Tips on how to manage the chaos of back to school meal times

By , on August 8, 2017


September can be one of the most stressful times of the year, with little time to prepare — and let's be honest, eat — nutritious meals and snacks. (Photo by Rubbermaid Products/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
September can be one of the most stressful times of the year, with little time to prepare — and let’s be honest, eat — nutritious meals and snacks. (Photo by Rubbermaid Products/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

TORONTO — Ah, the lazy days of summer.

This will all seem like a distant dream for parents of school-aged kids soon to be thrust onto the hamster wheel of packing school lunches, rushing to morning volleyball practice, and shuttling kids between after-school soccer games and dance class.

September can be one of the most stressful times of the year, with little time to prepare — and let’s be honest, eat — nutritious meals and snacks.

It’s something Toronto moms Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh know well, so they’ve distilled their tried-and-true kitchen hacks into “The School Year Survival Cookbook.”

The guide includes freezer-friendly recipes that can be made weeks ahead, tips on how to pull off mid-week meal prep, tricks for transforming leftovers, and 30-minute meals you can throw together after work.

Here are their tips for squeezing in healthy eating while keeping your sanity intact:

1. Make a meal plan

This tried-and-true strategy for getting meals, shopping and finances under control is a huge hurdle for many families, acknowledge Keogh and Marsh. Who wants to map out every single meal for a month?

But they swear by the practice, as long as it honestly accounts for how much time you have each day and includes plans for everything you put in your mouth — snacks included.

Start with a one-week outline, and use the weekend before to prep and freeze at least a couple of meals or snacks in advance, they say.

The benefits will reveal themselves as the week progresses and you find hidden opportunities to be more efficient in the kitchen — like batch-prepping carrots for tonight’s salad, this week’s lunches, and that chili on Wednesday.

“You’re going to save money, you’re going to save time, you’re just going to know what you’re doing rather than (having) that 4:30 (p.m.) feeling of like, ‘Oh God, what’s happening tonight?”’ says Marsh.

“I think people kind of feel like, ‘Oh, it’s such a drag,’ but once you get in the groove you can’t believe you ever did it another way.”

2. Get organized

When the conveyor belt of meal-demands starts rolling your way, even the slightest disruption can throw all planning out the window. That’s why Keogh uses these slower weeks in August to get her ducks in a row: she replenishes her pantry, takes inventory of food staples and does some general clean-up and purging.

“It sounds mundane and really ridiculous but I go to (a bulk food store) and make sure I have my spelt flour and I kind of restock everything,” she says, urging home cooks to import the same diligence they have for workplace regimens to their home life.

Small changes can make the difference between getting ahead and throwing in the towel: A “lunch box zone” where lunches are picked up and dropped off makes it easier to pack throughout the night as you prep dinner; set up a dedicated snack drawer where kids can find a quick bite easily; tape recipes to the ingredient jar so you’re not fumbling through a book or touchscreen with flour-covered hands.

Other tips are more obvious but so many of us don’t actually do it: Keep staple ingredients in easy reach; store similar foods in groupings; make sure you have enough lunch containers and storage gear.

“Having the flexibility to send leftovers rather than just a sandwich and so on really depends on having that right thermos or bento box or whatever it is for your kid,” says Marsh, who has a seven-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl.

3. Remember the little things

Snacks are easy to overlook but can throw the whole operation out of whack, especially if you’re a family that often eats on-the-go, says Keogh.

“Snacks can be the thing that break you because they always want a snack in the craziest place and you’re like, ‘Are you kidding me? You want a snack now?”’

Focus on veggie- and grain-packed options, which will take pressure off meal-times by squeezing in those daily serving goals.

And accept the fact that on the craziest days, your kids might get most of their nutrition from several of these handheld mini-meals instead of one big family sitdown.

That can be especially worrisome for parents of picky eaters, acknowledges Keogh, but it’s the big picture that matters: “You can’t just focus on singular meals. You have to really look at nutrition across the board and across a day.”

4. Multi-task

There’s no such thing as downtime in the meal-planner’s kitchen. If you’re not already prepping other things, any spare moment while boiling water or waiting for the rice cooker can be used to get ahead on another meal.

It’s the reason Marsh says she never actually makes school lunches — she just chips away at them while doing other things.

“I will only make a school lunch if I’m making dinner or I’m making breakfast. Because I don’t want to finish one meal, get everything cleaned up and put away and then start a school lunch. I always, always do it on the back of another meal because I’m in the kitchen, I’m in and out of the fridge, I’m grabbing stuff and then the lunch is either put in the fridge or put right into a backpack and then I’m done.”

Having a meal plan means you can also chip away at future meals mid-week: wash and prep vegetables, pre-mix a spice mixture, boil potatoes. Steal these moments where you can, says Keogh.

“Whenever you’re in the kitchen making anything say: ‘What else can I do?”’

5. Secure the buy-in

A big part of ensuring meal-planning works is getting the whole family on board. What’s the point if no one wants to eat what you’ve made?

When you begin the plan, ask everyone what they’d like in that week’s or month’s (or next month’s) meals and snacks. Then post the meal plan where everyone can see it so there are no surprises.

Keogh’s admits her big struggle now is that her 10-year-old daughter has decided she won’t eat leftovers.

“She’s like, ‘I see what you’re doing with that flank steak. I don’t care if you’re putting it in a taco, I still don’t want it again.”’

That’s when Keogh digs her heels in and points to the family’s meal plan: “Ceri and I are big believers in not being short-order cooks for your children.”