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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

Meal Planning Made Easy!

Last week, I discussed my biggest recommendation for grocery shopping more efficiently and economically – infrequent, major shopping trips. The essential counterpart to successfully doing this is meal planning. This is the heart of spending your grocery money wisely. I cannot stress how crucial it is to make meal planning a priority for organization and frugality. I don’t think anyone would argue with this notion, but when it comes down to actually following through, it may seem too rigid and overwhelming. However, I’ve found that planning for meals saves time in the long run and actually allows you the flexibility to change things around as needed.

Think about a successful restaurant. How could it thrive if not for a planned menu and the inventorying of items to help with ordering and food suppliers? I often think of my kitchen as my own little mini restaurant – it certainly feels like all I do sometimes is make meals and clean up afterwards! I would not be successful at keeping this going day in and day out were it not for having some kind of game plan. If meal planning is something you would like to improve upon but are not sure where to start, I’ve broken it down into basic step by step guidelines. A day or two before you plan on doing your shopping trip, sit down with some scrap paper and jot down the dates that will take you to the next shopping trip in a bulleted format. Then, here are my tips for where to go from there:

Step 1:  Inventory: Scan your freezer, fridge, and pantry areas. Jot down anything that can be used as an ingredient and how much you have. Three tilapia filets in the freezer? One cup of frozen beef stock? Half a red onion wrapped up? That jar of oyster sauce you bought once but never used? A box of couscous? A packet of taco seasoning? These items become the base of what you’re planning your meals around. This will allow you to spend less at the store overall by ensuring that you are maximizing what you already have at home.

Step 2: Take note of the “crazy nights.” Make an asterisk on any dates that are abnormally busy or where your schedule would make it near impossible for you to get dinner on the table. Two soccer games for two different kids at two different start times? Not the best night to try a new chicken marsala recipe! These will be the days where you get convenience food or find an alternative. Although I always endorse saving money and meal planning, I’ve learned that it’s smarter to “schedule” nights like this if need be because it still avoids impulse meals and overspending the rest of the cycle. However, if your typical schedule has LOTS of crazy evenings, think about ways you can avoid spending money and still incorporate your meal plan into these days. Breakfast for dinner before you leave for T-ball? Pre-making wraps and sandwiches to bring with you on the go?  During times when my son’s extracurricular activity schedule gets intense, I try not to overachieve in my meal planning, and I make sure to schedule a few “do your own thing” nights, which is basically when everyone needs to fend for themselves for dinner! It’s also pretty easy to schedule leftovers. If you have to leave for basketball practice at 6 on Thursday, make baked ziti on Wednesday so everyone can heat up a plate of leftovers the next day. Also, make sure you’ve taken a minute to consult with your spouse and/or any other members of the family about their schedule and/or preferences that week.

Step 3: Plan for the slightly-less-hectic nights: Does your daughter have a 4:30 dentist appointment on Wednesday and you know by the time you get home, it’ll be a little too late to start dinner? That’s a perfect night to use the slow cooker in the morning. Do you have plans to take the kids to a waterpark on Friday? It’ll only take a few minutes to prepare grilled cheese and tomato soup that night when you’re feeling wiped out! Do you have an errand to run after work on a night your husband will be home on time? Perhaps he can throw a steak on the grill while you commute home. Anticipating the realistic scenario each night you’re planning for is one of the most important elements to meal planning. Of course unexpected things come up and schedules change, but being prepared for everything is crucial.Step 4: Plan for the rest of the dates: Look at how many more dates you have to plan for and, looking back at your list of inventoried items, brainstorm about what meals you can make with them. Not sure where to start? has a great feature where you can search for recipes by ingredient. Once you have ensured you are using up the majority of what’s already in the house, think about what else you’d like to have. Scour your cookbooks. Just googling “easy weeknight meals” should supply you with endless ideas. The library is also a wonderful resource for cookbooks.

Step 5: Match your meals to your schedule: Now you’re going to “match up” the meals you’ve come up with into the dates you jotted down. Place meals that require more perishable ingredients in the beginning. Meals that use less perishable items can be made less of a priority to cook right away. Fresh spinach side dish? That should be cooked on your first night! Homemade pizza with jarred sauce – no rush on that. This will ensure that less goes to waste. This step gets easier as time goes on but it’s the most important step! Again, if you want to stop and get more highly-perishable produce midway through your cycle, that's OK as long as you plan for it.

