It’s back-to-school season, which means it’s time to get organized.
Gone are the carefree nights when I could give my husband that special look — you know, the one where I say, “Should we go get ice cream?” Gone are the bedtime delays in the hunt for fireflies and the leisurely mornings spent whipping up a stack of homemade pancakes.
In place of backyard camping and afternoon sprinkler runs, there’s “camping” in my car during practices, after-school pick-up runs, and “Mom, can you help me with my ____ (insert giant project due in the morning without any warning here)?”
I’ll be the first to admit that I love the slower pace of summer, because come soccer season and after-school piano lessons and swim classes, I know I will definitely be longing for a little more downtime in our lives. But the key to surviving the after-school madness with a smile on my face is employing a few simple strategies:
1. Embrace your slow-cooker
Vickie Egresics Clouse, a mom of three, swears that come back-to-school season, your slow cooker is going to be your new BFF. In the morning, you can throw in a bunch of ingredients and go about your day. Then at night you’ve got a delicious hot meal waiting — with a fraction of the mess! And sure, you could pick up a pizza if you’re in a rush. But with a prep time of less than ten minutes (and a fraction of the calories) why not try this slow-cooker pizza recipe instead? Add some extra veggies and you’ve got a quick, healthy “cheat” meal your kids will love.
Pizza not your thing? This Korean Shredded Beef Taco is my favorite slow-cooker meal. Coincidentally, it’s also my family’s favorite meal, which makes me feel like a hero. Try it and thank me later in the form of Starbucks gift cards, because it’s the most delicious thing you’ll ever eat.
2. Simplify meal plans
Instead of planning elaborate meals for every night of the week, fall back on quick and easy staples to get your family through this busy season of life. There’s no shame in spaghetti, know what I’m saying?
3. Replace in-person teacher chats with email
If you’re tempted to pop into your child’s classroom to chat with the teacher after school about that test he needs to make up, consider simply emailing him or her instead. It will save both of you time. Plus, the after-school chaos can make it hard for the teacher to give everyone the attention they deserve. “Every teacher is different, but email is always faster,” says one middle-school math teacher.
4. Stash snacks in the car
In the morning, pack a few snacks in the kids’ backpacks and in the car for the quick bus-to-car exchange, suggests mom, Shannon Swoish. I always make sure to have plenty of granola bars, snack crackers, and trail mix on hand.
Another trick is to pack frozen items that will thaw throughout the day and be ready to go come game time, like frozen yogurt tubes, frozen juice boxes, or Smucker’s® Uncrustables® sandwiches.
5. Keep a change of clothes on hand
In addition to water bottles and snacks in the car, mom Lakeisha M. White recommends keeping a quick change of easily accessible clothes in the car or your kid’s backpack. This will help ease the transition to after-school activities (and keep your car clean after a muddy football practice).
6. Stay organized, old-school style
Shannon Swoish likes to go retro (ha) with a paper calendar to stay organized more easily. “I keep all activities on my phone calendar and a paper calendar at work,” she explains. “I know it’s double work, but I like to see the whole month in front of me at times too!”
7. Prep like a mad woman
Mom Jean Lumpp Wyckoff has learned that the key to staying organized is preparing in advance.
“All nonperishable snacks, equipment, and whatever else is needed is packed the night before or morning of before school/work,” she says. “Perishable snacks and water bottles are made and put together in the fridge for an easy grab when we run home for a few minutes to change/use bathroom before running out again.”
Wyckoff also recommends making double batches of dinner on those nights you actually have time to cook, or baking up some chicken breasts while the kids are eating breakfast, so you have a fast heat ‘n’ ready meal for the night.
8. Get the younger kids involved
If you have younger children along for the ride, it can be difficult to keep everyone entertained and happy during after-school activities. Try choosing a few special activities that they can do during practices or car rides, like a rotating car toy bag, a car coloring book and crayons, or even their own games on your phone or tablet that they can only play at designated times. I also love employing my little ones to play “photographer” for me — they stay entertained and every once in a while, I actually end up with a good picture like the one above!
9. Make car time, study time
Serve up some spelling words from the driver’s seat or invest in a few lap desks to get homework done on the go. Bonus: when you finally do get to collapse at home, you won’t have to spend that time chasing your kids down for homework. (Ugh.)
10. Swap carpool duties
Whenever possible, I try to befriend the adults in my kids’ activities, not because I am a wonderful, delightful human being, but for one very important reason: to have a back-up parent, just in case I need help with carpooling. Why do twice the amount of work if both of you are willing to swap driving duty?
11. Talk to your school for pick-up solutions
If your school doesn’t have a pick-up line, save some time in the afternoon by coming up with a creative pick-up solution. For example, last year, I had the fun problem of having to pick up my daughter from school, only to have sleeping babies in the car or a foot of snow to pile through. I didn’t want to unpack all of my little kids, so we talked to the principal for some other solutions to help, like assigning walking “helpers” from older grades or letting my daughter walk out with a friend on certain days. It saved me so much time instead of hauling all the little people in to get her.
12. Hang separate activity bags by the door
Instead of trying to pack and unpack your child’s equipment, clothes, and activity gear, consider packing different activities in separate bags on hooks so they’re easily accessible and ready to go. One bag could include all of your son’s band necessities, while another could stash all of his soccer gear. (Mom tip: an air freshener might be a necessity for that one).
13. Up your app game
Put technology to work for you: I recently downloaded a grocery shopping app to my phone and my husband’s phone so he can add items directly to our list. I added a calendar app with a weekly view for my iPhone so I can easily look at what’s coming up and I installed the Dropbox mobile app so I can have access to all of my files wherever I’m at (which allows me to share pictures or school documents on the go).
14. Pack lunches when you empty them
I hate packing lunches, so I simplified the process a bit by creating grab-able “snack stations” in my house with large containers for yogurts on the bottom shelf of our fridge, another in our cupboard for granola bars and rotating water bottles that are always ready to go. So as soon as I empty my kids’ lunch boxes at night, I can re-pack them for the next day with less hassle.
15. Create a homework station
Half of our homework time is spent:
1. Finding a pencil that’s actually sharpened.
2. Finding the pencil sharpener.
3. Locating batteries once the pencil sharpener is found because someone took them out to use in the TV remote again.
4. Starting the whole process all over because the first pencil didn’t have an eraser.
I could take a few tips from Tools To Grow on creating the perfect homework station with all the must-haves right on hand to save on precious lost time searching for supplies.
16. Design the after-school wall of your dreams
Browse Pinterest or sites like These Little Moments Photography to get inspired to create your own after-school wall that will leave your inner control queen’s heart a-fluttering. The essentials? A calendar, lots of hooks for hanging backpacks and sports bags, and files to stash incoming and outgoing school paperwork. Genius.
17. Build in some downtime
Schedule an activity-free night each week just like you would your child’s ballet practice. Because downtime is necessary for all of you to recharge.
18. One word: smoothies
I know I’m late to the party here, but I recently invested in a personal-sized blender to help me whip up some healthy smoothies as I’m rushing out the door after school. I can never seem to find time for lunch, so a small smoothie station with a portable travel cup has been a great solution for sipping on the go, and I can whip up extra for the kids too. They love having their own “milkshakes” with mom, and you and I both know they will never taste that hidden spinach.
19. Stash a blanket in the car
Not only will it come in handy during an unexpectedly chilly soccer game, but it will make a picnic dinner possible in a pinch. And if you happen to use that same blanket for a little shut-eye when no one is looking, we promise your secret is safe with us.
What are some of your solutions for simplifying the after-school rush?