As the school year approaches, you probably turn your attention to purchasing required supplies, buying new clothes and creating a smooth morning routine. However, to truly streamline your back-to-school season, don’t forget to focus on the most trafficked area of the house: the kitchen. After all, it’s the setting for speedy breakfasts, packed lunches, after-school snacks and weeknight dinners. Use these tips and tricks to get your kitchen — and your family — ready for the year ahead.
1. Purge the pantry.
A few weeks before classes kick off, remove everything from your pantry and cupboards. Check each item for an expiration date and toss anything that’s past its prime. Update your shopping list with items to restock, and reorganize each shelf—grouping categories of similar items together and leaving a little extra room to prevent overcrowding later. Do the same in the fridge, leaving shelf or drawer space for perishable lunch staples like deli meat, cheese and yogurt.
2. Conquer storage containers.
As you clean the pantry and cupboards, set aside any and all glass and plastic tubs — whether they’re oddball takeout containers or part of a set. Match lids to bottoms and recycle any that have lost their partner. “File” the containers and their lids in a deep drawer, for easy access.
3. Refresh your command station.
Somewhere in or near the kitchen, gather important papers, a calendar, pens, school information and files. “We keep keys in a cup at the station, too, and any important in-process information,” says home-cleaning expert Becky Rapinchuk. Designating a spot for things like permission slips or to-be-completed homework makes it easier to stay on top of the piles. “When everything has a home,” she adds, “it’s easy for everyone to find what they need — and even easier to put it away.”
4. Separate lunch foods and snacks.
As you’re prepping the kitchen, label an area for snacks (a container in the pantry and fridge will do). Pre-portion treats for after-school noshing, and set some ground rules; perhaps everybody gets one piece of fruit and one crunchy snack each afternoon. Food blogger Melanie Gunnell also reserves certain food for lunch: “I designate a drawer in my fridge that’s ‘off-limits’ for general snacking. It seems silly, but with five growing children in my home, it doesn’t take much for them to eat up everything in sight—and when we go to pack lunches, the options are long gone.”
5. Plan dinners in advance.
Rapinchuk plans a week’s worth of dinners on Friday, before her big weekly shopping trip. “I swear by my recipe binder, where I keep a running list of favorite meals,” she says. “I rotate through the favorites and add a new recipe or two each week.” She also maintains a running shopping list to keep track of miscellaneous items. When putting together a menu, think about more than what the kids will eat. “I try to be realistic about our schedule, my motivation level and everyone’s sanity,” says Gunnell.
6. Make friends with your freezer.
As summer comes to an end, it doesn’t hurt to stock the freezer with dinner options — and even lunch items — that you can thaw and serve a few weeks down the road. When you make a meal, double the recipe and freeze a portion. It’ll save the day on a busy school night.
(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)
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