Every Single Back-to-School Food Tip You Could Ever Need

published Sep 6, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman, VIDA, Emma Christensen, Shutterstock. Design: Kitchn

Last year, back-to-school felt more like back-to-schoolish. My younger son was fully remote (so, fully in his pajamas), while the older one started with a hybrid schedule so complicated I needed a whiteboard to attempt to keep track. In survival mode, we missed out on the rituals: the in-person backpack shopping, the running to Staples for one more yellow folder or glue stick. This year things are still uncertain, but many parents, like me, are just grateful for an in-person kickoff to the school year. 

Whether you have a little one off to preschool or an older kid navigating a new grade or a new school, we’ve got the safety strategies, recipes, product picks, lunches, treats, and more to help you ace back-to-school season.

First things first: a plan to keep kids safe at school with the Delta variant spreading, from a pediatrician/dad

  • Keep up COVID precautions: “There is so much uncertainty and changing information that if parents feel their head is spinning, that is to be expected,” says Jack Maypole, MD, director of the Comprehensive Care Program at Boston Medical Center. For all children — the vaccinated and the unvaccinated — there are no 100% surefire ways to avoid infection, he says, but there are proven strategies to reduce risk. “What is old is true again: Wash hands, mask up, and socially distance however/wherever possible.” 
  • Don’t ditch masks yet: No matter what the local guidelines are where you live, Dr. Maypole strongly recommends kids wear masks at school unless they are eating or drinking. “Kids should level up and use a good, quality mask when they go to school (considering an N95, or a KF94), and/or use a mask that straps behind the head (versus round the ears) and that gives them a good seal,” he advises. 
  • Watch for anxiety (yours and theirs): It makes sense we’re on edge: “The Delta variant is the equivalent of a western wildfire,” Dr. Maypole says. But panic doesn’t help, he notes. It’s better to use the safety fundamentals as your North Star, because they will help. Some kids, especially younger ones, may pick up on the fear we’re feeling. “It might come out in funny ways, including being moody, cranky, and having trouble with sleep, separation, or other activities that normally are no big deal,” he says. “As we go into a fall that will likely continue to be disrupted, stressful, and Covidy, it may be important to watch, look, listen … and give kids a chance to talk through what they are feeling.”

Some kid-friendly K95s

Vida’s K95 Masks for kids aren’t cheap (10 for $35) but they fit small faces well, which is key to protecting both the wearer and school community. And they come in fun colors. (And if you want to remind people that your kids under 12 are not vaccinated so keep your distance there’s a pin for that.)

Credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

A reminder about universal free lunch

There’s some very good news for the up to 12 million children in the United States who are food insecure: The USDA has extended a pandemic-era free meals for children program that makes it easier for kids to get free, high-quality meals through school — even if they’re schooling remote. This extension of a flexible free meals program started earlier in the pandemic means schools will continue to get enough reimbursement from the federal government to give out boxed meals that can be eaten while students are socially distancing or attending school from home. It’s also key because schools are a key source of healthy food for students, according to a 2018 Tufts study. The research found that the quality of school lunches had significantly improved in the past 15 years and it is the overall best source of food that kids (and adults) get.

Box mix pancakes that taste like birthday cake

We say a brand-new year warrants more than a piece of toast or sad bowl of Frosted Flakes. Luckily, King Arthur — one of our fave baking brands — has a newish Confetti Pancake Mix that’ll help kids start the year in celebration mode. Yay, sprinkles for breakfast!

Credit: Izy Hossack

A carrot muffin your kid won’t even know is healthy

Whether you have a sweet-treat lover who rarely does vegetables or a wellness-obsessed teen who only does good-for-you food, a vegan morning treat will make everyone happy. How’s this for healthy? These morning muffins are made with carrots, whole-wheat flour, olive oil, applesauce, and raisins.

The coolest grab-and-go breakfast

A yogurt Popsicle for breakfast? Hello, I’m liking this school year. Our good-for-you version is a nourishing blend of yogurt, fruit, and granola. And it’s just right for those scorching first weeks of school.

Credit: Trader Joe's

Milk they’ll actually love

It’s really good chocolate milk — Trader Joe’s whole milk with fair-trade chocolate, to be exact. This nourishing and super-yummy drink is sourced from family farms in northern Peru, so your little one can get their calcium fix and learn about being a conscientious world citizen.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

A whole-grain cookie that’s made for mornings

Late wakers in your house? For a quickie grab-and-go breakfast on the way to the bus stop, try this morning mash-up. Yes, there’s chocolate involved, but there’s also whole-grain flour, nuts and dried fruit, and oats galore.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

A better bento box lunch …

Little bites make lunch more fun and give the picky eater something to pick at and something to pass up. A few good ones: breakfast for lunch or an orzo salad with veggies.

Plus the best containers to pack it in

I swear I need a trust fund for replacement water bottles and lunch boxes. Since they go out but don’t come back home, I much prefer inexpensive options. While you can blow major cash on a single tricked-out bento box lunch box, there are much more affordable versions that also get the job done. A few favorites: a blue and purple two-pack or this cheerful set that’s perfect for a hearty snack or light lunch (you get seven for under $20).

