How to Survive Back-to-School Season {Ideas for Easy Dinners, School Lunches, After School Snacks}

Oh yes, it’s that time of year! I’m guessing many of us are already swimming in the full rush of back-to-school chaos – whether it be public, charter, private or home schooling. 

My three oldest kids started school earlier this week (middle school and high school); the two youngest start next week. 

As crazy as the start of a new school year is, I actually kind of love abandoning the lazy summer mentality and latching on to the structure that comes with school schedules and routines. However, if I’m being totally honest, it always kind of rocks my world – even when I think I’m fully prepared for it. Early mornings! Breakfasts! Making school lunches! No time to make dinner! Lots of melting down! Lots of hiding in the pantry! 

In honor of all of us in the trenches figuring this back to school season out, I wanted to offer some current tips that are helping us stay afloat as well as gather all the tips I’ve shared over the years into one place!

School Lunches

How do you manage school lunches? All five of my kids pack their own lunches before school each morning. We’ve used bento-type lunch boxes in the past (the Goodbyn ones, loved them). Currently, my oldest (10th grade) packs his lunch in a good ol’ brown paper lunch sack, the two middle schoolers use these freezable pack-it lunch boxes {aff. link} and the two elementary kids have these inexpensive (but so far, pretty durable) zipper lunch boxes {aff. link}

We still have this school lunch checklist taped to the inside of a kitchen cupboard door. It helps the kids stay a little bit more on track…you know, with slightly healthier choices than, say, eating nutella sandwiches every day (#cantblamethem). 

How to Survive Back to School

Even though I try to stay pretty hands off with their lunch packing endeavors, I do find it helps if I already have a lot of good, solid options (particularly fruits and veggies, but also things like hard boiled eggs and string cheeses) out on the counter before they start packing. They grab these healthier options without thinking…even though for some reason, they never go to the effort to pull the same things out of the fridge/pantry themselves leading them to end up with a lunch box stuffed full of Oreos. Again #cantblamethem.

My friend, Teri, shared with me this great method for teaching kids independence (in this case for school lunch packing): 

Step #1: do it for them
Step #2: when they’re ready, help them with the task
Step #3: again, when they’re ready, watch them while they complete the task
Step #4: allow them to do it by themselves

I ignorantly launched from the 1st step to the 4th a couple years ago when it came to lunch packing. The result was pure misery for all of us. I was upset at their lunch choices, they were upset because they thought they were doing a great job and felt mortally offended at my criticism of a lunch consisting of 100% carbs, and it was just kind of a disaster. We backed up to step #2 and have gradually worked our way through the other steps. Now I’ve *mostly* backed off and let them do it on their own, and honestly, it works great and is awesome because I don’t have to spend the time packing five lunches each day. 

I know most of you are probably already on board with the above method, but clearly I need all the parenting tips I can get. Haha. I thought I’d share in case it could help someone else. It applies to so many other aspects of parenting and fostering independence in kids!

After School Snacks

My kids are usually home by 3:20-ish p.m. They come home starving so snacks are not optional around here. I don’t have any magic secrets for after school snacks. We keep it pretty simple. I do a lot of over-the-shoulder reminding: feel free to cut up an apple; 16 bags of microwave popcorn probably isn’t the best choice; protein is never a bad idea. After school snacks are usually some variation on crackers and cheese, lots of fresh fruit, (yes) Oreos and cookies sometimes, and I try to keep the following on hand for grab-and-go or simple snacks: 

This master energy bite recipe is the only one you'll ever need! Endless add-in options, these babies are healthy and delicious!

Quick Dinners

The start of a new school year often means the start of a whole slew of after school activities, too. Which finds me often hiding in the pantry palming chocolate chips in my mouth wondering if we’ll ever eat dinner as a family followed up with: “how can we eat dinner together as a family if dinner isn’t getting made?”  

When I finally pull myself up by the apron strings and get a grip, I go back to my standby coping skills.

Planning a menu is the sure fire way to actually get dinner on the table. If I know what I’m going to make (and I’m realistic about the afternoon/evening plans so I don’t plan a 7-course dinner on a night we aren’t home for more than 15 minutes), I can usually execute dinner. Usually. I know I harp on the menu planning thing a lot, but seriously, I’ve seen it change lives. So I’ll never stop promoting it as an awesome way to conquer dinner chaos.

Mexican Haystacks: a smorgasbord of delicious taco flavors simmered together in a tasty sauce served over rice or quinoa. Easy, fast, yummy!

If menu planning makes you feel down in the dumps, consider doing more of a fluid menu plan instead of a strict “we must eat spaghetti on Monday and tacos on Tuesday” kind of thing. Look at your week and think of 4-5 good meals your family enjoys, get the ingredients for them, and plug them in as it works best and as you go through your week. Here’s an old but still relevant post I did years ago that may help: Menu Planning 101.

Sidenote: If you haven’t yet, you might want to look into Prepear for a great (free!) meal planning system (all of my recipes are on this app and you can add other recipes across the web by copying and pasting the recipe link). I also create custom meal plans that are available on the app – all the meals are laid out for you and this particularly menu plan auto-updates with a new menu each week so you literally don’t have to do anything other than print out the generated grocery list. 

I have a few handy recipes coming up over the next few weeks to help save your sanity with weeknight dinners. Some freezer meals and meal prep ideas. In the meantime here are some quick links for my favorite quick meals! 

Honey balsamic BBQ pork sandwich on whole beat bun with coleslaw.

Ok, phew! That’s a lot of info.

Before I let you go, below are some additional posts I’ve done over the years to sum up some ideas on surviving the back-to-school chaos (and some particular resources on school lunch solutions). These links include free menu plans, a school lunch packing checklist, and much more! 

I know we are all in different phases and stages and circumstances of life, but hopefully you can find some good ideas in the resources above and below! As always, I welcome your comments – any strategies that help you maintain your sanity this time of year??

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