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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

No-Fuss BBQ Classics

I once had a family member who was a good cook, but always tried too hard to make each side dish and course as elaborate as the entrée when hosting a holiday or having company. Often it seemed to just end in stress and failed recipes. This person never seemed to get out of that cycle of trying too hard to impress her guests, then ultimately failing anyway by taking too much on. I learned early from these experiences that when cooking for others and entertaining, simple is best! Hosting a holiday or party is not the time to try out fancy new recipes or complicated techniques. The majority of the time, your guests aren’t looking to be impressed by your culinary skills. Everyone just wants to feel comfortable and have a good time.

The general guideline I follow when it comes to hosting a meal for others is to let one dish shine, then keep it super simple with everything else. The way to make your guests feel at ease and relaxed is to provide enough recognizable and down-to-earth food. And the key to making everything delicious is often to concentrate on doing basic items correctly and avoid complicating things! When it’s summertime, having a backyard barbecue is the perfect way to not only get together with family and friends, but also to showcase this “keep it simple” concept. That said, you can still go beyond hamburgers and hot dogs and use the setting as an opportunity to try out some no-fail and no-fuss cookout classics.

My Easy BBQ Chicken is simple to make and hits all the right notes of sweet and savory grilled goodness. It can be the star of the show. Homemade cornbread is much easier to make than you might think and is a great accompaniment to the chicken. And finally, my sweet cole slaw is notoriously loved by everyone, but it’s seriously one of the easiest things I make. I’m revealing my recipes, but more important, the not-so-surprising secret that great home cooking is about simplicity and focusing on the classics. I hope you enjoy these dishes as much as I do!

Easy BBQ Chicken

Serves 4

• 2 teaspoons olive oil
• 1 shallot, minced
• ½ cup ketchup
• 2 tablespoons water
• 2 tablespoons honey
• 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 4 bone-in chicken leg-thigh quarters, skinned

1) Heat grill to medium high heat.
2) Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and sauté one minute. Stir in ketchup, water, honey and vinegar. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
3) Sprinkle garlic powder over chicken and lightly salt and pepper. Place chicken on grill lightly coated with cooking spray and grill until done, approximately 15 minutes on each side.
4) Baste generously with sauce, grill one more minute, and then turn over and baste again, and grill over side for 1 minute.

Debra’s To-Die-For Coleslaw

Serves 4

• 1 (16 oz) bag coleslaw mix
• 1 small onion, diced
• 2/3 cup light mayonnaise
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1/3 cup white sugar
• 1 tablespoon white vinegar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon poppy seeds

1) Combine mayonnaise, oil, sugar, vinegar, salt and poppy seeds in large mixing bowl, whisking until thoroughly combined and sugar is dissolved. Add coleslaw mix and onion, and toss gently to combine.

Super Simple Homemade Cornbread:

Serves 6

• 1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal
• 1 cup flour
• ¼ cup sugar
• 3 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• ¼ cup vegetable oil

1) Heat oven 425 F.
2) In a mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and whisk thoroughly. Add milk, egg and oil. Whisk until blended.
3) Pour into 8x8 greased pan. Bake about 25 minutes or until golden brown.

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The Split Table: How to Cook for Both the Vegetarians and Meat Eaters in Your Family

A few months ago, my husband announced he was going vegetarian. As the main meal planner, grocery shopper and cook of the house, I got nervous! Even though we’ve never been huge carnivores (I don’t eat red meat), I’ve based our family meals around classics and favorites I’ve cooked for years, which includes lots of chicken, fish and occasional red meat—for him. Although we already eat a lot of plant-based, meatless dinners, I was initially overwhelmed at the thought of coming up with a protein alternative every night. And, ironically, I used to be full vegetarian many years ago (I went back to chicken and fish and was not ready to give them up).

How much more complicated would it be to menu plan for separate dietary needs? What if I wanted to plan for chicken parmesan one night and couldn’t think of what else my husband could eat?

As it turns out, I’ve come to find that meal planning and cooking with a vegetarian in the house while there are still some meat-eaters is not hard! As a lover of food and all things culinary, I’m more inspired than ever to discover different dishes, flavors and ingredients. It’s no more expensive, and it’s encouraged all of us to eat even more plant-based meals. There is a more thought involved when I’m initially meal planning and preparing my shopping list, but this pays off in the long run and provides the blueprint for our eating and food habits to be successful for the week. So whether you’re trying to accommodate vegetarian eaters in the household, or simply looking for ways to transition your family to a more plant-based diet, here are my tips to alleviate any thoughts of feeling overwhelmed by the task:

Approach It with the Right Attitude

Be supportive of those in the house that are going meatless and don’t harbor resentment about how it might make things more tricky for you. Be inspired and focus on taking on the challenge with excitement and energy.