Step 6: Make your grocery list based on your meal plan: Review your written meal plan, and write your grocery list based on the recipes that each meal requires. You should be buying just what you need for that recipe. Buying an enormous bag of carrots might seem like a better idea than buying just four, but if you don’t have a plan for them, you risk wasting them. There are a few exceptions to this, but overall, keep it’s good to keep in mind.

Step 7: Think about lunches, breakfast, and snacks, too! Sometimes while spending time meal planning all these great dinners, I forget that I also need to eat lunch and snacks too! What do the kids need to get them through your meal cycle? What are you realistically going to want to pack for lunch for yourself? What healthy snacks and other goodies would be good to shop for? I have found that if I don’t actually plan at least one dessert-type “naughty” thing in my meal cycle, it may lead to me begging my husband to go out and get some emergency ice cream! So I will make sure to add my special chocolate chip cookies or brownies into my meal planning!

Step 8: Don’t forget non-grocery items: Inventory your health and beauty items, as well as your paper goods supply. Do you really need more toothpaste, or do you have enough to last the cycle? Buy only what you really need for that period. Again, there are a few exceptions to this. Sometimes, for example, if I match a coupon to a sale, I can get some items for free, so I may stock up a bit, but in general, stockpiling is not necessary unless you happen to be competing in an extreme couponing event!

Step 9: Prepare for shopping success: Pull any coupons you will definitely use, as well as any that might expire before the next trip in case they are worth using. Make sure to have a calculator with you, and have your list ready and clear. If you will be shopping with children, prep anything you need for them (snacks, games, books to read) in advance so you are prepared. Bring a snack and drink for yourself as well to curb any hunger that may pop up during your trip. Remember your reusable shopping bags. Finally, share your meal plan with the rest of your family to encourage everyone to be excited about organization and efficiency. Let them look forward to the meals ahead – it will help everyone to stay on task and avoid impulse food purchases.

Meal planning is just that – a plan. Family members get sick, schedules change, and sometimes –you just don’t feel like cooking! The beauty of a meal plan is that you are in control. If you’ve just had too hard of a day, you can “carry over” the meal that was scheduled into the next day – just make sure to use that defrosted meat you’ve already thawed before it’s too late. If you want to ditch your plan one night and try a new restaurant when the kids are sleeping over Grandma’s – go for it. A meal plan is an integral part of your practical pantry, but it can also be flexible. So go get started and good luck! 

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Save More by Shopping Less!


I'll admit it - I love grocery shopping. However, I totally understand why most people may not feel the same way.  It's time-consuming, it’s hard to do with kids, and no matter how many times you go shopping, you always seem to find yourself headed back to the store to pick up a few more things.  Whether we like it or not, we all have to grocery shop, prepare food, and eat, so we might as well attempt to make the best of it in order to be as expeditious as possible. Over the years, I’ve developed a strategy that has made these duties less arduous, more efficient, and most importantly, has saved us a lot of money.  And the strategy is very simple -- shop less often!  It takes some committment and developing a solid meal plan, but if you feel like you spend too much time and too much money at the store, you may want to consider experimenting with this concept.

 I refer to my meal planning and grocery shopping routine as a “cycle.” I have a “two week cycle” in that I only grocery shop twice a month. Two trips, plus a stop for more fresh milk, and that’s it. The main purpose of infrequent shopping is to use up and eat as much as you possibly can during the cycle to maximize utilization, which hence saves money. The concept is very simple: meal plan for the entire cycle, complete a large shopping trip and stock up on everything that is needed during that time, and finally, commit to avoid more food shopping by “purging” what is in the house during the cycle, using up everything until the cupboard is bare. Literally - you are aiming to have an near-empty fridge at the end of the cycle!

