Every single year, I get to this point and think “I’m never going to survive.” The sports schedules, school schedules (this applies whether you homeschool or public school, I do believe!), life schedules, work schedules, dinner schedules – the schedules all hit me like a ton of bricks after summer break.

School Year Survival

And each year, when this happens, I turn inward and ask myself how am I not more prepared? It’s not as if this is my first back to school rodeo.

Yet, year after year, I feel like I want to curl up in a fetal position clutching my bag of bittersweet chocolate chips and stay there until someone else makes dinner. Or runs carpool. Or cleans the bathrooms.

Since I’d rather not have my bones turn to dust in that position, I choose to power through…and swear that I’m going to implement some serious strategies next year.

This year is that year. 

Well, at least in terms of food and meal planning and dinner and how to store a month’s supply of chocolate chips (spoiler alert: keep them under your pillow).

If you’re looking for tips on housecleaning, homeschooling, or hired help, you better get your google search on. But if you need some school lunch, dinnertime and general meal planning solutions, I’ve got your back.

Today, I wanted to give you a couple strategies for dinnertime survival (some are reminders we’ve talked about before!) and also provide you with a couple, free menu plans that just might save your bacon (haha).

School Year Survival
school lunch solutions

If you are packing school lunches every day, you know the pain and agony of trying to be creative and healthy without spending hours scouring Pinterest for a how-to on cutting your child’s sandwich to resemble a smiling panda bear.

I’ve done several posts on school lunches in the past and they continue to be a great resource even for me (thanks to all the comments that have been left in the thread of each post!). The posts include information on where I’ve bought our lunch boxes (still use them and love them after 6+ years), our go-to school lunch packing list, and some other good tips.

I’m actually in process of doing a part three to this school lunch series but it isn’t quite finished (hello, life).

 Click here —> School Lunch Solutions Part 1

 Click here —> School Lunch Solutions Part 2

School Year Survival
I’m on a huge simplify kick. The details of this goal/challenge could take up a whole year’s worth of posts (which I won’t bore you with since I deal in food, not lifestyle stuff), but simplifying all aspects of my life lately has become very important to me.

School Year Survival

I feel like I’m failing at this most days, but after I returned from Ghana (and truthfully in the months before that), I felt a desire to reorder and reprioritize my life. And I am really trying. Really. It’s hard to put into words why I feel so strongly about this (and it’s probably too deep a subject matter for this ol’ blog), but meal planning and dinnertime is a perfect place to start in the simplifying process.

Basically, you don’t have to make a gourmet, extravagant, multi-course meal each night. Decide what’s most important to you and focus on that.

Is it eating dinner as a family?
Getting a healthy, from-scratch meal on the table?
Making it to 7:00 p.m without sticking hot pokers in your eyeballs?

Drop the guilt over whatever aspect you may not be able to meet (and forget about what your neighbors, friends, sisters, coworkers are doing) and focus on one thing that will make you feel successful.

School Year Survival

If it’s eating dinner as a family, figure out which part of that seems insurmountable and tackle it. Is it the dishes? Eat on paper plates. Is it scheduling? Try packing a portable dinner and eating it on the go (eating in the car together constitutes family meal, FYI). You get what I’m saying, right? SIMPLIFY! You don’t have to do everything every night. Make it work with the resources and time you have available.

Pep talk over. Phew! Don’t even pretend you aren’t relieved I’m not your daily life coach.

To help you out even a little more, here’s a post with some fabulous tips on what to do when:
Click here —> There’s No Time {or Desire} to Make Dinner

And another:
Click here —> FOUR free, amazing menu plans (plus shopping lists, make-ahead tips, etc)

School Year Survival
I touched on this above already, but you guys, PLAN A MENU! It will save you so much headache and craziness, it isn’t even funny. I believe in menu planning. I love menu planning. I am menu planning.

Wait, that didn’t work. But you know what I mean.

My love for menu planning is one of the main reasons I came out with this eCookbook last week. (Which, as a sidenote, I’m so happy to hear how much you are enjoying these recipes! Thank you for emailing me and leaving comments about the recipes you have already made and loved!)Simple Weeknight Dinners

Today, in honor of coming together in support of this crazy time of year, I put together a FREE 30-day menu that includes ALL 30-minute or less meals.

It’s concise, it’s simple, it’s lifesaving. 

Use it and tailor it how you need. If you don’t want to cook every night – build in a leftover night. If you want to throw in a couple slow cooker meals or make-ahead meals, do it! This is just a starting place and a mini-guide for you to use to help simplify your life and take the guesswork out of meal planning.