Take It Slow

My first instinct was to research and buy every fancy “fake meat” product in the store and figure out the tastiest ways to use it right away. Don’t worry about that—start small. Experiment with one or two veggie or meat substitute products and master a few recipes and techniques before moving on. Pace your grand ideas and remember: not everything has to be gourmet cuisine.

Meet in the Middle with Meat and Veggie-Friendly Meals

Keep in mind that many dishes can accommodate both a meat component as well as meatless proteins. For instance, you can do Taco Tuesday but be sure to have beans for your vegetarian. I love doing tons of “make your own” type meals such as burritos, grain bowls and wraps where you can provide a bunch of different ingredients and components from which everyone can build their own plates.

Embrace Global Cuisines

There’s a whole world out there filled with herbivores who have mastered delicious food! Take time to research and explore different cuisines and you’ll find a wealth of ideas for vegetarian meals. For instance, you can make a Mexican bean and rice casserole one night, a tasty Indian vegetable curry the next, and a Chinese tofu stir-fry the next. So many international cuisines rely heavily on spices, herbs and other flavor enhancers that make anything absolutely delectable!

Separate Proteins to Add Later

You can still make the base of your favorite casserole or one-pot meal and simply add the different proteins later on to accommodate for different eaters. For instance, I made a chicken and white bean chili, but I cooked the chicken separately. After plating my husband’s chili with extra white beans, I combined the chili with my portion of chicken, and it was a win for everyone. Don’t forget you can also go “halfsies” on certain items. For example, if you’re making lasagna, you can add crumbled Italian sausage to just half and keep the rest meatless.

Load Up on Resources

The library is your friend! So are bookstores, food magazines, Pinterest and the huge wide world of online recipes and meal ideas. Commit to spending a bit of time leafing through some vegetarian cookbooks at the library or bookstore and jot down ideas. Google ingredients and play around with what you can discover and incorporate into your own meal planning!

online recipes

Keep it Simple

Don’t forget that you might already be eating more meatless than you think. Some simple dinner ideas that everyone loves and don’t take much thought at all include grilled cheese and tomato soup, macaroni and cheese, different types of salads, and pasta with a simple sauce. It’s super easy to whip up homemade pizzas that you can customize with both meat and veggie toppings for everyone. Another favorite in my household is bean tostadas–just spread some refried beans on tostadas shells, melt some cheese and load up on other easy toppings like pico de gallo and sour cream. So simple and yummy!

Plan Ahead, Plan Ahead, Plan Ahead

Repeat after me–meal planning is essential! This goes for whatever types of diet you eat, but it’s especially important when making accommodations for vegetarians. It’s crucial to not only plan dinners in advance, but to also spend a little time thinking about what your vegetarian would have available for lunches, breakfasts and snacks. I wasn’t great at this in the beginning of my husband’s journey, but I’ve learned it’s important to plan ahead for meatless meals he can easily bring to work or on the go. Some great ideas for your busy vegetarian’s lunches include healthy frozen rice, bean, and cheese burritos; protein pack Bento lunches with eggs; fruit and nuts; egg salad; veggie and hummus sandwiches; and quinoa/roasted veggies bowls. And of course, don’t forget about good old peanut butter sandwiches!

Remember that no matter what your family’s dietary needs may be, it’s important to not get yourself stuck in the trap of becoming a short order cook. Your family members—vegetarian or not—have to respect what you’ve chosen to plan for and cook, and it’s imperative to include everyone in the planning to some degree so that gratitude and teamwork can be maintained. Making meals that work for both meat eaters and vegetarians is not only doable, but also a fun challenge that can open up a lot of new possibilities. Good luck!

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Easy Mix and Match Lunch Bowls!

Though it feels like I might literally live in the kitchen sometimes, I still dislike the trendy term “meal prepping” regarding cooking. I feel like it might intimidate folks about how much time it takes to whip together some healthy and yummy meals, especially for weekday lunches.

Meal prepping for the entire week ahead is all the rage these days, but I don’t think it always has to be that ambitious or extreme. That said, a little thought about what you might like for lunch in the days ahead goes a long way. I’ve found that lunch is the meal that often gets forgotten about the most, even for the most vigilant meal planner. In the past, I’d take the time to diligently menu plan for each dinner and remember all the snacks, breakfast items, and school treats to add to the grocery list, but I’d always forget that I needed to eat lunch every day myself! These days, I’ve learned to incorporate weekday lunch ideas when I sit down to menu plan, and it’s been a fool-proof way to guarantee I am not standing in front of the open fridge wondering why there’s nothing for me to eat. Having a battle plan for lunches keep things interesting, eliminates the monotony of that same ol’ sandwich, and ensures that you aren’t reaching for unhealthier impulse buys at the drive through. And it is much more economical to plan!

