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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

Healthy Snack Ideas for Busy Moms

As frugal a grocery shopper as I like to be, I admit I still suffer from “my kid doesn’t have enough snacks!” anxiety despite knowing he has plenty. I’m sure I’m not the only one that can go overboard with making sure family members are extremely well-stocked in the snack department. And as for making sure we have enough snacks for road trips and days out at the waterpark or amusement park, my backpack looks like I’m preparing for a natural disaster, though we barely wind up needing half. Seriously, what’s up with that? I think it’s just our nature as parents to nurture and make sure our loved ones are well-fed and taken care of. But here’s the tricky part: during all of this attention to detail, do we sometimes forget about our own snacking and food needs? I love my meals, but when it comes to snacking, I used to never have anything for myself. And, at least in my house, when mama’s hungry, mama’s not happy.

I’ve learned over time that worrying about my in-between meal snacking is essential, and I plan for this while making my grocery list and shopping. Then, I’m cared for as much as my family members. Since health is a top priority, I stock up on nutritious options so I’m not standing in front of the pantry eating Cool Ranch Doritos out of the bag to hold me over until dinner. If this sometimes-inevitable mom struggle sounds familiar, here are my go-to nutritious and effortless snacks. They’ll fill you up while you’re on the go and accommodate your self care and health goals!


pistachiosPistachios are my absolute favorite nut to eat, and I could seriously eat a pound at a time if I didn’t control myself! All nuts provide loads of healthy benefits, including tons of fiber, health-friendly fatty acids which keep your cholesterol levels in check and essential minerals. Nutrition and medical experts recommend having a handful of nuts daily. I love the way nuts fill me up, mostly due to their great combination of fiber and protein. They satiate hunger and hold me over until mealtime. While all nuts are good for you, what I love most about pistachios is they are lower in calories than other types of nuts, yet high in protein. They are also a rich source of potassium and vitamin B6. And simply, they are absolutely delicious and mild enough to snack on with ease!

Hard-Boiled Eggs

hardboiled eggsEggs are a great source of protein and are low in calories. Hard boiled is a fabulous option since you can cook a ton in advance, and they last a long time in the fridge for easy snacking. I boil a bunch of eggs for the week ahead, and then my husband and I gobble them as-is, in salads, or for a quick breakfast before work or the gym. They are an easy addition to the “protein pack” Bento lunch I often prepare for my husband with almonds, grapes, carrot sticks, cheese and granola. Despite what was reported years ago, eggs are actually good for your cholesterol. They provide good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to your diet.

Hummus and Pita Chips

hummusI adore roasted garlic hummus and seasoned pita chips for an afternoon snack. Any type of hummus is an excellent alternative to fattier dairy-based dips and spreads because chick peas (or whichever type of bean your favorite hummus uses) provides tons of fiber and protein. Chick peas are also very high in folate, which is great for expectant moms, and it may have cancer-fighting abilities.

Sweet Potatoes

sweet potatoWho says veggies are only for lunch and dinner? I eat sweet potatoes as snacks regularly—they are my favorite veggie! Fortunately, they are super healthy. High in fiber, potassium and beta carotene, sweet potatoes are super easy to prepare. I poke a few holes in one with a fork and microwave until tender. Since they are low in calories and fat, adding a dollop of butter won’t make you feel too guilty, either!

String Cheese Sticks

string cheeseOK, so these are usually a kid-friendly purchase at the grocery store, but I have my fair share of low-fat string cheese to hold me over between meals too! And I don’t feel guilty about it at all since a little bit of cheese is healthy for those of us consuming dairy products! If you stick with skim-milk-based choices, string cheese is a great source of protein and calcium (which we ladies need to make sure we’re getting enough of as we age), as well as a host of other important vitamins and minerals. It’s also excellent for on-the-go snacking, picnicking, and when you just don’t have time for much else!

Chocolate Milk

chocolate milkA glass of milk with a squirt of chocolate syrup is OK! It’s one of my favorite snacks post-workout, and experts agree milk is a great way to promote recovery after exercise. Not only does milk provide calcium needed for healthy bones, but it’s a great source of protein, which is essential for the muscle growth and repair that occurs after a strenuous workout and strength training. You can reap the nutritional benefits without the calories and fat by sticking with low-fat milk. Personally, I find that this type of protein intake fills me up and keeps me satiated for quite some time, making it an ideal snack!

Remember, when you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s hard to take care of others. If we go too long without eating, the result can be unhealthy binge eating, poor food choices, too much sugar and empty calories and unnecessary money spent. As busy moms, it’s more important than ever to take the time to plan for our own meals and snacks so we are fueled properly to take on the challenges of motherhood and everyday life in a healthy and happy way!