It’s basically 30 days of clickable 30-minute meals all in one place and staggered so you aren’t eating pasta five nights a week (I personally wouldn’t complain about this, but I have gotten hate mail for lesser things).

School Year Survival

I hope I’ve overdramatized things today and your life is NOT insane this time of year. Maybe you are sipping a pina colada on the beach somewhere (I might hate you a little bit), or maybe you are in a totally different phase of life where this type of strategy session isn’t necessary. That’s ok!

But if you are jumping full force into a new school year with new schedules, hopefully this post has helped a bit.

And as always, leave your comments below with any tips or tricks you have up your sleeve (and questions, too!). 

Love ya. 

62 Responses to Let’s Talk: How to Survive the Chaos of a New School Year

  1. Ashlee says:

    I just got my Goodbyn container and sleeve in the mail…they were awesome and added a little dipper in with it! I’m so excited that I found a cheaper solution than what I was looking at! Thank you for your awesome advice! Once again, I bragged to my husband about “my best friend Mel”…you know, in a totally non creepy way!

  2. Sarah says:

    I am such a fan of menu planning. I made weekly menu charts for my mom when I was eleven years old with a spot for requests and would help her plan the week. So glad you are sharing the menu planning love! (And I just want you to know that yours has been my go-to cooking blog since 2009, even though I have never commented. Over the years I have introduced you to my sisters and sister-in-laws who all follow you religiously. 😉 )

  3. Dian says:

    I only have one kid who isn’t in school but this is still so awesome and so helpful! If I can’t make any meal in under 30 minutes it’s probably not going to happen! Thank you!!

  4. Jenna says:

    THANK YOU !!! I am yelling because I live far away and I want you to hear me. I know menu planning makes my life SO much better. My goal this school year (which starts next week) is to be more like the locals and prepare lunch (main meal of the day in Italia) and dinner in the morning! My mother-in-law is a super pro at this. Thanks Mel!

  5. Lyndsey says:

    Thanks Mel! My oldest is a first grader this year and it’s the first time I’ll have to pack school lunches every day, yikes. So many great tips in this post! Thanks for always having my back when it comes to simplifying in the kitchen

  6. Lynn says:

    Like many of you meaning planning has been an import part of my weekend planing. My children are now in local colleges and I still plan dinner on when we will all be home. I always find having any meal together to be the highlight of my day. Meli I hope you will share with us ideas for simplifying any part of life. Your recipes are always loved in my home!!! Always remember children just want us to be with them.

  7. Emily says:

    Oh man, I stink at meal planning. I try to do it honestly but I end up zoning out because I can’t think of what to make. Then I ask my family…that goes no where. We’ve been in school for a month now and all 4 of my kids play on different soccer teams. I REALLY need to meal plan. I think I’m going to make this my New Years resolution in September! I promise to give meal planning a try. Thanks for all your suggestions!

  8. Chava says:

    Mel, do you have any ideas for on-the-go breakfasts? This is my first year as a mother of a school-age child, and I am PANICKING at the idea of getting him to the bus stop (2 blocks away!) by 7:21 in the morning. Having something to give him to eat on the bus would be a godsend!

    • Mel says:

      Hey Chava – that is awfully early! I’d probably be a little panicked, too. I don’t know that I have tons of hand-held breakfast options, unfortunately, since we are usually sitting up to the counter eating breakfast. Have you googled for any ideas?

  9. Julie says:

    This might be my favorite post in the history of the internet!!! Thank you so much!! My husband and I both work and we have two little ones. Dinner time is so stressful in our house and I’m always unprepared. Eggs for dinner again!! Sigh. I need some motivation to get my act together and do some advance prep. I think this post might just be the kick I needed. 🙂

  10. Amy W. says:

    Mel, you are a gem and a true gift to this world! I simply adore you and am incredibly grateful to have your influence in my life!!! Thank you for sharing!!!

  11. Lindsey says:

    Needed all of this! You are the best!!! Thank you. PS Practically everything I make these days comes from your site. 🙂

  12. Alison says:

    Thank you for always having such great tips and tricks and totally doable but delicious meals.

    With school lunches I am not super creative and my kids love sandwiches so that works for me. But I hated each morning I would have to make two different kind of sandwiches (one always wants turkey the other pb&j). Then I got the idea from a friend to pre make a bunch of sandwiches, individually wrap them and freeze them. It is the best thing ever! In the morning my kids just go grab a turkey and cheese or pb&j out of the freezer and grab the other snacks, drink, fruit/veggie and we are done. They thaw by lunch and I don’t have to worry about an ice pack (which they always lose).