   (it's a great feeling to know that all perishable items have been used up when it's time to shop again)

 Doing larger, less frequent shopping trips is admittedly not for everyone and can seem unrealistic at first, but it has so many benefits, and can be tweaked and customized for each family’s needs. Here's why I love it so much:

  • It saves money. We tracked our spending over the course of several months, and we saved about $50 a month shopping every two weeks as opposed to every week. You are literally reducing the “oh I need that,” and the “oh we’re almost out of that” moments in half, which adds up to a smaller grocery bill overall. It forces you to use what you have!
  • It is time efficient. There’s nothing I love more than saving money – except for saving my time. Making lots of shopping trips means more time driving, parking, toting kids, getting carts, crossing things off lists, wrangling kids, dealing with tantrums in aisles, waiting at checkout, bagging, unpacking groceries, and more. By doing larger shopping trips, you are consolidating all of this.
  • It helps to avoid food waste. When you’ve made a commitment to shopping less frequently, it means you’re committing to actually using what you bought. If you run out of bread with two days left until your next trip – it forces you to get creative and put tuna on that last tortilla in the fridge, see what else works, or simply go without. The more you operate like this, the more you’ll avoid wasting odds and ends of food items, which adds up to a lot of savings in the end.
  • It helps you plan better. When you meal plan and shop less, you begin to recognize your family’s eating habits a whole lot more, and over time, this makes the entire process easier and organized. I promise! You’ll be able to see patterns and predict when you typically run out of certain items, and you start to adjust quantities more appropriately.

There may be a list of objections and questions running through your head, but this way of shopping is very feasible. If you're concerned about fresh produce, you'll learn to develop a sense of what stays fresh longer, and plan your meals according to these “perishable priorities.” And lots of produce lasts longer than you think. If you fear that your hungry family wouldn't like this, I assure you they will not starve. I truly believe that one of the main reasons people spend too much at the grocery store is out of worry that they will run out of items. After doing this for so many years, I can tell you this: you will not run out of things if you plan accordingly. You have to see how long you can go without buying a replacement of something to truly understand how long it WILL last, and overall, this will extend the money you spend on it.

Infrequent shopping doesn’t mean you can’t step foot into the grocery store until your next major shopping day. If you need to stop at the store mid-cycle and get more cold cuts and fresh raspberries, go ahead - but don't get anything else! This can take some discipline, but the commitment works. For some, meal planning for a long span of time sounds like too much work. But for me, it's all about consolidating time in order to be more efficient. You're swapping out lots of little moments of preparation for one larger session. And then it's totally done until next time! 

(I'm fully stocked and don't have to think about any shopping for the next two weeks)

All this may sound  overwhelming, but the first and most important step in making this a success is committing to meal planning. Next time, I'll be sharing some of my tips on that topic. But for now, take note of how often you buy groceries or stop at the store for items and see if it seems like too much. Perhaps shopping less is the answer! You never know until you try! 

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Fun with Frozen Bananas!

Sometimes you think you're doing everything right when it comes to food, and you still find yourself with a picky eater. My 8 year old, Aidan, is a perfect example of this. I experimented with every piece of advice under the sun to develop good eating habits and widen his horizons when it comes to food. I pureed all his baby food from fresh fruits and vegetables and decorated his toddler plates with cute animals and designs made out of carefully carved grapes and cheeses. We’ve modeled proper eating habits, provided him with opportunities to shop and cook with us, read books on the matter, given vegetables “superhero” names, withheld dessert, practiced apathy and reverse psychology – you name it! And yet, the child will still take 60 minutes to carefully dissect his plate of dinner to make sure not one grain of rice or vegetable will enter his mouth!

Over time, I’ve tried to make peace with Aidan’s stubbornness when it comes to food, and instead, focus on the positive and be grateful for the items he does eat. One fruit that Aidan will ingest without drama is the versatile banana. I’ve learned that the best way to get the nutrients from this great fruit in him is by way of the frozen banana – it lends itself to so many fun recipes and can make eating something healthy taste like dessert – the best way to trick my picky boy! Freezing our bananas has been a great way to utilize them and avoid wasting this highly perishable fruit. Besides eating a ton of fresh bananas when they are ripe, I like to throw a bunch of firm, peeled bananas into the freezer in a Ziploc bag right away to use for later. Freezing them when still firm and not over ripe will ensure that they will not get icky in the freezing process (I’ve found that when I wait too long, they darken and get mushy in the freezer no matter what). Here are two of my favorite kid-friendly ways to use up frozen bananas and they could not be simpler! I hope you enjoy!