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Bad Day Brownies

The newness of the start of the school year had dissipated. In its place, the predicted crop of small issues that arises once a routine is established and the novelty of something ends.

We expected that fifth grade was going to include a lot more homework. There would still be unbearable classmates, the feeling of inferiority during recess football, debates about how much Fortnite could be played on a school night and the everyday clashing with Mom while trying to establish tween authority and independence. What the 10-year-old boy may have not realized during this phase (will he ever?) is that when he has a bad day, I do too!

It’s hard on us as parents when our children have yucky days; even more grueling when issues last longer and take more time to get resolved. With little ones, we can ease boo-boos with kisses, unwind after a long day snuggling together with a picture book and reassure teething babies in a rocking chair and with a lullaby. But as little ones grow into big kids that suddenly wear deodorant instead of footy jammies, shun our physical affection while heading to the bus stop, and know their problems grow more nuanced, complex, and tricky the bigger they get, it gets harder to help them through things.

Enduring difficult times and having rotten days are a necessary part of growing up, but as a parent, you find yourself starting at square one again—unsure of what approach to take to ease the unfortunate pangs of growing and the loss of innocence along the way. Sometimes, there simply may not be any easy answers, and that realization is part of growing up that we as parents of older children face. When anyone in my household is having a bad day, my instincts always turn to one answer that always works—food!

Listen, we all need to eat healthy and provide nutritional meals to our family. This is a huge priority in my household. But sometimes...sometimes we just need some ooey, gooey rich brownies to embrace us after a long day! After a particularly tricky morning for my son, I returned to the house after saying goodbye at the bus stop thinking only one thing, “I need to make some brownies.” Sometimes when you’re a big kid and you are carrying the weight of growing up without much success, you need a little chocolate, a little indulgence, and a little reminder that there are still people waiting at home for you with some comfort, sugar and unconditional love in the form of a big fat, frosted brownie. Sometimes, that’s what we all need!

Debra’s Bad Day Brownies

• ¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
• 1 cup white granulated sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3 eggs
• ¾ cup + 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
• ¾ cup flour
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup walnuts, chopped
• 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
• 5 Tablespoons cocoa powder
• 2 Tablespoons honey
• ½ teaspooon vanilla extract
• 1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar
• 2-3 Tablespoons milk

Heat oven to 350 F. Grease an 8-by-8-inch pan.

Combine melted butter, sugar and vanilla with a stand mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add eggs, beating after each addition. Add cocoa powder and continue to mix. Add flour, baking powder, and salt, beating well to combine. Fold in walnuts with spatula until well incorporated. Pour into prepared pan and bake about 30 minutes or until done and an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool completely.

To make the frosting, beat together butter, cocoa powder, honey and vanilla until thoroughly blended. Add confectioner’s sugar, then add milk one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency. Spread atop the cooled off brownies, cut into squares and enjoy!

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Make Your Fridge Work for You

refrigerator2The new year is a great fresh start for most of us to get organized and think about ways we can streamline our lives to function more efficiently. I’m not a huge New Year’s Resolution kind of girl; rather, I have found that creating routine cleaning and organization goals for set periods (like writing down on my monthly schedule to dust the blinds and change the air filters) works best for me. For others, a pile-up of disorganized stuff or unattended household projects is a great motivator to get in gear!

Whatever your habits, the refrigerator may be a place on your to-do list of things in the home that may need a bit of a New Year’s makeover. The fridge often becomes a victimized vortex of all your perishable purchases instead of an appliance that should be efficient and useful. And even when we keep it clean, placing items and food in inappropriate spots in the fridge can lead to waste and rot. Ultimately, you want your refrigerator to work for you—a tool that not only keeps things fresh but also aids in your success with meal planning, cooking and saving money.

So let’s get it in good shape! Start by taking every single thing out of your fridge, tossing whatever it super expired and/or disgusting. Wipe down all shelving using warm water and bleach, including all the cracks and crevices where dust, spills and food particles have settled. Once everything is nice and clean, use these guidelines to replace and store your items efficiently to ensure that nothing goes to waste again!

The Door

The fridge door is a few degrees warmer than the interior cabin. It’s also subject to the most temperature instabilities due to how often it’s constantly being open and shut. Therefore, never store your highly perishable items here like eggs, milk or other dairy. Store condiments like salad dressing, marinades, jams, jellies, bottled water and even juices here.

Upper Shelves

The upper portion of your fridge has the most consistent temperature, but it’s warmer than the lower shelving. Therefore, you may still want to avoid putting highly perishables there like milk, other dairy, and uncooked meats. This is a good place for things that won’t spoil, like ready-to-eat food items, beverages, herbs and leftovers.

