In just 19 days, my kids go back to school — 1st and 3rd grades this year. I know some of my readers in other parts of the country are already back (and to you I say, SORRY, every year I vow to do better by you and just can’t wrap my brain around back-to-school so early in the summer), and others will start anytime between now and Labor Day. The season brings, for me, the usual mix of sadness at losing summertime, relief at getting a solid routine back, and stressing out over making sure we’re ready for the onslaught of EVERYTHING: School schedules, new teachers, events, fundraisers, soccer, ballet, orchestra, piano lessons, EVERYTHING. And the lunches. Of course, the lunches.

But as much as I feel the wave of stress coming at me each year, I also know that it’s not necessary, because I’m an old pro at this by now. I’ve been packing lunches since L. was under 2 years old, which means I’ve obviously put together approximately 70 bazillion healthy lunchboxes — give or take a few. When I start to get that creeping stress-paralysis thing going on as the school year inches closer, I turn to some tried-and-true methods to help get me a little bit ahead of the game while I gear up for the big back-to-school organization push.

  1. Do a virtual stock-up of your real-life pantry. Online shopping has never been so easy, so efficient, or so affordable for lunch-packers. Try or Thrive Market for an easy shopping trip you can handle from your couch, and you’ll be able to get pantry staples like applesauce cups, granola bars, popcorn and more delivered straight to your front door. One thing I like about Thrive, at least for back-to-school season, is that they have low prices on organics and natural foods that aren’t always easy to find in some areas of the country, so it’s great for your wallet and for your gas tank.
    (Disclosure: I have no relationship of any kind to Thrive Market. However, as a member of their service, I have been automatically provided with a referral link, so if you use the link I’ve provided here I get points towards my next purchase.)
  2. Add 3 extra items to your grocery list. Every week for 3 or 4 weeks, put 3 items on your grocery list that are specifically intended for lunchbox stock-ups. This is your chance to snag some spare cans of tuna or jars of nut/seed butter, extra bags of favorite snack items, or even breads, bagels, and deli sliced meats and cheeses — all of which can be individually portioned and frozen in zip-top bags for easy access during the school year.
  3. Double your dinner. Grill a couple of extra chicken breasts, slice and freeze; make an additional half-pound of taco meat and stick it in a freezer container as well. Portion leftover soup, chili or spaghetti sauce in single-serve jars and squirrel away for a rainy day. Don’t worry about cooking something special for lunches — just pretend you’re making dinner for an extra person or two, and after a few nights you’ll have the building blocks for several lunches ready to go when you need them.
  4. Re-organize and re-assess. Take just 10 minutes to go through all your lunch-packing supplies and make sure everything is easy to find, in good condition, and complete — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached for a container in the morning to find that the lid has gone missing, or tried to fill a water bottle whose spout has mysteriously disappeared. One good solution that may work is to keep lunchbox items in a separate small bin that can be stowed in a cabinet, but pulled out quickly at lunch-packing time, putting everything you may need at your fingertips.
  5. Plan your attack. The time to figure out what you’re making for lunches or whether your kids will be allowed to buy school lunch, and if so, how often, is BEFORE you need to put those decisions into action. Consider your family’s schedule and priorities, and plan ahead as much as possible to give yourself a basic structure that will help keep you organized throughout the year. Will Fridays be school lunch days? Will every Monday be leftovers from Sunday dinner, and every Wednesday sandwich day? Will you do pizza once a week? All of these are questions you can answer now, with plenty of time to give them some mental energy.

Need more lunchbox advice or inspiration? Check out these posts from my archives!

5 Quick Ways to Stay Organized for School Lunch
Best Lunches of 2014
The Lunchbox 180