Back-to-school meal planning tips

Can I tell you secret? I don’t usually meal plan in the summer. We really like to relax and just go with the flow in the summer, so getting back into a routine for back-to-school is an adjustment, for sure. If you’ve been following on my Instagram stories, I’ve been posting some of my favorite meal planning and prepping tips pretty regularly. Those tips will certainly help you get through the first few weeks back-to-school, as kids and adults adjust to a new routine, but this post will help with a few major school-related obstacles:

  • Quick and easy breakfasts
  • Lunch shortcuts
  • Fast suppers

Before I dive in to some ideas to help your back-to-school planning and prep go smoothly, keep in mind, that the important part of all of this, is to plan and prep in advance. It doesn’t matter which foods you are preparing. Prepare foods that your family eats and enjoys, but do as much planning and prep as you can when you have time, so that they’re ready to go on those days that you don’t have time.

Plan quick and easy breakfasts to get you out the door

We’re a yogurt, cereal and fruit for breakfast kind of family, so that usually whips up pretty quickly in the morning. Sometimes, the kids like to have pancakes so I made a double batch of protein pancakes from The School Year Survival Cookbook and froze them on sheet pans individually, before bagging them and storing them in the freezer. Thirty seconds in the microwave and you’ve got a hot, ready to eat pancake. I also like to have eggs once in a while, so hard-boiled eggs are a quick option for busy mornings. Other time-saving ideas: chia pudding, smoothie packs, breakfast burritos, overnight oats, and baked oatmeal cups (basically a baked oatmeal muffin, also from School Year Survival)

Breakfast meal prep to-do list ideas:

  • Make hard-boiled eggs for the week
  • Make and freeze pancakes
  • Pre-measure smoothie ingredients and store in the freezer
  • Make mason jar chia puddings or overnight oats for the week
  • Bake a batch of oatmeal cups
  • Make and freeze a batch of breakfast burritos

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Click the links/images if you want to purchase the products I use. I only promote products I use and love!

The School Year Survival Cookbook

I will probably reference The School Year Survival Cookbook a few times, because it is the only cookbook that I use regularly. This is not an ad for said cookbook, but if you’re looking for some great shortcuts and healthy recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, it’s one to look into.

Plan for lunch shortcuts

Making lunches is one of the tasks I dread the most! We keep it simple by trying to take leftovers, taking salads, soups from the freezer and fresh veggies and fruits.

Freeze leftovers

Everytime we have a soup or chili, the leftovers go directly into the freezer, and we grab those for lunches when we don’t have leftovers from the night before. Salads and dressings are easy to make-ahead and portion and also work out great for busy lunch hours when I don’t have time to run to the microwave.

Double the recipe and freeze

My all-time favorite lunch hack is freezing hummus. Use an ice cube tray (silicone ones work best for this popping out the frozen cubes), freeze a batch or two of hummus, then place the cubes in a bag. Take as many cubes as you need for your lunch, and that’s it! I like this because you don’t have to take hummus every single day of the week before the batch spoils. It’s also not as messy to portion out, once it’s already frozen.

Make and freeze muffins, cookies and snacks when you have the chance

Lunchtime snacks for us usually consist of a homemade baked good of some kind: cookies, muffins, energy bites. I had a personal goal last year to make zero-waste lunches, therefore I avoid packaged snacks. All of my favorite go-to recipes are on my Tried and True Pinterest board. You can follow it here.

Tip: Do your baking while you`re eating dinner. It only takes 20 minutes to bake a batch of muffins, so by the time you’re finished eating, you can take it out of the oven, and do the dishes with your meal time dishes.

Lunch meal prep to-do list ideas:

  • Make a big quinoa, pasta or green salad to take for the week and portion it.
  • Make a few different salad dressings to add variety to your everyday salad
  • Chop raw veggies and portion.
  • Freeze hummus in ice cube trays.
  • Freeze soup or chili for an emergency lunch when you don’t have leftovers
  • Prep ingredients for back-to-school lunch bowls
  • Make Energy Bites for an easy, healthy snack
Salad bowl grain bowl
Lunch bowls are a combination of greens, grains, soft veggies, crunchy veggies, dressing or sauce and a crunchy topping.

Plan fast suppers for when you have to head out to activities

My BFF texted me earlier this week asking for quick meal ideas because she only has 20 minutes at home, before she has to head out to activities with her kids. Whenever I’m planning meals for hectic days, I consider the following:

  • Can I get it on the table in less than 20 minutes? (With or without interruptions)
  • Is it no-cook or pre-cook?
  • Is it hands-off cooking?

What is hands-off cooking?