Lower Shelves

This is the best place for foods that are very susceptible to spoiling and harmful bacteria. You’ll want to keep your raw meats, seafood, eggs and dairy here. Remember to place a “catch” container underneath raw meat packages in case of leaks. Nothing is worse than finding out that raw chicken juice has spilled all over the rest of your items!
Deli/Meat Bin: This drawer exists for a reason—it is often one of the coldest spots in the unit, making it perfect for what it was meant for: deli meats, cheeses and bacon.

Crisper Drawers

It’s important to separate most fruits from veggies, as some fruits emit ethylene, a chemical that may wilt vegetables prematurely. The low-humidity bin is perfect for most fruits like apples, peaches, pears and avocados. The high-humidity drawer is better for your veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. Also, though you should wash your produce before using or eating, it’s important not to do this too soon, as extra moisture can cause these items to wilt and rot prematurely. Save the washing for right before use.

Some Other Guidelines

Besides item placement, it’s important not to overcrowd your fridge so that air flow is efficient. Remember that most shelving can be adjusted height-wise, so you can fit taller items in the appropriate spots even if you don’t think you can.

To be sure you are not wasting what you buy and store, it’s imperative to inventory your fridge regularly, perhaps even twice a day. This isn’t hard! Just take a glance in there every once in a while, making sure you move high-priority items that need to be eaten soon to the front. You can even choose to have a “need to eat soon” bin so that your family knows what needs to be eaten right away, like berries, yogurts, and other soon-to-expire food.

Lastly, when meal planning and making your list for the grocery store, inventory your fridge first! Do you have a half-used jar of hoisin sauce you don’t know what to do with? A bag of shredded red cabbage that still seems OK? Plan your meals around these items to ensure you are not wasting food and money. Your refrigerator should be like a living, breathing instrument in your home, not just a place to store and collect impulse buys. Make it work better and for you today!

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Defending Your Frugality with One Phrase

I’ll be honest—despite my best efforts to have a nonchalant attitude about it, I still get a little bummed when others don’t understand my frugal lifestyle, especially with food and groceries. OK, I’ll be even more honest—sometimes it really bothers me!

For me, it happens when a stranger eyes my coupon binder oddly in the aisles of the grocery store, a family members looking at me like I have five heads when I say we won’t go over a certain price per K-cup when ordering in bulk, or friends teasing me when I track my receipts for each lunch out or a Starbucks run. Let’s face it, it can get a little annoying always feeling like you’re the odd one out and dealing with others’ attitudes about frugality.

Those of us who practice thriftiness should be proud and confident, but I’ll be the first to admit that this can get taxing when you’re constantly dealing with remarks or attitudes that try to make you feel inferior or unusual.

We all have our reasons for penny-pinching whether it’s because circumstances force us to be careful, or we simply chose to be budget-conscious. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. But all frugal-minded individuals can agree that the benefits of being economically savvy far outweigh any teasing we might endure. Not only are we saving our money, but we’re doing less harm to the environment, simplifying our lives, making way for bigger priorities, improving our health and developing a greater sense of gratitude for what we have.

These goals are the cornerstones of why I keep a practical pantry lifestyle for my family, and I’m sure they are for many like me. It may not always be easy for others to understand, but frugal-mindedness and budgeting, especially about meals and groceries, can be life-changing.

So, what is a thrifty girl or guy to do when faced with curiosity or criticism? First, it’s important to remember we owe no one an explanation. We need not justify our lifestyle choices or spending habits at all. And we need not apologize for any of it. That said, if the opportunity presents itself to discuss your household’s way of economizing, don’t make the mistake I used to make of saying, “I can’t afford that.”

Not only is this phrase negative and usually inaccurate, it does nothing to cast frugal choices in a positive light. Looking back, I realize many times when I said this, I could afford whatever was in question. I got used to not spending on money on it and probably convinced myself that I couldn’t afford it.

I learned over time that there is a much better way of tweaking your words to not only be more accurate, but to validate frugality at the same time. It’s simple. When you say, “I choose to spend my money on different things,” it accurately depicts your reasoning and reminds you why you are working so hard. This sentence can become a mantra for when penny-pinching, couponing, or saving up for something can get a little trying. Additionally, it can be a better conversation starter about life goals, what motivates us, and can encourage others to think the same way about how they spend their own money.

How about you? What do you choose to spend your money on when you’re not buying that fast food meal out, or when you’re driving an old car, or meal planning for the week instead of relying on restaurant trips?

