Back-to-school can feel like the most hectic season of the year. Kids struggle with bedtimes and homework after the relative freedom of summer, and parents suddenly have a whole lot more to do: Pack school lunches, get kids to extracurricular events, deal with a mountain of permission forms and other back-to-school paperwork.
So here are some smart ways to cope with the chaos.
- Plan school lunches on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. If you wait until Sunday evening to think about the week ahead, you'll get frustrated – everyone is already tired and cranky. Routine is key: Fewer decisions to make equals less stress, and once you get in the habit of planning and making lunches ahead of time, you'll be on automatic pilot. Stick to the same basic lunch schedule week-to-week (you can mix it up with various sandwich fillings, salad fixings, and seasonal fruit.) Each weeknight, assemble what you can on the counter before you go to bed; it only takes 10 minutes or so, and you'll thank yourself in the morning.
- Hang a family calendar in a central location. It's important to visualize the week ahead, as well as big events looming later in the month. Invest in a whiteboard – or for fun, paint one wall in your kitchen with chalkboard paint and use that as your go-to calendar. Use different colored chalk or dry erase markers for each family member's activities – and if a child needs a ride somewhere, indicate which adult is taking him. Having a central calendar (and getting everyone used to checking it!) means fewer instances of panic when you realize you're scheduled for carpool on a work night, or it's your turn for snack duty at preschool - and the cupboard is bare.
- Make a grocery list. Seemingly, this is the easiest advice in the world, but everyone knows it's equally easy to let the habit slip. Encourage family members to write down items as soon as they realize they're almost out, rather than asking kids what they need when you're on your way to the store. Place the grocery list alongside the calendar (you can take a photo on your phone before you leave for the store.) Hint: Break your list down into various categories – produce, snacks, dairy, etc. – to make your shopping trip even easier. And remind children that there's a difference between what they want and what they need, i.e. just because you put it on the list doesn't necessarily mean Mom or Dad will buy it.
- Don't feel guilty for using prepared foods. There are a multitude of pre-cooked or oven-ready foods that have virtually changed the way we think about dinner. (Rotisserie chicken, anyone?) Take advantage of pre-made pizza shells, Food Lion sandwich rings, and deli potato salad. Instead of feeling like you're cheating, embrace the time savings by hanging out with your family and having fun together. Your evenings will be much calmer if you give yourself permission to cut a few corners. (Not to mention, you'll have some go-to dinners that you know are going to be delicious.)
- Buy in bulk. School supplies like notebooks and pencils are a no-brainer, but it's also easier (and cheaper) to buy shelf-stable lunch items like whole-grain crackers, peanut butter, and fruit leathers in larger quantities. Other items to stock up on: plastic storage bags in various sizes, napkins, and wet wipes.
- Keep your car at least half full at all times. Nothing throws a wrench into your morning like having to make an unplanned 10-minute stop at the gas station because you forgot to fill up the day before. Anytime you're heading home from work without a tight deadline, pull into the gas station and fill up. (And if you don't have kids with you, you can look at a pit stop as an almost relaxing moment.)
- Start a “petty cash" fund. If you don't already save your change, September is a good time to start. Or, get in the habit of placing dollar bills in a special drawer, folder, or old-school cookie jar. There are so many small, unexpected expenses at the beginning of the school year, and it's easy for today's families to be light on cash (how many of us swipe a card for every expense and pay all our bills online?). If you have a petty cash fund to draw from, you won't be caught off guard when your kids need a few dollars to get into the football game, a quarter to donate to charity on “silly hat day," or money for the field trip to the museum. Caveat: Make a hard and fast rule that the money is only to be used for legitimate, parent-approved expenses.
- Always buy an extra case of water bottles. Kids will drink tons of water, especially if it's the only choice. (And if you haven't already cut down on soda, juice, and other sugary drinks, the start of the school year is the perfect time to make the transition.) Water bottles are relatively inexpensive and you should always have one case on deck, waiting to go in the fridge.
- Make a folder for each child. So much paperwork comes home the first few weeks of school, it's easy for something important to get lost. (Even as the year goes on, a folder system is a smart way to keep track of homework and permission slips.) Parents and children can check folders every morning and evening; it only takes a few seconds. (Tucking a little reward like a dollar bill or piece of candy into the folder every now and then will make kids excited about putting homework and other important papers inside.)
- Network with other parents. Other parents are your best resource for information, advice, and the occasional bailing out. (Like when you get stuck at a meeting and absolutely can't get your child to her Thursday dance class.) One caveat: Don't be that parent who's always asking a favor and never giving one in return. And do make any ride-sharing or babysitting arrangements crystal clear. Set up a group text, Facebook page, or some other type of online chat to communicate with other moms and dads about everything from your school's open house to carpool schedules. One more thing: Cut yourself some slack this month. The beginning of each school year brings unexpected challenges (your normally cheerful, outgoing kid comes home in tears) and scheduling issues (the bus is half an hour late the first week.) If you're mentally prepared to go with the flow – and have a backup pizza or two in the freezer, just in case – you'll be golden.