Monkey Smoothie

Aidan goes bananas for this simple way of using bananas! It takes two seconds to make, is a satisfying snack for little ones, and the frozen banana gives this shake the exact consistency of a Frosty! Aidan loves coming home from school and asking me to whip up a Monkey Smoothie!


Makes approx. one 8-oz serving, adjust amounts for more servings

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1-2 tablespoons chocolate syrup, more or less depending on personal preference
  • One whole frozen banana


  1. Place all ingredients into a blender, and process until smooth and yet still thick. Enjoy!


Banana Pops

My mother used to make these for me as a child. It’s a fast, easy way of getting your fruits in at dessert time and you can custom-make each pop with an array of “toppings.” If you’re using up frozen bananas with this recipe, be sure to insert the wooden craft sticks in the fresh bananas first.



8 servings

  • 4 ripe but firm bananas
  • 8 wooden craft sticks
  • Approx. 6 oz semi-sweet chocolate morsels
  • 2-3 tablespoons each of your favorite items to decorate the pops with: coconut flakes, granola, sprinkles, crushed nuts, crushed candy pieces, etc.
  1. Cut each peeled banana crosswise and insert a craft stick into each half. Place on tray lined with wax or parchment paper and place in freezer until frozen, about 3-4 hours.
  2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler, stirring constantly and being careful not to burn until smooth and completely melted. Roll the frozen banana in the melted chocolate, covering almost completely or to your own preference.
  3. Immediately sprinkle your toppings over the chocolate portions so it sticks, and place on a tray covered with new wax paper. Cover with plastic wrap and place in freezer until chocolate hardens. If not serving immediately, cover in airtight container and keep in freezer until ready to enjoy! 


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Move Over, Taco Night!

     “Fast casual” dining chains are popping up all over the country, and with good reason. For those who need quick meals on the go, healthier-sounding fast casual restaurants seem like a great alternative to traditional hamburger-and-fries fast food places, especially with all the customization that can be done. It can give patrons a sense of control over what they are eating and in that way, things don’t seem that unhealthy. Even my household will indulge at a particular fast casual chain if we happen to get a “buy one get one free” coupon in the mail. But a recent study points out that these popular establishments may be serving up higher calorie meals than their fast food counterparts. Beyond that, whenever I do indulge and use my BOGO coupon, I look down at my burrito or rice bowl and am instantly struck with regret, thinking – “I can make this myself for ¼ the price!” So I started to.

            Trying to replicate restaurant or takeout meals is one of my favorite things to do, because it becomes the most rewarding DIY project, as you control not only the ingredients but the cost. Rice Bowl nights are a perfect example of this. This kind of easy meal demonstrates that getting dinner on the table can be much more about assembly rather than complicated cooking technique. All you have to do is prep a few components, spread everything out, and let everyone build their own bowls. Brown Rice Bowl night has become one of my family’s favorite go-to dinners. Here’s why:

  • It’s more "assembly" than cooking
  • It is a healthier version of “taco night” but still fun
  • It is interactive and allows for customization
  • The majority of items can be prepped ahead of time
  • It is a complete, well-rounded meal chock full of nutrients and unprocessed components
  • It makes for great leftovers! (especially in a tortilla)
  • It tastes just as good as the fast-casual versions for a fraction of the cost


    In my version of DIY Brown Rice bowls, the super healthy grain becomes the foundation, but for me, the star is the sweet deliciousness of the sautéed onions and peppers, which pair so well in contrast to the cool relief of the sour cream and the kick of the pepperjack cheese. The combination of textures, varying temperatures of ingredients, and flavor profiles are so irresistible, you don’t even realize how healthy it is! Brown Rice Bowl night could not be easier, and assembling it in the comfort of your own home rather than schlepping out to a fast-casual chain to pay for an overpriced version wins me over every time! Here’s how we build our bowls. What alternatives can you try? The combinations are endless!

