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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.

 

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Practical Pantry

Baby Steps...

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I will admit it – I’m addicted. To paper towels. Being a super frugal homemaker who’s trying to make steps towards creating a greener home, this is a terrible addiction to have! Most people use paper towels probably more than they should, but I use waaayyyy too many, especially for my small family of three. No, seriously - I go through a roll faster than you can imagine. I always have a good supply at the ready, and don’t think twice about ripping off a whole piece for the tiniest task.

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Lately my conscience has been eating away at me for this. Not only does the production of paper towels require a tremendous amount of trees, but discarded towels contribute to a few million tons of trash each year. If I’m going to say I’m serious about reducing waste from human consumption (which I am!), then how can I continue to be so careless with my overabundant use of paper towels? Plus, it’s a pricey addiction. My family pack of paper towels costs $12.99, and I usually buy at least one pack a month. Why not save money while trying to save the environment?


The worst part of my paper towel use has been how we use them as napkins. Three meals a day times three people, plus snacks. Sometimes, I’ll rip a paper towel off the roll to use while having a snack have out of habit, even when my hands don’t need it. It’s been a mindless habit that I decided has got to stop. While I may not be ready to give up paper towels while cooking or cleaning, I recently decided to make the switch over to cloth napkins for our family, and let me tell you – it’s been a wonderful thing!


I invested about $14 and bought a bunch of inexpensive dishtowels. There are plenty of choices out there if you’re making the switch to cloth napkins. There are microfiber towels, washcloths, traditional cloth napkins from the dining section of any store, bar mop towels, or you can buy material and make your own! I have a few friends who do so, but not being a sewer, I figured cheap dishtowels would be the right choice for us. They are the size of a washcloth, but thinner and a bit sturdier.

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Next, I purchased a few inexpensive mesh laundry bags – the kind you’d put lingerie and other delicates in to go right into the wash. I hung one by a hook on the wall of my laundry closet to throw dirty towels into when done. I didn’t want a big pile of dirty cloth napkins accumulating on top of my washing machine or any other inappropriate place, and I realized that in order to make the system successful, we’d need to make the process of laundering them easy. When the bag gets full, I throw them into whatever next load of laundry I’m planning to do. They are so small, adding some into your regular laundry doesn’t affect much.


Finally, I needed an efficient place to store the clean ones. Since my 9-year-old is in charge of setting the table for meals, he needs to be able to access them easily. I hung another small mesh laundry bag inside a lower cabinet door right next to our kitchen table and folded the clean towels neatly inside. Now, whenever Aidan needs to set the table or get a napkin for other uses, he can easily take one.

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The thing with change is that sometimes in life, you don’t realize how important the change was until you’ve already undergone it. That’s how I feel about this recent switch to cloth. It has opened up my eyes to how mindless and careless I’ve been about using paper towels. It’s also inspired me to see what other ways I can make our home a little more environmentally friendly while also saving a few bucks. Sometimes change can seem overwhelming when you view it as all-or-nothing, which is my typical, albeit, negative take on things. But small changes and baby steps still lead in the right direction!

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5 Unusual Ways to Save at the Grocery Store

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There are a million ways to try to curb your grocery bill, and a ton of blogs and articles about how to do so. It can be overwhelming! It seems as though people are always looking for an easy answer or a quick fix on this subject, but, just like losing weight, there are no quick fixes! The key to taming your grocery spending is by way of long-term mindfulness, planning, and commitment to using what you buy. For my detailed advice on how to save more by actually shopping less, click here. For my complete tutorial on how to meal plan, see here. And, if you’re curious how much you should really be spending on groceries, check this out. If you already follow these tips religiously but are looking for more ways you can cut out some expenses, here are a few more out-of-the-box tips I have that can help you be a little more insightful while shopping and hopefully save you a few bucks along the way:

unusual ways 21) Bring a Snack with You: We all know that you shouldn’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach, because the sights and smells of all that delicious stuff will make you crazy and buy more. And, the store knows that about you! For more on how supermarkets trick you into spending, click here. But even if you have already eaten before heading to the store, you still might get hungry during your shopping trip. We all know what “hangry” feels like, but being hungry can seriously blur your ability to think properly at the grocery store and be diligent about sticking to your list. Even with eating breakfast first, I tend to get a little hungry halfway through my shopping trip. All those delicious snacks can find their way into your cart if you’re thinking with your growling stomach and not your sensible head! My strategy? I always throw a granola bar or some nuts into my bag for a “halfway hunger pitstop.” It REALLY helps! I also bring a bottle of water, because we all know that dehydration can feel like hunger sometimes! Always bring a small snack with you (not just for the kids, it’s most important for you!) and while you’re at it, make sure to have chewing gum as well!

