Expert-approved solutions to streamline your mornings and evenings.
As the school year approaches, we tend to focus on acquiring the required supplies, buying new clothes, and creating a solid morning routine. But to truly set yourself up for a streamlined back-to-school season, turn your attention to the most trafficked area of the house come September: the kitchen. After all, it’s the scene of (often rushed) mornings, packed lunches, after-school snacks, and weeknight dinners. Use these tips and tricks to get your kitchen—and your family—ready for the year ahead.
Purge the Pantry
If this sounds like a familiar place to start, that's because it works. A few weeks before classes kick off, remove everything from your pantry and cupboards. Check each item for an expiration date and toss anything that’s past its prime. Add groceries that need to be restocked to your shopping list and reorganize each shelf, grouping categories of like items together and leaving a bit of extra room to guard against over-crowding later. Do the same in the fridge, with an eye toward leaving a shelf or a drawer open for deli meat, cheese, yogurt, and other perishable lunch staples.
Conquer Plastic Storage Containers
As you do the pantry- and cupboard-sweep, set aside any and all plastic tubs—whether they’re oddball takeout containers or part of a set. Match lids to bottoms and recycle any that have lost their partner. “File” the containers and tops in a deep drawer, altogether, for easy access when you need to grab them for packing lunches or putting away weeknight leftovers.
Start With a Tidy Space
As you’re organizing, grouping like with like, explore ways you can simplify life in the kitchen in general. “I keep baking ingredients, for example, in large rimmed trays in the pantry,” says Becky Rapinchuk of Clean Mama. Simply slide the tray out when you need baking soda, flour, and sugar. “This contains drips and spills, and keeps the pantry looking tidy.” Hey, on a morning when you’re rushing, every bit of order helps.
Refresh Your Command Station
Somewhere in or near the kitchen, gather important papers, a calendar, pens, school information, and files. (Here’s how to organize a command station that’ll work for your family.) “We keep keys in a cup at the station, too, and any important in-process information,” says Rapinchuk. Designate a spot for things like permission slips or to-be-completed homework means you’ll have help staying on top of the piles. “When everything has a home,” she adds, “it’s easy for everyone to find what they need—and even easier to put it away.”
Create a Running Master Shopping List
Before the back-to-school rush, make one exhaustive list of all the non-food items you rely on: baggies, plastic wrap and foil, napkins, hand wipes, utensils, and so on. Add any replacement lunch bags, thermoses, and plastic food storage containers your kids need, as well. Keep the list in your kitchen or your phone so you can jot down items as you think of them (our app, Cozi, lets the whole family add to your shopping list—and you can keep household items and groceries all in one place). Then, as you begin back-to-school shopping, consult that list and nab any of those items whenever you find them on sale.
Separate Lunch Foods and Snacks
As you’re prepping the kitchen, label an area as snack quarters (a plastic container in the pantry and fridge will do). Pre-portion treats for after-school noshing, and set some ground rules; perhaps everybody gets one piece of fruit and one crunchy snack each afternoon. “I pre-portion snacks and lunch items for the week in zip-top bags, which keeps it all manageable, as it’s more of a grab-and-go lunch packing system,” says Anne Myer of Teach. Eat. Love. Melanie Gunnell, of Mel’s Kitchen Café, also reserves certain food for lunch: “I designate a drawer in my fridge that’s ‘off-limits’ for general snacking. It seems silly, but with five growing children in my home, it doesn’t take much for them to eat up everything in sight—and when we go to pack lunches, the options are long gone.”
Post an Easy-Access Cheat Sheet
Whatever your grocery list system, this secondary list can save plenty of time and sanity: Gunnell keeps a printable list on the inside of a cupboard with options for independent lunch-packing and snacking: “This way we—and by we, I mean my kids—can easily choose and pack lunches the night before,” she says. “It includes a column for main fare, crunchy snacks, fruit or vegetable, and treats. The kids can pick anything from those columns, knowing they have to choose one from each, so they don’t ‘forget’ to pack a fruit or vegetable. It works like a charm, and allows me to avoid nagging them to pack a healthy lunch.” Nearby, she keeps a running list of the week’s dinner plans, too.
Plan Dinners in Advance
Rapunchik plans a week’s worth of dinners on Friday, before her big weekly shopping trip. “I swear by my recipe binder, where I keep a running list of favorite meals,” she says. “I rotate through the favorites and add a new recipe or two each week.” She also maintains a running shopping list to keep track of miscellaneous items. When putting together a menu, think about more than what the kids will eat. “I try to be realistic about our schedule, my motivation level, and everyone’s sanity,” says Gunnell, so she doesn’t plan a meal that isn’t feasible. Ultimately, all the experts agree: The best solution for simple, nutritious weeknight meals? Planning ahead.
Make Friends With Your Freezer
As the summer winds to a close, it doesn’t hurt to pack the freezer with dinner options—and even lunch items—that you can thaw and serve a few weeks down the road. “I double almost every freezer-friendly recipe, like spaghetti sauce, and toss half in the freezer for another meal,” Myer says. “Why work harder than you have to, right?”