Hands-off cooking is any cooking or preparation technique that allows you to be hands-free to do something else. Your Instant Pot, slow-cooker, rice cooker, and oven are all helpful tools for freeing up your hands at dinner time. This is particularly useful if you need to gather equipment or help small kids get changed for their next activity. Some hands-off meals that we eat are sheet pan dinners or baked pastas like manicotti or mac and cheese. Keep in mind, these usually take at least 20-30 minutes to cook, so they’re better for when you have a bit more time at home between activities.

No-cook or pre-cook suppers

Again, as I mentioned before, planning and prepping in advance is the key to getting you through the “I don’t have time right now” obstacle. My go-to meals for ultra busy evenings are big salads and slow-cooker soups/sauces.

Big salads

Chicken caesar, taco, greek salad with chicken can all be made and even portioned ahead of time, so you can grab it from the fridge, dress it, and eat. Big salads are also great for eating on the go, if you have to eat while watching your kids’ sporting event, have the kids eat in the car while you’re driving (my partner is cringing right now because he hates when I let the kids eat in the car) and then you can eat while you’re spectating. Or of course, eat at home if you have the time.

Slow-cooker soups

I’m not a huge fan of using the slow-cooker for meals like stir-frys, meat and vegetables because I feel like it always ends up being mushy and watery. Unless you’re monitoring when you’re adding certain veggies so they stay tender-crisp, for example, you’re going to have a mushy meal. Also, having to tend to the slow cooker is not hands-off cooking and is not set it and forget, so those are a no-go for me. Meals we love in the slow cooker are Chicken Tortilla Soup, Green Turkey Chili, Sausage and white bean soup, spaghetti sauce. We have a large slow cooker for doing a big soup, and small once for heating up enough sauce for our family.

This Green Turkey Chili is simple to assemble and cooks in your slow-cooker all day while you’re at work.

Low-cook suppers

Low-cook suppers are basically supper that you simply have to heat-up before eating. Yes, this could mean leftovers, but it doesn’t have to. Tacos and burrito bowls are the easiest to whip up quickly. All you have to do is heat up pre-cooked meat or rice, take your toppings out of the fridge and you`re ready to roll. You can even have homemade fresh salsa like these pineapple or tomatillo salsa, if you have some time to make them before your busy week starts.

pineapple salsa close-up
Homemade pineapple salsa seems like it would be complicated, but you can eat this on busy nights if you take a few minutes to make it the day before.

Supper meal prep to-do list ideas:

  • Pre-make salads and portion for on-the-go nights
  • Pre-cook taco meat and chop fixings for an easy low-cook meal
  • Make a slow-cooker soup for hands-off meal that is ready when you get home
  • Pre-cook rice for fast burrito bowls or fried rice
  • Chop ingredients for a sheet pan dinner
  • Make a mac and cheese or pasta bake and toss it in the oven when you get home

For more meal planning and prepping ideas, you can check out these past posts on Five things you should make for supper every week and Five things to consider when meal planning to help you through these first few weeks of back to school chaos. And if you’re really stuck for ideas, here is what our family will be eating next week.

Healthy, school-safe, gluten-free energy bites

energy bars lined up on a platter next to an open jar of coconut
Healthy, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free. What more do you need?

With back-to-school just around the corner, I’m already trying out new snacks for our lunches. These days nearly every school is nut-free or nut-safe.  Even though nuts are an excellent choice for healthy snack options, it’s important to respect the guidelines set out by your child’s school to keep everyone safe. These school-safe energy bites are a product of whatever I had in my pantry this day, but they are gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free. 

A healthy snack

So what makes them so healthy?

  • High in protein (sunflower seed butter and hemp seeds)
  • Great source of healthy fat (coconut)
  • High in energy providing B vitamins (sunflower seeds)
  • Naturally sweetened (maple syrup, dates)
  • High in fibre and antioxidants (dates)

School-friendly, school-safe

These energy bites are great for school lunches because they’re peanut-free. They are also gluten-free and dairy-free. They travel well, so they’re a great option for an after-school snack, if you’re heading to extra-curricular activities straight from school.

Adult and kid friendly

I have made these “bites” in different sizes.  You can shape them into balls or press them into bars, depending on who you’re serving them to. 

The mixture can be pressed into bars (shown here) or rolled into balls.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Click the links/images if you want to purchase the products I use. I only promote products I use and love!

I used my Epicure silicone pan for these, however there are similar ones on Amazon like this one:

Variations and adjustments

You can play around with the dry ingredients to throw in some other healthy ingredients such as ground flax seed, pumpkin seeds or oats. If you want to add nuts, you can sub any nut for the sunflower seeds, or use a nut butter (peanut, almond) instead of sunflower seed butter. You could also add mini chocolate chips, which I didn’t do, but definitely will next time!