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2) Wear Headphones and Put Your Phone Away: As far as the cell phone goes, it’s really easy to get distracted while you’re chatting away. As a mom, I know that being at the grocery store completely alone feels like a vacation (the grocery store seriously is my “happy place”) and you might want to catch up on phone calls, but seriously, don’t do it at the supermarket. You truly need all your wits about you and focus to concentrate on your shopping. Additionally, if you really want to get hardcore, bring a pair of headphones and listen to your own music to drown out the music system in the store. As part of detailed marking strategies, supermarkets only play songs with a certain tempo that makes you more likely to buy stuff. Seriously – this is a real strategy that is employed! Don’t get influenced.

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3) Bring a small notebook and pen: You should already have your shopping list with you as well as a pen to cross items off. But keeping a small pad of paper in your bag is also a great idea that can indeed save you money. You can use it to jot down items you’d normally throw into your cart on impulse. Write down the item as well as the price and/or when the sale date will end, and then you can decide if it’s worth purchasing on your next trip before the sale expires. Sometimes, I see something on sale that I need, but I’d rather wait to see if I will also get a coupon for it the following week. I’ll scribble it down in my notepad so I can remember this when I’m making my shopping list for next time. If you’re anything like me, you might already need to write tons of notes to yourself to remember everything you have to do! It’s also a smart idea to write down items you think your family members might want/need, and then ask them about it later on, rather than just buying them assuming they will be eaten/used. I also like to jot down items I see that might inspire me for future meals but that I’m not ready to buy yet. For instance, if I see that a bag of cole slaw mix is on sale through the next two weeks but it’s not on my menu for the week, I’ll write it down so when I’m meal planning for the following week, I know I have a cheap side dish for dinner one night!

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4) Make Friends with the Butchers: You obviously should be courteous and appreciative to the entire supermarket staff, but of all departments, my recommendation is to be best friends with the butchers and meat people. Many times, if you’re looking for a certain cut or size of meat that is not there, it is just not yet packaged but available in store. Asking nicely for what you’re looking for just might get you to save money as opposed to settling on a more expensive cut of meat that you see instead. Further, sometimes if you ask, the butcher will cut something down for you to the size that you want. That way, you’re not paying for more than what you’ll use. Bottom line: you never know what the meat department can do to accommodate your needs until you ask first.

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5) Check Your Receipt: Once I returned home from shopping only to realize after the fact that the cashier forgot to scan half of my coupons, totaling up to $10 of savings I missed out on just because I didn’t check my receipt while still at the store. I’ve learned to never make that mistake again. It’s very easy for human error and computer and scanning problems to interfere with your hard work of trying to save money. Do yourself a favor and pull to the side after checking out to quickly scan your receipt, making sure everything looks correct. I often find that an item will ring up and charge me twice even if I’ve only purchase one. It happens all the time! It’s a lot easier to walk back to the customer service desk and nicely explain the mistake than go home and kick yourself for not seeing the error until it was too late. The customer service desk is happy to assist you and reimburse you for whatever errors the scanner or register might have caused. And also, don’t have the “ah, it’s not worth it” mentality about correcting the problem. That attitude will never help you realize that big savings is based on small actions.

The more you engage in these little tweaks to your grocery shopping, you just may find yourself saving some money in the long run. Remember – being mindful of meal planning, sticking to a list, and smart shopping while at the store is the long term key to success when it comes to saving money and becoming a savvy shopper. Good luck!