As for me, whenever I eat containers of leftovers, save a dollar using a coupon, or pack sandwiches for our trip to the amusement park, I always remind myself of the bigger picture for our family—continuing to live debt-free, increasing the value of our house with proper maintenance and home improvement projects, and selling it for a pretty penny one day so I can live out the rest of my days as an old lady right on the beach and travel elsewhere. That kind of lifestyle is worth every take-out meal I don’t buy and every extra second it takes me to figure out which detergent has the best unit price per gallon.

What are your long-term goals? Can you choose to spend your money on different things now to make those dreams a more realistic future one day? It all starts with the right mindset, and the rest will follow.

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A Hungry Girl in Europe


Many years ago, I crossed the Atlantic alone for the first time to study abroad in Switzerland, something I had always dreamed of doing. Although I instantly fell in love with the country, I had a harder time feeling comfortable around the people and settling into the environment of the tiny, isolated town I was in. I wanted to leave. I was young and naïve, and if I could go back in time, I would have handled myself differently, but alas, that’s retrospect for you.

One morning at dawn, I took off alone lugging my giant suitcase behind me to the train station without telling anyone. I got on the northbound morning train and abandoned my study abroad program, the people I had met, and the money I had paid for the class. (Side note: I might have some issues with being a quitter, but that’s for another time). Even though that may have been a little cowardly of me, I knew I didn’t want to just go home completely but preferred to travel alone for a bit before my return. I headed for the medieval-ancient city of Lucern, and as soon as I got off the train, I instantaneously felt like I had arrived exactly where I was meant to be, even if it took an unintended way to get there.

I went sightseeing, devoured the unique culture of Lucern and ate like I had never eaten before. I was pleasantly surprised by the influences of the surrounding countries on Switzerland’s cuisine. There was hearty pasta, fresh seafood, bright sauces, scrumptiously diverse pizzas. Even now, years later, I can recall every meal with detailed, delicious reminiscence. When I returned to the U.S., I think my scaredy-cat escape from the program blinded some’s appreciation for what I had experienced. I remember my hairdresser disappointedly saying, “Didn’t you meet any men there?”

I hadn’t come back with some exotic European boyfriend, but I did come back with a love story that still lingers actively in my heart. Food connects us with world travel (and also our own self-reflection) so sacredly it is almost indescribable. In Lucern, I would sit alone at an outside café by journaling or reading and devouring gorgeous meals in complete solitude—and it was perfect. Sometimes, when we’re free from the distraction of conversation and being around others, food tastes more delicious, can be better appreciated, and provides savory memories with that much more exactness. Food can be the ultimate companion and a welcomed solace, especially when we’re taking time to get to know ourselves.

A couple of years later, I did wind up meeting a man and a few years after that, I escorted him back across the Atlantic and married him in my beloved town of Lucern. And although we had more than our fair share of amazing Swiss meals there (oh, the cheeses!), my heart still recounts my solo experience there years earlier with warm, mouthwatering, and loving food memories that I’ll never forget.

Debra’s Roasted Garlic, Sun-Dried Tomato and Olive Tagliatelle

TagliatelleThis pasta dish is inspired by one of the first meals I had on my own in Switzerland. I had it while sitting outside in the heart of old town Lucern, and I took my husband back to the same restaurant years later. I recreate the dish for my family every once in a while, and when I do, I feel like it is embracing me with memories of my experience there. It’s my homage to solo travel, for courageousness to dine alone, take a trip alone, and experience life alone without needing someone by my side to do it!

Roasted garlic is the star ingredient taking this to an entirely new level, making it sweet and intensifying its rich flavor. Combining it with gently sautéed olives, savory sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh spinach pasta creates a flavor-bomb of a dish that is unforgettable and unique. Pair this with a grilled baguette topped with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes and curl up to enjoy—whether sharing with loved ones or blissfully and perfectly by yourself, just like the first time I had it! Enjoy!

• 4 tablespoons butter, divided
• 5 cloves garlic, peeled
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• One pound fresh spinach tagliatelle (or other flat pasta such as fettucine)
• ½ cup black olives, sliced
• Approximately ¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil and roughly chopped or sliced
• Salt and pepper, to taste

1) Heat oven to 350 F.
2) Place peeled garlic cloves in a small roasting pan or oven-safe dish and drizzle a tablespoon of oil on them, tossing gently. Place in heated oven and roast approximately 20 minutes, or until lightly browned and sweetly fragrant. When cooled slightly, give cloves a rough chop.
3) Cook tagliatelle according to package directions, seasoning the cooking water with salt. Drain and set aside.
4) Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a sauté pan. Sauté garlic, olives and sun-dried tomatoes about 5 minutes, or until fragrant and softened slightly. Season with salt and pepper.
5) Toss the drained tagliatelle with the olive/garlic mixture, gently tossing until all pasta is coated and loosened. Season with more salt and pepper if necessary. Enjoy!

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