A solution for the sandwich refusers

If my house is any indication, Gen Z and Gen Alpha — yes, it’s a thing — are not only meh on top sheets and jeans, but they’re also done with sandwiches. But how many times can you give your kid cheese, crackers, and grapes and call it lunch? (Asking for a friend.) If you don’t mind spending some cash on a box service, Freeli subscription box brings protein-loaded meals to your doormat. Each 10-meal box is $54.99 ($49.49 with a subscription) and contains all the flavors: mac and cheese, chicken teriyaki, burrito bowl, pasta & meat sauce, and chicken noodle. Heat, dump in Thermos, repeat.

A little black lunch sack that you’ll definitely want to borrow

Target has an amazing luxe lunch tote. It’s not only cute, but it’s also uber-functional with a fully insulated dual compartment. The minimalist fashionista in your household will fully approve and NOT appreciate that you’re eyeing it for yourself.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The food stylist’s trick for keeping apple slices from getting brown

My guys don’t love when the apple slices get brown, so we’re all over this secret to preventing browning. Surprisingly, it’s not lemon juice.

A note in their lunch box for instant LOLs

Logan Martinez, a Florida 9-year-old, entertains his pals around the lunch table with the lunch box jokes his grandma bought and his mom, Patty Adams Martinez, tears off and tucks in his lunch box each day. “Logan loved it and it encouraged his early reading because he would read it to his class each day during lunch and they’d all laugh along,” says Adams Martinez. “He’s in fourth grade now and I still try to keep it up (although I have forgotten a day here or there and he lets me know!).” Here’s a sample Q: What starts with a P and ends with an E and has a million letters in it? A: Post office! (Adams Martinez has also downloaded some for free and DIYed it.)

Safe and yummy treats for kids with food allergies

My son Gus has food allergies and it’s surprisingly still a struggle to find good packaged snacks he can safely eat. He loves Safe + Fair because it’s really high-quality and covers categories that are tough to otherwise find (like granola). I’m loving this Safe+Fair Back to School Bundle pack because it has yummy fare including Everything Bagel Popcorn. Also in the bundle: a double chocolate brownie mix for that safe stash parents of kids with nut allergies have to leave in the nurse’s freezer. Note: The brand’s products are also free of egg, soy, shellfish, and fish allergens.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

An afterschool s’mores party — no firepit needed

Maybe you’re not much of a baker but want to fix up a fun something for that exciting first week of school. Or maybe you’re practically a pastry chef but like to have some quick hits too. Solution: s’mores Rice Krispies treats, a mash-up between two childhood favorites. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Credit: Phots: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

Shop at Trader Joe’s once, make dinners all week

Those first few weeks of school are always a blur of back-to-school nights and picnics and things due. Here’s a game plan for doing dinner on autopilot with one Trader Joe’s run. That way you can all have some space to get into the swing of things.

Credit: Jesse Szewczyk

Almost-instant foil-packet dinners

The fewer dinner pots to clean, the better as far as I’m concerned. So this slew of recipes for chicken in a packet is a game-changer. They’re all meant to be grilled to make things even easier. But you can also use a rimmed baking sheet, which still only means one pan to clean.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

And super-easy skillet dinners

Same theme, different concept: dinner recipes that you make in a cast iron skillet. The Greek-inspired lemon chicken and potatoes is a big hit in my house.

A first backpack for your little learner

Sending your kiddo to preK or actual K? This cute North Face mini pack is small and light enough for a toddler to handle, but built to hold up and fit those preK essentials (finger paintings, random show-and-tell item, favorite stuffie).

A roomy pack that hauls a ton — including a laptop

A workhorse backpack in an amazing print? Check, check. Your student will be glad to have side pockets for keeping their water bottle handy. And that front zip pocket just might ensure this year’s important notices make it home.

The low-tech (but sleek) way to stay on top of all the activities

When it comes to keeping on top of the playdates and sports and school stuff, sometimes you’ve got to go lower-tech and hang it where everyone convenes. This is just like the dry erase calendar I bought and hung next to our fridge. It’s especially key if you have a team of caregivers — partners, babysitters, grandparents, aunts — divvying up the shuttling kids to activities and having to remember to dress them in school spirit colors on Wednesday.

A go-station for getting out the door without forgetting something

Sure, it’s easy to be on time on day one, but then it rains or someone oversleeps and it all goes to hell. That’s why we love this tip from organizing pro Tanisha Porter of Natural Born Organizers: “Honestly, it all hinges on not having too many things which can bury the important things,” she says. “So in addition to paring down (which is different than converting to minimalism), I suggest thinking about what the family can’t get through a day without.” To that end, she recommends setting up the following by the door you usually use: hooks for backpacks, purses, and bags, plus shelves that can hold bins stocked with other must-haves, like umbrellas, masks, and hand sanitizer.

The best way to make the most of first-day pics (even if your kids refuse to take them)

Andi Sawin of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, was over the struggle to get her three kids to cooperate for first-day photos. So this year she snapped the three outfits alone and captioned it: “I have learned to not even include my actual kids and it just makes things so much easier.”

This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: The Joyful-yet-Trepidatious Parents’ Guide to Back to School