It’s nearly that time for us. Back to school! Your kids may have already gone, back but for us, the kids go back to school right after Labor Day. Not only do we have a child in the house who’s heading into Grade One, but we have a teacher and a before and after school supervisor in the house too. That makes back to school season really hectic!
So, we are already thinking about and getting ready for back to school meals. With fall activities ramping up, it’s important for us to get organized and simplify our meal plans. We’ll share our ideas below.
Getting Ready for Back to School Meals
1 – Put together a plan.
Planning is key to keeping things calm and organized. I know, I know. A lot of people start getting anxious at the idea of making a plan but it doesn’t really need to be complicated. Yes you can put together elaborate meal plan systems but you don’t have to.
One way to make a plan is by setting a “theme” for each day of the week. For example, Monday is pasta night, Tuesday is Taco Tuesday, Wednesday is soup and sandwiches, Thursday is chicken, Friday is pizza, Saturday is burgers, and Sunday is pork tenderloin or pot roast. Obviously, you would tailor these to your preferences and lifestyle.
Another idea is to sit down with your family and do some brainstorming. Ask people to share their top 10 favorite meals. Write them down and then ask everyone to “rate” each of the ideas. We did this by asking everyone how many times per month they could happily eat those particular meals.
2 – Make double.
Whenever possible, we make double! For example, if we’re cutting up onions or peppers or celery for a meal and we know that we have other meals coming up in the next few days needing any of those same items, we’ll just go ahead and cut what we need for the whole week.
When we make waffles, pancakes, or French toast, we make extra and freeze it. You can then pop it in the toaster in the morning to heat it up. If I make hard boiled eggs for egg salad, I make a few extras to use for after school snacks. When scrambling eggs, I cook at least 6 at a time. My youngest grandson loves them and they reheat really well. If you’re cooking pasta or rice, make a large batch and freeze the leftovers.
Make two whole chickens instead of just one. Make use of the second chicken for a chicken lasagna, chicken salad, or other meal later in the week. Or freeze that cooked chicken meat for future use. Double a meal and freeze the second one. If we’re marinating chicken for dinner, double that recipe and put the second quantity in a freezer bag or container and freeze it. The chicken will marinate while it’s in the freezer!
There are so many ways you can get ahead on food prep by doubling up. Once you begin to think about it, I’m sure you think of even more than we’ve suggested here.
3 – Prep ahead.
No, we’re not suggesting that you do a 5 hour weekend cooking session or those elaborate meal prepping sessions that we sometimes see on social media. Listen, those can be great for some people but honestly, I don’t think that back to school time is the best time to start something like this.
We’ve already made a few prep ahead suggestions above, but here are some others that you might consider. While preparing dinner, can you get a head start on breakfast or lunches for the next day? Or if someone is at home during the day (for example, my son in law works a split shift and is home midday), they could get a head start with dinner prep.
If you use certain herb and spice mixtures again and again, why not mix some up and keep it in a jar so it’s always ready to go? We loved cinnamon toast for breakfast or as a snack so my mom kept a shaker filled with cinnamon and sugar on hand at all times. Another great idea is to cut up onions and celery (you could mix in garlic too if you’d like) and freeze it to use as a base for many different recipes.
You can make up other mixes besides spices too – pancake mix, breading mix, muffin mix, and so much more. Think ahead – what can you prep now to save you time and aggravation later during crunch time?
4 – Figure out your “fright night”.
Here in Canada, Sandi Richard used to have a show called Fixing Dinner. Sandi’s goal is to help people get dinner on the table without it being complicated. She writes cookbooks that I highly recommend and none of her recipes require more than 20 minutes of prep – most are quite a bit less! You can check out some of her sample recipes here.
Sandi says that every family has a “fright night” in their week. It’s that one night where it’s the most difficult to get dinner on the table. Maybe someone has to work a late shift that day or maybe the kids have lots of after school activities that day. Whatever the reason, it’s the day that can completely derail an otherwise well-organized meal plan.
So, be sure to figure out what your fright night is each week and plan ahead! Maybe that’s the best night to have takeout. Or perhaps you need to put together a portable meal of sandwiches, veggies and dip, and fruit to take along with you wherever you need to go. Or maybe you have plenty of time to sit down and eat dinner but there’s no time for prep – sounds like that would be a good time for a slow cooker meal. Whatever it is, don’t let it sneak up on you. Plan ahead and be prepared for it.
5 – Don’t scramble to put together school lunches.
First of all, let’s get rid of the myth that you need to put together Pinterest-worthy Bento-box style lunches for your kids. Yes, they’re adorable and yes, they can sometimes encourage kids to eat what you’ve provided because it’s more visually appealing. But, I’ll let you in on a secret. Most kids are not that difficult to impress.
Cutting up carrots and cucumbers? Instead of a regular knife, use a crinkle cutter. Sending a sandwich for lunch? Cut it out with a cute cookie cutter instead of a knife. OR instead of just cutting it in half or quarters, cut it into tiny little bite-sized pieces. Stick some colorful cupcake liners in their lunchbox to hold smaller items. There are so many ways to add in that same visual interest without it taking any additional time or effort.
Not sure what to send with the kids in the first place? Remember the brainstorming list I suggested for dinner? Well, this helped us with lunches too. I got my daughter to name off everything she would be happy to take with her for her school lunches. We wrote it all down and hung the list on the fridge to make it easy for grocery shopping and lunch prep.
6 – Set up a school lunch station.
We had one bin in the pantry (or a kitchen cabinet or drawer), one in the fridge, and one in the freezer. Each of these were labeled for school lunches only! Everyone in the family knew that these were not to be touched unless it was for putting together school lunches. So, we always knew that there were things available for lunches and didn’t have to panic and scramble to find something to send that day.
Not only that, but this made lunch prep so easy. I got Sam involved and would ask her to choose some items from the bins herself and eventually, she was putting together her lunch herself. We also had snack bins in the pantry and fridge that were perfect for after school snack time (and weekend snacking). These grab and go systems made things so much easier.
Sam knew that anything in the snack bins was “fair game”, but if she wanted anything else, she needed to check with me first. (PS – No, I wasn’t trying to gate-keep her food choices, but sometimes the food she wanted was an ingredient we needed for a dinner recipe or if it was something like cookies or chips, I would want to talk to her about choosing something with more nutrients in it as well – or as Walter calls them “big and strong foods”. We don’t food shame around here but we do talk about balance.)
Pro Tip: To save money on school lunches, buy the larger bags/boxes of snacks, crackers, and other non-perishables. Then you can package them into smaller portion sizes and place those in the pantry bin. You can do the same by cutting up cheese and other similar items and placing them in the fridge bin.