These are fairly sweet, so you could also get away with reducing/omitting the maple syrup. I would try mixing it up without it at first, sample it, then add the maple syrup in small amounts to your liking.

Make-ahead

As always, I love a good make-ahead recipe that can be stored in the fridge or freezer for future use.

If you’re looking for a healthy back-to-school lunch idea, check out my Back-to-school lunch bowls.

Also, last year at this time, I purchased The School Year Survival Cookbook and it is life-changing! I especially love and make the Multigrain Muffin Mix regularly and the entire Breakfast section of the book. These recipes are great for getting ahead when meal prepping for back-to-school, but I also use them often when entertaining for brunch. Definitely worth the buy!

Recipe – Healthy, school-safe, gluten-free energy bites 

  • 2 cups dates (soaked in warm water for 20 minutes)
  • 1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds 
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seed butter
  • 1/2 cup hemp seeds
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut (plus more for coating the outsides) 
  • 1 Tbsp. maple syrup

Basically all you have to do is blend everything together in the food processor, once you’ve soaked your dates and drained out the water. Shape into balls (about 1 Tbsp. each) or press into bars, roll in coconut (or coconut flour if you prefer a smoother texture on the outside) and store in an air-tight container in the fridge or freezer. Pretty simple. Enjoy!

How to meal plan, prep and pack for camping

When we go camping or out to the lake, our biggest obstacles are usually how to keep the food cold (cooler space and/fridge space) and how to pack enough food in one cooler to last the weekend. These obstacles are easy to overcome if you plan and prep before you go.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Click the links if you want to purchase the products I use. I only promote products I use and love!

Maximize cooler space

I mentioned in How to pack efficiently for your weekend getaways, one of my favorite food packing tips. Freeze everything you possibly can, so it can act as an ice pack and save valuable real estate in your cooler. Another way to maximize cooler space is to bring smaller containers of larger items like condiments. Do you really need a whole bottle of Ketchup for one weekend? Not likely. Using small mason jars or reusable containers will help you save space.

Minimize ingredients

It’s easy to save space when you bring less stuff. My best tip for reducing the number of ingredients to pack, is to try to use them in more than one way. For example, you can use naan for Breakfast Pizza, then use it again for Greek Chicken Wraps for lunch or dinner. When planning your menu, start with one meal, then see what ingredients you can use in the next.

Prep before you pack

There are very few disadvantages to prepping before you pack. You will save on cooler space and you will save on cooking time when you’re camping. A general rule that I follow when packing a cooler is that anything that is frozen stays in the original packaging or in Ziploc bags (double up meat and liquids to avoid a mess in your cooler) and anything that is cut or pre-cooked goes in containers

How to prep and pack meats

  • Smoked meats (hot dogs, bacon, farmer sausage, breakfast sausage) should stay in their original packaging and frozen to function as ice packs.
  • Whole cuts of meat (chicken breasts, steaks, fish, shrimp) should be portioned and sliced if necessary prior to cooking, then frozen in Ziploc bags to act as ice packs.
  • Ground meats can be frozen in Ziploc bags uncooked, or take it a step further and cook it (for example for tacos, pasta sauce or meatballs) then freeze it once it has been cooked.
  • Pre-made burger patties should be stored in containers so that they don’t get squished.

How to pack and prep fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are the number one space hogs of the cooler. I remember going on an Outdoor Ed. hiking trip with some grade 11 and 12 students and one student actually packed a whole watermelon in his backpack! Totally unnecessary.

  • Large fruits like melons and pineapples have staying power if they’re cut in advance, so storing them in a container is sure to save you space and time.
  • Berries tend to spoil quicker if washed and cut ahead of time, so keep those in their original containers if you can, and wash and eat as needed.
  • Whole fruits like apples, oranges, peaches and bananas don’t need to take up valuable space in your cooler, so store them in a large storage bin with your non-perishables. This is a tip you’ve seen before in How to pack efficiently for your weekend getaways.
food packed in a storage bin
Using a large storage bin for non-perishables helps keep food from getting crushed. It also allows for easy access throughout the weekend and is convenient for storing in your vehicle to keep the bears away.

How to pack and prep non-perishables

As I just mentioned, it’s a good idea to store non-perishables in a large storage bin, to avoid squishing, crushing, and for easy access throughout the weekend.  Also great if you need to store food in your car to keep the bears out. Storing in a bin makes packing a breeze, because when you get home with your groceries for your trip, you can pack them directly in your bin.

Sample meal plan

I’ve included a PDF sample two-day meal plan here, if you want a detailed look at how I plan. It includes ingredients required, pre-pack prep instructions, on-site prep instructions and additional considerations.