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

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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.

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.

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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.

Quick and Easy Breakfast pizza for two or ten

Breakfast pizza is one of my favorite breakfast recipes for any occasion. It’s simple enough to treat yourself to the glorious breakfast you deserve, fancy enough to serve your brunch guests and deconstructible enough to cater to your pickiest eater.

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The crust

Because this is a pizza, you can really use any type of crust you want. Homemade dough, store-bought dough, store-bought crust. Since it’s breakfast, I like to keep it simple and use naan. Garlic naan is even better. I love Suraj naan because it’s soft, pillowy and it comes in a 10 pack. This is a great option because it’s small enough for one person, and you can fit four on a large cookie sheet, so making for a crowd isn’t a problem at all.

The toppings

When you’re thinking of toppings to use on your breakfast pizza, think more breakfast than pizza. Anything you would put in an omelette would work great here. Also important to note that there is no sauce on this pizza. A light brushing of olive oil and some Italian seasoning is all you need! My favorite brands to use are Epicure Italian Dressing mix and Good Seasons (Available in the USA and on Amazon.) If you want to make your own, sprinkle a bit of garlic powder, basil, oregano, salt and pepper on your crust and it will be just as delicious. I also like to go really light on the cheese. You don’t want it to stretch like a regular pizza, but simply hold the toppings to the crust. Here are some topping suggestions.

  • Cheese (cheddar, mozza, smoked gouda, parm, vegan)
  • Bacon bits
  • Sausage
  • Ham
  • Prosciutto
  • Mushrooms
  • Peppers
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Roasted garlic
  • Pickled banana peppers
  • Fresh herbs (basil, dill, parsley, rosemary, oregano)
  • Eggs

Putting it all together in five steps

Once you have your toppings prepped, the pizza comes together in five quick steps.

  1. Dress the crust
  2. Add the toppings
  3. Bake
  4. Cook the eggs
  5. Garnish with extras

Dress the crust

As I mentioned before, brush it with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle on some Italian dressing mix or Italian seasoning. It’s also delicious smeared with a few cloves of roasted garlic if you want to get really fancy.

Add the toppings

There’s no need to cook the veggies to top your pizza, but you should cook sausage or any raw meat you are using to top the pizza. I like to start with the cheese, mozzarella, and use about 1/3 of a cup per pizza. As I already mentioned, you only want enough cheese to make the toppings stick. Top it with as many toppings as you like. My go-to is bacon bits, tomatoes, mushrooms and banana peppers. You might be inclined to add the eggs, but don’t! I’ve experimented with the eggs in a few different ways and the fastest and easiest way is to fry up some over-easies while the pizzas are baking, then simply place one (or two) on each pizza when they’re done.

Bake

Baking doesn’t take long at all. In a pre-heated 425 F oven, it will only take 7-10 minutes. Keep an eye on it and take it out when the toppings are cooked to your liking and the crust is golden. A softer crust is still great for sopping up the runny egg yolk (which I love) so do what you like!

Cook the eggs

I’ve experimented with placing a raw egg on the pizza before baking and the results are inconsistent. Sometimes the yolk ends up hard, sometimes the white doesn’t cook through. The easiest and fasted way to cook the eggs is to do them in a frying pan, while the pizzas are baking. By the time the pizzas are out of the oven, the eggs are ready to go on. I like over-easy because you can dip the crust in the yolk or just spread it around the pizza for some sauciness. You can do sunny side up or scrambled too. You could even slice up a hard-boiled egg if you really wanted to.

Garnish with extras

This is my favorite part. A little sprinkling of some extras to make it extra fancy. My go-tos are fresh parsley, fresh dill, fresh parm, salt and pepper. You can use any fresh herb, chili oil or a flavored olive oil. A sprinkling of dried chilies or a drizzle of pesto.

Why this works for two or ten

Breakfast pizza does not take a long time to prep or cook. If you’re making for two, you can simply throw it together right on the cookie sheet in a matter of minutes. If you’re making for a crowd, you can set up a topping bar and let guests make their own. It’s really that simple. You should try it.