Cooked brown rice + grilled chicken or steak strips + sautéed onions and green pepper + black beans + sliced avocados + sour cream + sliced green onions + shredded pepperjack cheese + sliced jalapeno 

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Easy Cheesy Veggie Pockets

    Hi! My name is Debra and though I have been working part time with FredParent for awhile, my first and true love is being a mom to my 8-year-old son Aidan and being the proud homemaker and CEO of our household. I am passionate (perhaps a little obsessed) about both home cooking and living frugally, and how these two things are so connected in creating an economically sustainable lifestyle, whether surviving on one salary, two, or anywhere in between! Utilization of what is bought at the grocery store and preventing food waste is so important to me, and over my years of homemaking, I’ve cultivated a style of meal planning and grocery shopping around both this philosophy and the idea that getting meals on the table is not as overwhelming as it may seem at first!

Meal planning and cooking have become second nature to me, but I do observe a lot of other households wishing they didn’t have to do these things, or dishing out a lot of money for convenience food all too often. In my new blog, I hope to share with you my tips and tricks for meal planning, using ingredients efficiently and frugally, grocery shopping smartly, and organizing your kitchen for optimal success. I also hope to inspire with some of my favorite go-to recipes and the stories behind why they have become family favorites in my home. Each post will be a little different! One thing I’ve learned over time is that, like anything, there is no one, easy answer to being successful with cooking and/or feeding your family frugally. Rather, it is a bunch of smaller skill sets strung together, based on very simple, minor tweaks that add up over time. I look forward to sharing some of these with you!

    Before I say good-bye for now, I’d love to share one of my favorite “go-to” weekday recipes. My definition of a go-to meal is something easy enough to accomplish on a busy day, isn’t super intimidating in both ingredient list and preparation, is satisfyingly frugal, and has a certain amount of versatility that you can play around with to your liking. Every time I discover another successful “go-to” recipe, it becomes a resource in my repertoire that I can always rely on in the future. That’s the thing about home cooking – it has to be comforting and reliable in order to be sustainable in the long run. Below, I’ve shared my basic recipe for Easy Cheesy Veggie Pockets, which are not only easy, but can be changed up so many ways. Most importantly, they can be made ahead of time, as well as frozen, and seem to get even better as leftovers! These types of pockets or calzones are so versatile and are a great vehicle for getting in a well-rounded meal. If your kids are anything like my son, they may hate broccoli as much as getting a shot at the doctor (in fact, I think Aidan would actually chose a shot over a bowl of broccoli), but the veggie becomes hard to resist surrounded by melted cheese, flavorful garlic, warm pizza dough, and dipping sauce. We can’t force our children to like veggies, but we can present them in appealing ways and hope for the best. The beauty of these calzone pockets is that you can change them up however you’d like!

Easy Cheesy Veggie Pockets


  • one tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • one head of broccoli, cut into small florets
  • one red bell pepper, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 package fresh or frozen pizza dough, brought to room temperature
  • marinara or your favorite tomato sauce, for dipping


  1. Preheat oven to 415 degrees.
  2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Press garlic, sauté for just a minute to release flavor without burning. Add red pepper and broccoli florets and continue to sauté until vegetables are crisp-tender. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. 

  3. Once cooled, add cheeses, salt and pepper, and mix well. You can do this right in the skillet, or in a mixing bowl – your choice. The cheeses will begin to melt, that is OK.
  4. On a lightly floured surface, divide dough into 6-8 mini pieces and roll out each piece to form an oval (you can make your calzones as big or as small as you’d like).

  5. Spoon an equal amount of your broccoli mixture in the center of each oval of dough, leaving a bit more space at the top to fold over.

  6. Fold the dough over the filling to form a half-moon shaped calzone. Press the edges down with the back of a fork to seal closed, and prick a few holes on the top to release steam while cooking.
  7. Place pockets onto a pizza stone or prepared baking sheets. Bake about 25 minutes, or until golden (let your senses guide you!).
  8. Let cool slightly, cut in half to cool further, and serve with warmed dipping sauce.


Variations to Try:

(follow the basic recipe, swapping out the fillings for whatever you’d like)

Sausage and Pepper Pockets (sliced or crumbled cooked sweet Italian sausage, sliced peppers, provolone cheese)

Cheeseburger Pockets (browned ground beef, American cheese, diced onions)

“Garden” Pockets (artichoke hearts, mushrooms, fontina cheese)

What other variations can you think of? The possibilities are endless!

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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.