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Scrumptious S’mores Cookies

I have mentioned before that I do not have a sweet tooth, preferring more salty and savory flavors, but I can’t resist a good chocolate treat every now and then! I particularly have become infatuated with dessert recipes that simulate the Americana classic S’more. It seems like S’more-themed treats are everywhere these days, right down to specialty coffee and frappucinos. And who could resist that luscious combination of gooey marshmallow, tart chocolate, and crunchy graham cracker? If you haven’t tried my recipe for a super easy S’more Pie, you have to! It is rich, decadent, classic, and most of all extremely simple to put together. Here is the recipe. I recently tried my hand at combining my S’mores mania with one of my other favorite things – the classic chocolate chip cookie. Well, it turns out to be an amazing marriage!

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The key to making these cookies is to chill the dough for a long time so that you give the marshmallows less of a chance to disintegrate when baking. Otherwise, they’ll kind of just bake out and ooze and you won’t really “see” the gooey whiteness of them coming out. But, then again, there’s nothing wrong with a little hidden marshmallow either, is there? Bottom line, it’s all good! It might take a few attempts to get the marshmallow technique down. I’m still figuring it out myself. But, the experimenting so far sure is delicious! Give them a try!


Scrumptious S’mores Cookies


Ingredients:
• 1 cup butter, room temperature
• 2 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• One cup honey graham crackers, broken into little pieces
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ¾ cup brown sugar
• Approximately one cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
• Approximately one cup mini marshmallows

1. Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth.
2. Add flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and brown sugar and mix until just incorporated.
3. Fold in the graham crackers and chocolate.
4. Place about a tablespoon of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets and make a small, flattened indentation on top of each.
5. Place 4-5 marshmallows on top of indentation. “Cover” them with another 2/3 or so tablespoon of cookie dough. Make sure to completely hide the marshmallow. Repeat until all cookie dough is gone.

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6. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator overnight.
7. Preheat oven to 350.
8. Uncover the cookies and bake for 8 - 9 minutes or until a light golden brown.

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Enjoy!

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The Keep-It-Simple Mix and Match Meal Planner

So meal planning might be something that’s been on your New Year’s Resolution list for several months already. You know that it saves money in the long run, keeps you and your entire household more organized, and is essential for savvy grocery shopping and for keeping busy weeknights sane. But what happens when you sit down with pen and paper to actually go through with it? Are you overwhelmed at the thought of coming up with a week’s worth of recipes and dinners so much that you sit frozen, unable to plan at all? So often in life, when we look at a large task as just that, the sheer size of it all paralyzes us. But menu planning does not have to be like this. If you’ve read about my “Meal Planning 101” tips already, you know that I don’t think it is an arduous task at all once you break up the steps. But actually coming up with dinner ideas needn’t be, either.

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The key is to keep things simple, and stick with what you know. If you love to cook and experiment in the kitchen, you have a lot more wiggle room to plan for new recipes and ideas that get you excited. But if you don’t necessarily love cooking, or if you’re pressed for time on weeknights, don’t try to reinvent the wheel or overachieve! No one is looking! As long as you provide your family with a healthy meal that you’ve planned and shopped for, you’ve already accomplished lots and are on your way towards saving money others would waste on too much take-out food.


If the idea of coming up with lots of varied dinner ideas sounds overwhelming, you need to stick to a basic template from which to rely on while meal planning. Most meals are generally composed of a protein, starch, and at least one (try for more!) vegetables. This is a rather traditional approach to filling your plate, but there are obviously lots of other ways to make a plate of dinner, such as a large salad or a hearty sandwich. Below is a basic catalog of proteins, starches, vegetables, as well as different preparations you can experiment with. All you have to do is mix and match from the lists, and there is dinner! Then, repeat, repeat, repeat until your weekly meal planning is done! Play around with my lists, make your own, or add to them and soon you’ll realize that meal planning is as simple as 1-2-3!

