By Christa Melnyk Hines
Every parent has that one trick up their sleeve that helps make life just a little simpler in the midst of a hectic school year. Read on for some of their best tips, clever tricks and genius hacks for back to school.
Plan your meals. Steer clear of the drive-thru on hectic evenings by taking 10 minutes each weekend to plan simple meals for the week. With a complete grocery list in hand, head to the store to purchase everything you'll need. To further simplify planning, Gina Nichols, a mom of four and a freezer meal consultant, recommends prepping food when you get home from the store, filing favorite recipes for easy reference and maintaining a well-stocked pantry. Theme nights like pasta on Mondays, tacos on Tuesday, etc., can also help. Ask your family for their suggestions too.
Stock the freezer. Stash your freezer with healthy casseroles, soups, sauces and crockpot meals to make dinnertime a no-brainer on busy weeknights. "Try to make your cooking always do double duty. Make a little extra of everything and if you don't want it right away, freeze it," Nichols says.
Establish a snack/brown bag lunch station. Designate a shelf in your kitchen or pantry for parent-approved snacks and lunch items. Tape a list inside the cupboard door with lunch ideas. On Sundays, pre-pack snacks that kids can easily grab like trail mix, pretzels, granola bars or cereal. Stock the refrigerator with fruits and veggies that have been pre-washed/cut, as well as cheese and yogurt sticks. To save time in the mornings, help your children make their lunches and pack their snacks the night before.
Share the daily action plan. Laurie Loudenback hands her kids, ages 10 and 12, a clipboard each morning which includes the day's schedule, chores, and screen time limits.
"This chart has been pretty life-changing," says Loudenback, whose husband Scott designed it. "The first thing the kids say in the morning is 'I need my chart.'"
Set up a master calendar. Post a white board with the week's calendar to help everyone in the family know what to expect in the coming week. Use color-coded dry erase markers for each family member's activities and cold or hot lunch preferences.
Hold family meetings. Alexis Sanchez, mom of four, says she gathers her family on Sunday nights to discuss the week ahead, including upcoming activities and "to brainstorm any kinks" that need to be worked out in the schedule.
Spruce up backpacks. Extend the life of a much-loved backpack by giving it a back-to-school cleaning. Depending on the material, backpacks can generally be hand washed, spot cleaned or placed in a laundry bag or pillow case and run through the washing machine. Be sure to empty out all of the pockets and vacuum out crumbs beforehand. If you hand wash it, soak it in warm water for 15 minutes with a teaspoon of laundry detergent. Rinse well and air dry.
Manage paperwork. Every day after school, Sanchez says, "we have a mandatory 'empty your book bag' rule." Her children file important documents like those that need to be signed by a parent into an office divider. Label a folder with the name of your child and school year to easily collect artwork and other keepsakes throughout the year. Sanchez keeps her folders in a plastic file box.
Create a homework station. Designate a well-lit place in your home where homework can be completed without distractions. Create a homework caddy stocked with notebook paper, pens, pencils, crayons, colored pencils, rulers, and highlighters —anything your child might need to complete an assignment.
Make a homework plan. If your child struggles with organization, go through their backpack together. Make a stack for the night's homework and help your child prioritize what needs to be completed first. Use a calendar to help them plan long-term assignments.
Use a timer. If your child gets overwhelmed by lengthy math worksheets or other difficult assignments, try using a timer like the Time Timer app and set a goal. For example, after he completes 10 problems, take a break for a quick snack.
"Frequent breaks are important in helping students and their parents with homework," says Amber Dawkins, a former teacher and a mom to a four-year-old son.
Attend back-to-school functions. Help your child get back into the school groove by attending school orientations, ice cream socials or sneak-a-peeks.
"Even reconnecting with one or two friends or meeting a teacher in person before the first day of school can make a difference to a child," Dawkins says.
Connect in a memorable way. Be ready to meet a few new parents at back-to-school functions who you'll want to reconnect with later. Mom of two, Kristal Ronnebaum suggests handing out a family calling card. "It's a method of sharing your contact information in a fun and creative way," Ronnebaum says. You can also hand the card to babysitters, carpool drivers and new neighbors (attached to a small housewarming gift).
Encourage rest. A successful school year requires quality sleep. "Start edging those bedtimes back a week or two in advance of school starting," Dawkins says. Maintain a regular evening routine that helps your child unwind before bed, such as a warm bath or shower and reading time. Also, build unstructured time into your child's weekly schedule for playing with friends and pursuing creative endeavors.