely as a dip. It can be bought in pre-packaged containers or fresh in the expensive olive/salad bar, but to make it yourself costs pennies and is SO easy! I like to serve it up with my version of a “deconstructed” gyro – all the flavors of the classic dish but in a slightly healthier adaptation. I pair Tzatziki with grilled chicken or another protein, grilled pita bread, grilled red onion and zucchini, and a crisp Greek salad. Every element is nutritious, inexpensive, and just as appetizing as a plate in a Mediterranean diner! Here’s my personal version of Tzatziki. Happy yogurt-making!

Debra's Easy Tzatziki Sauce


  • One cup fat free or low-fat plain yogurt, drained
  • Approx. ¾ one cucumber, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • One tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • One tbsp fresh dill or oregano
  1. In a food processor (or blender), combine chopped cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and fresh herbs. Pulse until combined and smooth.
  2. Transfer this mixture into a bowl, and add the yogurt. Stir to combine.​


      3. Chill sauce until ready to serve. Enjoy! 


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Established in 2006 in memory of Laila Rose Engh, The Laila Rose Foundation partners with Living Hope Adoptions to provide financial assistance to families adopting foreign born children with medical needs. Laila Rose, the namesake of the charity, and her mother, Lisa, lost their lives tragically in an automobile accident in 2005.