How to survive back to school

For Parents Aug 11, 2022

Back to school….

These three words can elicit delight – or terror. If you’re at home full-time with kids in school, it might mean finally getting a break after a jam-packed summer. If you’re homeschooling, back to school might mean returning to business as usual after a lighter summer program. If you have teenagers, it might mean convincing them they can’t stay up until 3 a.m. every day.

But whatever your schooling and parenting approach, life momentum tends to pick up as we move into fall. It usually means giving up some summer freedom – or at least upping our game.

And the transition can be a bit of a gauntlet – based on the shopping lists alone.

The good news is, we’re all in this together. And there are a few practical ways to make the process less painful.

But before we get into tactics – a quick note. We try hard to avoid being “fluffy” or giving obvious advice you’ve heard a thousand times before. As a working mother of two small children, I don’t have time for that, and I know you don’t either.

All right, let’s get into it.

1. Make a plan and send out the bat signal

I recently decided I wanted a smarter way to plan my life. This quest led me to the Lazy Genius, aka New York Times productivity legend Kendra Adachi. She’s got books, podcasts, holiday planning dockets – you name it.

Her approach is unique because it isn’t a prescriptive one-size-fits-all method but rather how to figure out what works for you and how to make the process smarter.

Not convinced? Check out Kendra’s Back to School podcast series. I especially loved the Get Your Back-to-School Life Together episode. Around minute 14, she explains how to break down to-do lists because a task isn’t just a singular task.

For example, “going to the pediatrician isn’t just going to the doctor.” It’s:

  1. Make an appointment.
  2. Arrange childcare or pickups for other children.
  3. Plan an easy dinner in case your kid falls apart during the visit etc.

Bottom line, you need to reverse engineer your to-do list, not just the outcomes but all the steps it takes to get there. Kendra reminds us that back to school is a great time to ask the “magic question – what can you do now that will make things easier later?”

So before you fall down the back-to-school rabbit hole and just start doing things, take a minute.

First, make a master list of everything that needs to be done: the errands, the appointments, the purchases, all of it.

Map out all necessary sports equipment, medical appointments or refills, next-season clothes, school supplies, textbooks, lunch fixings, free Covid home tests, etc. Consider what new weather gear you’ll need for your growing kids – rain jackets, windbreakers, beanies, and umbrellas.

While you’re at it, you might plan on grabbing a couple of blank cards and generic gifts for any last-minute birthday or thank-you emergencies. My favorites include Starbucks and Target gift cards for adults and some age-appropriate games or books for kids.

After you’ve made your master to-do list, ask yourself how you can protect your time.

Back-to-school is not the time to obsess about every dollar or sale. If your to-do list is a mile long, it’s the perfect time for Amazon 2-day shipping, Target Drive Up, grocery pickup, or Instacart.

If an hour of online shopping can save you a day of running around town, it’s a no-brainer. Yes, it’s a few extra bucks, but it’s (usually) worth the mental sanity.

Send out the bat signal

There is no law that says you have to take your kid on every errand. You can fall on that sword, but you don’t have to.

Instead, take your master list and recruit help: partners, grandparents, childless-family-friends, favorite babysitters – whoever. For example, I love outsourcing haircut trips to extended family. What is a painful chore for me is a fun novelty and unique bonding time for them.

Likewise, if you need something to keep your kids busy and not whining, while you do all the things, try a fun Outschool class. You can filter by the time of day you need filled and find something that will pique their interest.

Try a virtual escape room or a unique drawing class.

Weekly Art Club - Let's Draw Human Face Portraits!

Or, you can try some Life Skills class, like learning to cook. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get some help with dinner.

Cooking for Kids – Easy Dinners for Beginner Cooks

Having your kids try dynamic learning experiences like these not only gives you extra time to focus but can also remind them that learning can be fun – which is a great way to ease back into school.

Jumpstart your calendar

If you or your kids are making a big schedule change with fall back to school, consider starting a couple of days early.

It is fun for precisely no one, but it can help work out the kinks in a new routine. I recommend prepping coffee the night before and using bribery. Donuts, anyone?

2. Do NOTHING the first weekend after back to school

It’s trendy to do big celebrations around back to school – and for good reason. There is power to marking seasons, and even in creating your own opening or closing ceremony.