If a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is your typical preferred lunch scene, that’s fine! But nothing beats a comprehensive lunch bowl because it is so healthy and well-balanced. So, what is a lunch bowl? It’s kind of a loose term describing a mishmash of components that hit lots of healthy and nutritional notes. Ideally, there is a grain, veggies, protein, perhaps a sauce or dip, a garnish, and lots of texture and contrasting flavors. Does that sound overwhelming? Please don’t be scared – healthy grain-based bowls are easy to prepare and usually involve minimal cooking technique. Best of all, the components you plan to use can be prepped ahead of time and you can make enough to enjoy a few days in a row (or to share between family members).

So how do you build a tasty lunch bowl? All you have to do is make and keep a handy list of your favorite components and mix and match as you like to create endless possibilities. Here is a quick list to get you started!


• Brown rice
• Couscous
• Quinoa
• Jasmine or basmati rice
• Farro
• Barley
• Wild rice
• Soba noodles



• Avocado
• Carrot
• Cucumber
• Leafy greens (kale, fresh spinach)
• Sweet potatoes
• Beets
• Edamame
• Radishes


• Hard boiled eggs
• Grilled or rotisserie chicken
• Tuna
• Tofu or tempeh
• Shrimp or salmon
• Chick peas, black beans or other beans

sauces in spoonsSauces and Drizzles

• Greek yogurt
• Tahini or soy sauce
• Your favorite vinaigrette
• Sriracha or sweet chili sauce
• Green Goddess dressing
• Light mayo or extra virgin olive oil


• Toasted sesame seeds
• Chia seeds
• Sliced almonds
• Chopped scallions
• Crumbled feta or bleu cheese

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Grilled Salmon Tacos with Spicy Mayo

When the weather takes a turn for the better and spring has sprung, I can feel my mood lifting! Even better, I can feel my stomach growling because it means it’s finally time to start eating outside again! Dining al fresco is one of my favorite things to do, especially when our backyard grill is involved. Some people may think barbecuing is a seasonal affair, but we use our grill year-round to help create healthy and delicious grilled components to our meals. In fact, I’d say we grill items at least four times a week, which can get very interesting in the snow and 30 degree temperatures!

Whether you fire up the grill year-round like us or prefer to use it only during the warm months, it’s important to remember that the grill isn’t just for more indulgent meals like hamburgers and hot dogs. Most of the healthier meals we prepare for dinner are grill based. It’s amazing how much flavor and deliciousness come from throwing veggies and proteins on the grill. One of my favorite types of meals to prepare is a make-your-own burrito, taco or fajita night where many of the components are fresh off the grill. These grilled salmon and veggie tacos are a perfect illustration of how dynamic and complex flavors can be achieved by grilling. It’s like dressing up a basic taco night to the extreme!

Here, grilled veggies are really the star. Grilling greens develops a rich and deep taste, transforming ordinary produce into something totally crave-worthy. Salmon is a superstar lean protein chock-full of good-for-you nutrients, and its hearty texture makes it stand up well to grilling. Even the tortillas get in on the grilling fun and benefit from a bit of yummy charring. And when you pair these rich and flavorful fixings together with the cooling, contrasting relief of spicy mayo, it’s perfection and a lovely meal to enjoy right on the patio!

Grilled Salmon Tacos with Spicy Mayo

Serves 4


4 salmon filets
Juice of one lime
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ pound tomatillos; husked, rinsed, and halved
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
8 small flour tortillas
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Sriracha or hot sauce of your choice
One avocado, diced into small cubes
2 plum tomatoes, diced
¼ cup Cotija cheese, crumbled


  1. Heat grill to medium-high.
  2. Mix two tablespoons oil with lime juice, salt and pepper. Pour over salmon, turning to coat. Place salmon on grill grates and grill approximately 4-5 minutes on each side until flaky. Remove and chop into small chunks.
  3. In a large bowl, toss the tomatillos and scallions with remaining oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill until tender and nicely charred, 8 to 10 minutes; transfer to a cutting board and roughly chop into smaller pieces.
  4. Grill the tortillas until slightly charred; 1 to 2 minutes per side.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise and Sriracha or hot sauce.
  6. To serve, line the tortillas with salmon, tomatillos, scallions, avocado and tomatoes. Spoon mayo on top, then sprinkle with Cotija. Enjoy!
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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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