    I had to share because it’s been my happiest thing since school started.

  13. Cindi says:

    I am an empty nester but find meal planning a life saver. I make my menu for the week. Grocery shop for what I need and often switch meals around because I have everything I need. Makes life a lot easier!


  14. Bridget says:

    This school year I am also getting ready to welcome child 4. In preparation for all of the craziness, here are a few things I try to do to prepare for a baby, pack lunches, and make dinner every night.

    1st-Every week I make my menu plan. I look at my calendar for the week and figure out if certain days call for slow cooked meals, early prep, or anything else. I also don’t stick to a rigid day, but know I have ingredients for each of the meals planned.

    2nd-Before school started I set up a zone in my fridge and pantry that are dedicated to healthy, portioned foods that can be packed for lunch or thrown in my bag when we are on the go. (This will especially prove useful when my oldest packs her own lunches when I have the baby.)

    3rd-Often I start some part of dinner in the morning. If there are vegetables to chop, pasta to boil, food to defrost, a sauce I can make, etc., I’ll start it in the morning. For me, it’s a real motivation (and time saver) during the dreaded dinner hour to have a head start.

    4th-Any time I can easily double a recipe, I do. I have a well stocked freezer but it didn’t happen all at once. In the past I have done freezer meal marathons and by the end of the day I a) had no desire to cook dinner let alone think about cooking again b) had a diasterous kitchen and no desire to clean it and c) didn’t like having to eat more than one of the same meal. I like having 30 DIFFERENT meals stocked in the freezer.

    5th-i also keep on hand healthy, simple foods for those days when the best laid plans just don’t work out. I love to make sauces and breads from scratch, but I keep my freezer/panyry stocked with alternatives that I still feel good about feeding my family.

    I have done meal planning since I got married, but everything else has evolved slowly over time. When I want to make changes I try to pick one small thing to change. After that becomes a habit I add one more small thing. It’s more effective for me than drastically changing all at once.

  15. Kristin Castleton says:

    So funny that as I am sitting at my computer trying to come up with the next two weeks menu and I happen to click on my favorite site (ie yours) and low and behold a month’s 30 min menu! Thanks so much!! I know weeks where I have a plan vs weeks that I don’t, I stress more and am frantically looking through the fridge and cupboards at 6pm saying what shall we do tonight and then it usually turns out to be tacos and my kids are saying “No, not again”! Much much easier with a plan especially when you have kids to run here and there. Thanks for all your help with my menu planning!

  16. emily says:

    thank you for making me laugh today! your wit and humor while presenting information is one of my fave things about this blog 🙂

  17. Robyn says:

    I love you!!! I am so excited to see we have the same color door and the exact same wreath!!!

  18. Kandice says:

    I am all about meal planning. It makes dinner go smoothly and it makes shopping easier. I am excited to find some new meals to try.

  19. Jamie H. says:

    Mel, Thank You so much! Believe it or not, we have been back in school since August 1st in Atlanta! So far, so good, thank goodness! The main thing I have tried to do this year is cook or prep dinner in the morning as much as I can so that we can focus on homework and having some sane downtime in the evening. It helps on the days I can do it! 😉 I am looking forward to using this meal plan, my creativity has been waining lately! Have a great start to the year!

    • Mel says:

      I agree that prepping early can definitely help, Jamie! In fact, I think I need a whole menu plan on just make-ahead meals since the hours of 3:30 to 7:30 are the craziest sometimes!

  20. A says:

    Thank you for this post. I so agree with you about simplifying your life. As a perfectionist and someone who has an anxiety disorder (not a winning combo for trying to navigate life as it turns out), this is what I’m trying to learn in the last little bit of down time I’ve had. Learning that sometimes, doing just that small bit make a world of difference. No matter how small, or how imperfect, or how incomplete.

    Best wishes for getting through this busy time!! 🙂 I’m sure you’ll be fine. And thank you for all your resources.

  21. Erin says:

    It is the crazy time of year! One day I’ll realize my denial of back to schedules only adds to the pain, it never actually delays it. Such a helpful post!!
    PS I’d love it if you were my life coach, or personal chef, just saying.

  22. Kristi says:

    Bless you!!!

  23. Bobbi says:

    Amazing!!! YOU are amazing!!! Thank you!!!!

