Back to school season is upon us! Healthy meal planning can become a bit more difficult as we're getting back into the swing of things. There’s the added step of thinking about how to plan for lunches at school and snacks on the run. There may be new extracurricular activities which adjust our schedules in ways we aren't used to, and something as simple as thinking about getting lunch is ready for the week can be quite stressful.
Amidst the chaos, excitement, and back to school jitters, there actually lies opportunity! Contrary to what we think, we can use a transition phase to our advantage—as a way to create new healthy habits. How? Well, any time that our schedule changes, it gives us an opportunity to work on our habits. We can intentionally leave out some of the old behaviors and cues that led to unhealthy habits, and we make use of the transition time to add in new cues that will aid in developing better habits.
With that in mind, I would like to share a few suggestions and practical tips on how to get organized without getting overwhelmed. My hope is also that you’ll find some helpful ways to initiate healthy habits and behaviors which the whole family will carry forward all year long!
How To Get Started
First, create a food idea “inventory.” Start with by having everybody brainstorm ideas of things that they would like to see in the lunch and snack rotation. To get things going, you can also find ideas here, here, here, and here. It helps to have as many things as possible in the beginning, but the purpose it to continue to add to it as time goes on.
Next, organize the list in a way that works for you. A box of index cards divided by meal type, a handwritten notebook, a word document, the Dashing Dish recipe box, or the Dashing Dish Meal Calendar are all potential systems you can use. Some people prefer digital, other prefer writing—the important thing is that you find whatever actually works for you. The easier it is for you to stay organized, the more likely you are to actually use it! Experiment until you find the best format for your family. Don't get discouraged if you have to tweak it a few times before settling into what works comfortably.
Keep a pencil and paper with you so you can jot down ideas throughout the week. You never know when you may come across a recipe or meal idea that you would like to use for the upcoming weeks. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you'll remember it later… Write it down! You will be able transfer it to your inventory when you have time later on.
Utilize Pinterest to organize things. Create separate boards for lunch ideas, snack ideas, healthy products and supplies you might want to purchase, and so on. When inspiration runs dry, you can refer back to these boards.
Once you have your selections for the week, review your meal plan and write out your grocery list. Better yet, use the Dashing Dish grocery list—you can add additional items to the list, not just items from Dashing Dish recipes!
Decide what method of grocery shopping works best for you and your family. Some kids get excited about helping out with the process. Others will unintentionally derail your streamlined shopping goals, ask for things that were not on your list, or make it difficult to get through all of your errands. If it is easier for you to shop without them, then do so. If it is more fun for everyone to participate as a family, use that to your advantage!
Plan With A Purpose
Whenever you are planning the meals for the week ahead, consider having a purpose for your plan. What exactly do I mean by this? For me, it helps to decide on a big picture goal, that way I can break it down into a plan of attack. For example, some weeks I have a family event, so I will only want to spend the bare minimum time necessary in order to stay on track with healthy meals. This means I might purchase more prepackaged individual-size items than I would on other weeks. It may also mean substituting a few healthy convenience options, rather than cooking everything from scratch. Other weeks my goal might be prepping large batches of meals to freeze. On those weeks, I will be spending more time in the kitchen, but then ending up with several weeks’ worth of individual portions that I can pull out another time.
So, say you are going to be facing a particularly busy week; in this case, your planning priority needs to be convenience. Perhaps another week you are you more concerned about staying within a budget. This time your goal might center on finding options that are on sale, but that everyone will still enjoy. Given those examples, can you see how selecting a purpose for the plan can serve to streamline the process?
Time Cost vs. Money Cost
Remember the tradeoff of time for the value of convenience items, and weigh your options. Are things like prepackaged baggies of almonds or baby carrots worth the extra cost, or is it a better option for you to buy them in bulk and spend your time to dividing them up into Ziploc bags yourself?
When it comes to the family’s favorite or routinely used food items, watch for them to go on sale and then stock up! One of my local grocery stores will often have BOGO deals on the brand of almonds that I like, so I will buy several packages of them at a time. Then they will last me until the next time they are buy one get one free. If there is a good sale on meat, buy extra and freeze it since meat can be a big part of the grocery bill.
When you have the change, give yourself some extra time in the grocery store just to wander and browse new things. Go up and down the freezer isles and look at options that you may have missed before. You never know if there is something cost-effective that will save you time in the long run unless you take the time to look!
When I was growing up, I had a friend who literally ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every single day for lunch and often for dinner too. I'm not joking! Even when our families would go out to eat, he usually brought along a PB&J! Unfortunately, not everyone's kids can be this easy to please, but hopefully we are striving for a more balanced diet than this! Perhaps if we involved them in the process, they would be more willing to try new things.
Have the kids get involved by allowing them to suggest two or three items to add to the snack rotation for the week. This is especially useful when it comes to picky eaters. When kids feel like they have a choice, they are more likely to eat from the options given when they come to tell you they are hungry. If they put up any kind of argument about not wanting the items you suggest, you can gently remind them that they selected the options, and you are simply pulling from their list. This will also help eliminate food waste!
Every Mom is entitled to a break now and then, so never feel bad about asking for some help. Come up with a game plan for your spouse and kids for those times when you will not be able to contribute as much as usual to the planning and prepping. This is the perfect opportunity for them practice the healthy behaviors that they have been learning!
Come up with ways to add little surprises to the lunches. Encouraging notes, Bible verses, a comic from the Sunday paper, stickers, or anything you know will brighten their day. Research has shown that when positive emotions and bonding are associated with our behaviors, those behaviors are more likely to stick. You will also have fun with your spouse when brainstorming creative ways to surprise the kids!
Time Saving Shortcuts
You don’t have to get everyone’s lunches completely put together ahead of time, however, even small steps can save time when your are in a hurry to get out the door, so try to prepare the things which you can all at once in advance.
For example, package up baggies of fresh cut vegetables, pre-slice and portion out fruit that won't spoil, or divide up individual ingredients so that they're ready to grab and go. If you are planning to make sandwiches, you can't always build the whole thing early in the week and expect it to last more than a day without getting soggy. Instead, you can put your bread in one Ziploc bag, your meat and cheese in another, and place condiments packets in the lunch box. Then organize them so they are ready to grab and go each day, and everyone can build their sandwich when it is time to eat it.
Once you have things mostly sorted and ready to grab and go, each person can be responsible for putting their meal components into their lunch bag before leaving home. Tip: Have a list of the meal components and various snack options for that week on the refrigerator door so everyone knows what to grab for their full meal and does not miss anything!
Plan For The Unexpected
Staying on track when things go haywire (it will inevitably happen!) is possible if you plan ahead for it. Have at least one or two go-to healthy convenience items as backup plan for when something unexpected happens. These should be something you can keep on hand (i.e. no grocery trip required) in the freezer or the pantry, something you know everyone will eat, and something which will not take much (if any) time to prepare. Do not allow perfect to be the enemy of good. Tuna and cracker packs or reduced-sugar whole wheat Uncrustable Sandwiches might not be perfect, but they will still beat most school cafeteria lunches, nutritionally speaking.
I hope these planning ideas help get you and your family off to a great school year!