A new school year is a noteworthy milestone, and it’s natural to want to commemorate it. There’s just one problem – back to school is exhausting.

Because the more things change, the more mental effort is required.

Seasonal transition is a lot like traveling. You have to think about everything. You don’t know the route yet.

Even when I was growing up mostly homeschooled, “back to school” was still tiring because our summer events and groups had ended, and we had to figure out our new fall routine.

So plan on your family being extra tired. Consider keeping the week of back to school very simple with a “do-nothing” recovery weekend.

Jenn Hatmaker summed it up perfectly:

Listen to me: do not go to ‘celebration dinner’ Friday night, do not go to the late football game, do not decide to run errands, do not make big plans, do not ask one million questions, do not force them to talk about everything, do not attempt to execute ANYTHING AT ALL in which your expectations include children who are pleasant.

Bottom line, plan on pizza and zoning out for everyone.

3. Find a couple of ridiculously easy dinners and breakfasts

When change is in the air and life requires more mental energy than normal, it’s nice to not think, especially about what's for dinner.

If you need a foolproof, brainless meal, I love Kendra Adachi’s (again) recipes. Especially, Change Your Life Chicken. It’s a delicious, simple, and versatile sheet-pan meal.

For more spice, try her Change Your Life Shawarma (which is sitting in my fridge as I write this). If you’re a vegetarian or vegan try wild mushrooms on toast, it’s also foolproof. Whatever recipe you choose, consider skipping anything with complicated steps or intensive prep. Nobody has time for that right now.

For a dead-simple quick breakfast, my family is currently very into overnight oats. I love Seven Sundays muesli as a base, prepped by soaking the night before (in water, milk, almond milk, etc.) and topped with greek yogurt and fruit. Or some Kind Breakfast Bars in a pinch.

4. Make a celebratory snack board

So we’ve agreed any “big” celebrations are probably too much during the crush of back to school, but you still want something special. Enter the charcuterie board – they’re not just for impressing people at dinner parties.

While they may seem intimidating, they’re actually the perfect way to make something fun out of literally leftovers and odds and ends.

3 reasons you need a snack (or dinner) board

  • It’s an easy way to use up leftovers and pantry staples
  • Kids can “choose their adventure” and pick exactly what they want
  • They feel fancy but require minimal effort

Above is a picture of one of my actual snack boards – though this is admittedly one of the nicer ones.

You can use a “board recipe” if you want, Pinterest is full of them, or I love the book Beautiful Boards.

But basically, grab your biggest cutting or serving board, and add some fruit, cheese, something sweet (chocolate-covered pretzels, candy, cookies), something salty (chips, popcorn, nuts, crackers), and something bitter or sour (pickles, olives, kimchi).

My favorite base is popcorn, toasted nuts, chocolate or cookies, fruit slices, pre-made tapenade, crackers, and turkey or summer sausage.

Nothing says celebration like cake if you want an “extra” special element for your meal. Or if you’re my family – it’s dark chocolate Ghirardelli brownie mix. (Pro tip: add one extra egg yolk, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp espresso powder, and 1 cup toasted walnuts. Amazing.)

A simple charcuterie board is the perfect after-school help-yourself-snack or a super easy dinner. Either way, it feels like a party.  

5. Go easy on yourself and your kids

Change is hard. Even “good change” can still be emotionally loaded, especially if your family is facing a big transition, like moving from kindergarten to elementary or Jr. High to High School. Or switching from a brick-and-mortar school to starting homeschooling, or vice versa.

Change can also be internal, like wrapping your head around new personality traits or behaviors in your kid, or a new diagnosis.

So if you need a parental pep talk, we love the Good Inside Podcast. Or check out one of our Outschool Community Events for some solidarity and support.

Personally, nothing lightens my load, like connecting with other parents and caregivers who are going through the same things I am. We like to trade funny memes on Slack and send commiserating Marco Polo videos. It feels like if we can laugh together, we’ll be okay.

Back to school might feel fun for your family, or it might be really hard. But with a good game plan, a decent sense of humor, and a little community, we’ll start this school year strong. We’ve got this.

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Anna Duin

Anna is a Content Strategist at Outschool. She's also a mother to two pretty-awesome little boys. Nothing makes her happier than rising to a challenge or making something new.