  24. Helen says:

    Reading this post I’m laughing out loud!! I’ve only eaten 2 handfuls of chocolate chips so far today… So clearly I do need some intervention… it’s not noon. I love the 30 min meals and I just bought the new cookbook last night. I think it’s safe to say that you … along with the chocolate chips…. may be able to save my sanity during one of the most stressful back to school years I’ve had yet… And, like you, this is definitely not my first back to school rodeo! Living with my mom has presented some new challenges this year …. and meal times is at the top of that list Thanks Mel for your focus on simplifying at a time in my life when “simplify” is my main mantra!!

  25. Dianne says:

    Mel… I’ve followed your blog now for 4 years. but last year my son started kindergarten and you posted on the goodbyn lunch containers. Oh my gosh how I love them. I’ve bought the bynto and hero and went back and reordered another hero this school year. We seem to use it more as its bigger slotted. It takes my son less time to eat his food with these containers then it did when he had to open every pkg up in a regular lunch box. Thanks for posting on them, they are amazing!!!

  26. Danielle says:

    Looooooooving this post.

    Have you read Essentialism by Greg McKoewn? If not, DO IT. Target audience isn’t moms, but all totally applicable.

    Now I’m off to hide the chocolate chips under my pillow…

  27. ~ Ruth says:

    Thank you! I’ve been a religious meal planner for the last 2+ years but I’m hoping these options help me with my new struggle – having dinner on the table by 6pm when I spend 4:25-5:35pm driving every day. I’ve been fixing dinner 3:30-4:15, prepping toddler, driving, then re-heating the last few weeks…maybe something here will re-jazz our dinners!

    • Mel says:

      Amen to this, Ruth! Those hours are sometimes the craziest, which is why 30-minute meals may not cut it. It’s more about the slow cooker, make-ahead meals in those situations; I totally get it!

  28. Stephanie W says:

    Oh Mel, I needed this post today! Thank you!!! We are T-minus 1 week to school starting and I may be having mild-grade panic attacks about keeping it all together.

  29. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for your posts and I do feel slightly better knowing that other moms are also feeling anxiety about the upcoming year.

    I started to meal plan last year after resisting that suggestion for many years. I too thought that I would have a hard time sticking to it. However, what I found with meal planning was that it removed from day all the ruminating that I used to do about “What’s for dinner?” Even if I didn’t necessarily feel like chicken soup that day, I was always so happy not to have to make the decision about what to have. And it of course made it easier to grocery shop or pick up things during the day to make that dinner happen.

    Good luck with your organizing and planning. I look forward to going through this year with you…

    • Mel says:

      You hit the nail on the head, Stephanie! Not having to worry about what’s for dinner is the MAIN reason I meal plan. Thanks for summing that up!

  30. Christine says:

    Thanks Mel, what a great idea. This is my first year with a child in school and I’m freaking out a little. This has eased my anxiety a bit!

  31. Mary Lynn says:

    Simplify! I, too, am trying to live a more simple, less chaos and clutter, less of our schedules and less chores. All in hopes that we have more time and awareness of family, fun, gratitude, peace….Life is too short and the time with kids at home is racing away-Meal planning-I get bogged down because I have soooo many good recipes to choose from- I appreciate the simple idea that I need to peel back my entire purpose of our meal and focus on that. Breakfast and Lunch are challenges for me so I will refresh myself on your ideas and thoughts to make these meals more enjoyable for all of us. Thanks!!

  32. KELLEY says:

    Love this! Thanks for the time you put in to keep us sane!

  33. Alli says:

    I am absolutely horrible at getting meal planning. I always think, “well what if I don’t feel like eating that for dinner that night?” I am committing to making a meal plan for September. Hopefully it works, because that will save a lot of stress and money for weekly grocery trips! Thank you for the outline.

    • Mel says:

      That’s a real concern, Alli. Seriously. I often have a loose meal plan and if I get to that day and know that I cannot possibly eat noodles with alfredo sauce, I make the next night’s dinner instead.

    • Christi says:

      For me, it’s just nice to have all the ingredients on hand and an idea of what to make for the next two weeks. I never make on Monday night what’s on the list of Monday. Completely loose in that regard.

  34. Tricia says:

    Thank you!! After moving this summer and working in house projects for the last 2 months, dinner prep had gone by the wayside, big time! I needed a little pep talk and PUSH.
    Thanks for holding my hand.

    You’re the best, Mel!

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