Proteins:
• Grilled or sautéed chicken
• Steak
• Pork chops
• Shrimp
• Salmon, halibut, swordfish
Tofu
• Sausage
• Scallops
• Bacon
• Eggs
Beans
• Pork tenderloin
• Ground meats (beef, mix, turkey)
• Whole roasted chicken or turkey
• Tuna
• Tempeh

Starches and Grains:
• Brown rice
• White rice
• Couscous
Polenta
• Egg noodles
• Pasta
• Baked potatoes
• Roasted potatoes
• Yams or sweet potatoes
• Wild rice
• Quinoa
• Farro
• Lentils
• Breads such as baguette, ciabatta, Italian
• Macaroni and cheese
• Mashed potatoes
• Scalloped potatoes

Veg:
• Salads
• Slaws
• Leafy greens (kale, collard greens, escarole, etc)
• Corn
• Broccoli
• Cauliflower
• Peas
• Spinach
• Peppers
• Mushrooms
• Carrots
• Asian veg (bok choy, Napa cabbage, snow peas)
• Green beans
Tomatoes
• Cucumbers
• Avocados
Beets
Radishes
• Asparagus
• Zucchini and other squashes
• Eggplant

Preparations:

Traditional protein, starch, veg plate
Salads
Slaws
Cold pasta salads
Layered bowls
Wraps and burritos
Kebabs and grilled platters
Sandwiches
Pizzas
Quiches and casseroles
Lasagnas and pasta tosses
Loaves
Dumplings
Stir frys
Chilis and stews
Slow cooker meals
Soups

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Don’t Be Terrified of Tofu!

Though I’ll cook anything, I personally don’t enjoy red meat. In fact, I can actually be a pretty selective eater. As a chicken-only-ivore, it’s important for me to incorporate other sources of protein into my diet. When I was younger, I was terrible at this, relying mostly on pasta to get me through the week! As time has gone on, I’ve become much better at making sure my diet is more comprehensive to include lots of great protein choices besides chicken. Luckily, I love beans, nuts, and other protein-high sources like peas and chia seeds. And....don’t think I’m crazy, but I absolutely, whole-heartedly adore tofu!

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Hear me out! The stereotype is that tofu is gross, tasteless, slimy, and disgusting. But stereotypes are usually not accurate, right? Tofu may only come across that way because its “baseline” looking appearance is begging for manipulation, and if cooked with knowledge and love, it can transform into some of the most delicious flavors you’ve ever had. I’m serious! Tofu is not something to fear, but rather an ingredient that lends itself to lots of creativity. It’s super healthy; a wonderful source of protein and iron, and it’s super affordable!

Tofu can be used in a variety of ways, especially as a meat alternative, but my personal opinion is that it is best in Asian dishes. The flavors of Asian cuisine – garlic, ginger, miso, soy, teriyaki, Sriracha (all my favorite tastes!) – fit tofu like a glove. It can take on these intense ingredients flawlessly and the possibilities are endless when it comes to stir frys and other Asian preparations.

My two secrets for making sure tofu does NOT become a victim to its yucky stereotype are: a) it needs to be pressed in advance to squeeze the wateriness out and b) it should be lightly tossed in cornstarch before cooking on a high temperature. Both techniques (read on to see how to do them) will ensure that the tofu is not mushy or gross at all, but rather firm, crispy, and ready to mingle with all the delicious flavors you introduce!

If you love Asian flavors as much as me, I challenge you to try this recipe and give tofu a chance. You might find yourself making it again and again!

 

Crispy Tofu in Sweet Chili Sauce


Ingredients:
• 1 pkg. extra-firm tofu, drained
• Approx. 5 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
• 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
• 2 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
• 2 teaspoons grated peeled ginger
• 3 garlic cloves, pressed
• 2 cups bok choy, chopped
• 1 cup broccoli, cut into small florets
• 1/2 cup cornstarch
• ½ cup flour
• 2 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
• Toasted sesame seeds, optional
• Sliced green onions, optional

1) Cut tofu into cubes no larger than 1” and lay on top of a paper-towel lined plate. Cover with extra paper towels. Place the heaviest pan you have on top and let the tofu drain for awhile (I do this in the morning and stick it in the fridge). The paper towels should be soaked through.

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2) Combine chili sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic in a bowl, mixing thoroughly.


3) Combine flour and cornstarch. Toss tofu cubes in this mixture, shaking off excess.

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4) Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (I flip over the one that was pressing the tofu and use it!). Add half of oil to pan, then fry tofu on all sides until slightly crispy and browned. Remove tofu and set aside. Add remaining oil and stir fry broccoli and bok choy until crispy-tender. Return tofu to pan; cook 1 minute. Add sauce and toss everything together.

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5) Serve tofu mixture atop jasmine rice and top with sesame seeds and green onions, if desired.

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Enjoy! 

 

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