We’re gearing up for school in my house, and I’ve been consciously trying to get my culinary house in order to keep up with the new routine.
What does that mean?
Well, making sure I have plenty of cereal and after-school snacks on hand is at the top of the list, but like many parents, I treat this back-to-school time like a second New Year’s, where I try to correct some bad habits we might have accrued over the summer and reinstate some house rules that have loosened since we started school last year.
Here’s my back-to-school checklist for your kitchen:
Stock up on supplies. That’s snacks, plastic zip-top baggies and lunchmeat and bread, but I also mean staples like rice, pasta, canned goods and frozen veggies that will help you get a quick dinner on the table. I always have potstickers, frozen pizza and corndogs on hand for nights that are just too harried to cook.
Get into a meal planning routine. Planning every meal doesn’t work for my family, but planning two or three dinners over the course of the week definitely helps. The best meal planning cooks keep calendars on their fridges or on the phones so they can easily keep track of what’s for dinner and what they need to buy from the grocery store.
Purge, purge, purge. You know I’m a big fan of culling your spice cabinet and pantry often so that you don’t wind up with canned beans that expired in 2015. In my house, rolled-up bags of chips collect in the back of the pantry at the bottom where the kids toss them when I’m not looking, but I’m also about to throw away about 10 jars of various refrigerated pickles that I’ve acquired over the year and no one is eating.
Clean, clean, clean. Give your stovetop a good scrub. Wipe the shelves in the fridge. Get rid of all those half-sprouted garlic cloves. Toss the plastic containers that don’t have a lid. Take all the magnets, photos and paperwork off the fridge and only put back what you really want to have up there. Fall cleaning is just as cathartic as spring cleaning, so take a morning or an afternoon to show some self-love by cleaning a space you spend so much time in.
Bump your kids up to the next level of cooking and cleaning responsibility. My kids aren’t quite ready to start washing dishes by hand, but I am going to enforce the expectation that they bring their dirty plates to the sink. Not the kitchen countertop. If your kids are in middle or high school, find a kitchen-related task that they can be responsible for, such as sweeping the floor after dinner or running or emptying the dishwasher. For elementary school kids, it’s reasonable to expect that they throw away their snack trash or help clean up after dinner by putting away clean dishes or anything that needs to go back in the fridge.
If your kids are old enough to cook, assign them dinner once or twice a month. Don’t leave them totally unsupported, but let them take the lead on shopping for and preparing the ingredients. Kids who go off to college need the experience of not only cooking for themselves, but for a small group of people. It’s a life skill that is just as important as what they are learning in school.
Eat dinner together. You might already eat dinner at the table together every night, but it’s OK if you don’t hit every night. We try to eat the majority of meals at the dinner table together, but as a single mom, sometimes I need a little mental break. If eating separately means I have the stamina to play a board game or read a little extra with them later, that’s a fair exchange.
Divorced or separated? Talk with your co-parent about dining and food habits. My kids’ dad and I talk every day, usually via text, about stuff that’s going on in our kids’ lives. He’ll vent about the little one’s refusal to eat the amazing food he prepares for them, and I’ll let him know if they’ve overdone it on snacks when I wasn’t looking so he can be on the lookout for similar behavior. It’s unreasonable to expect that the kids’ have the same dinnertime habits in both houses, so try to avoid critiquing the other parent if he/she doesn’t do meals the way you wish they did. Having an open, acceptance-focused dialogue — rather than a corrective one — will allow you both to learn from each other. If there’s a problem around mealtime — bad manners, refusal to eat or sit at the table, poor food choices — talk about it privately with your co-parent and then have a family meeting with both parents and the kids to set some boundaries and expectations that both parents can commit to enforcing in each house. (This is true of resolving all family issues in divorced household, not just food, but you already knew that.)
You’ll find a ton of back-to-school tips over on Nicole Villalpando’s Raising Austin blog, including: