It's back to school already. When I was in elementary school, we didn't go back until around the third week of August, and it seemed that we only went for the last 2 days of that first week. Now, school starts earlier each year, and gets out later each summer. Our kids have had one day shy of exactly 2 months off school for summer break. That's not nearly enough time! While I can't control the school calendar and requirements (which for the most part I disagree with), and while homeschooling was once an option, it doesn't really suit our present personality and learning traits. The only thing I can do is try to make our down-time at home a little easier to manage and more enjoyable.
I'm big on planning ahead and making schedules (that are not always kept to). I am not big on cleaning, so please don't think this is going to detail how to get your kids to do chores without complaint or how to do a month's worth of cleaning in 10 minutes a day. That ain't this blog... What I will tell you is my self-devised plan for making our mornings and evenings run like clockwork.
I am a cookbook collector. I also love to cook (see my other blog That's 'licious, Mommy!). Before the birth of my children, my husband and I fended for ourselves at home. Oftentimes that meant that we ate corn dogs and mac 'n cheese multiple times a week - hey, we were young - and we just didn't keep a lot of food items that required large amounts of time-consuming prep work. Then, during my first pregnancy, I ended up in and out of the hospital from extreme morning (aka all-day) sickness and later from the evil Braxton Hicks contractions and eventually pre-term labor. At that point I was also enrolled in 3 very intense Library Science master's level courses trying to finish my degree in as little time as possible to keep my student loan costs down. Long story short, my husband and I were relieved, and grateful, to eat with my family every night. It kept me off my feet, kept baby happier, kept the contractions down. After baby arrived we didn't go back to cooking at home - we had settled into a routine.
Fast forward 5 years to our daughter's kindergarten year. This routine we had settled into meant that most nights we weren't getting supper over with until nearly 10pm. For a kid who requires amounts of sleep rivaling a newborn, that wasn't going to cut it. There was no way I would be able to get her up and at school before 8am. She's a very slow mover in the mornings and, like me, doesn't always wake up hungry. Something had to change, and it had to start with us staying home more so our kids could stay on a consistent routine.
I pored over my Fix-It and Forget-It Big Cookbook. I looked at every page. I made a spreadsheet of recipes that sounded like something my family would eat. I color coded each section of recipes by main ingredient: bean, pork, beef, chicken, vegetable. I printed it out, stapled it, and kept it in the cookbook. Then each week I picked 3-4 different recipes, went grocery shopping over the weekend, and cooked at home Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and sometimes Friday. Dance class was on Wednesday, so we decided that was Breakfast night at my parents' house. Each recipe I cooked was rated - up to 5 stars - and I wrote the date and any notes I had about what I changed, liked, or disliked about it. I noted in the index which recipes had been tried with a check-mark and the date. Somewhere around Christmas it all fell apart. We had a harsh winter, missing nearly 30 days of school, and it threw everything off balance. We fell back into our old routine of cooking at my parents' house every night. The only difference being that I did most of the cooking, and I made sure that we were still home by around 9pm.
My daughter is at a new school this year, because our school system has divided the schools by level - PK, Elementary (Primary, 1-2), Intermediate (3-5), Middle (6-8), High (9-12). Since we are a low-income county, every child in every school receives a free breakfast and lunch. We took advantage of that last year, sending a lunch very rarely. This year she requested that we send her lunch more often, and I can't argue with that. I hardly ever bought a school lunch - mostly pizza on Fridays - until high school when I could get a salad and a pretzel or pizza/hamburger every day.
Thankfully we get the school breakfast and lunch menus a month ahead, so menu in hand she and I went through every day and I made her choose which days she was going to eat a school lunch. This was my first step toward streamlining our morning routine. If I knew which days she was eating at school vs taking a lunch, I would be more prepared. I wouldn't be scrambling the morning of a take-your-lunch day wondering what to fix her. I brandished my handy-dandy pink highlighter and set to work identifying the main dish of each lunch she would eat a school. Then I got to thinking...
...I know what she's eating at school, but what about the stuff I'm sending from home? This can't be a last minute decision, folks. So, I made a list of 10 lunches I knew (beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt) that she would eat. She is not a picky eater, but there are some things she prefers and will eat willingly more often than certain other things. If I could pack her a PBJ every day, it would be all-good. So that left me with a highlighted calendar and a list. How was I going to synthesize the information into something easy to read, easy to use, that I didn't have to spend hours changing every month?
I was envisioning a calendar with only 5 days. Something that would allow me to note the days she planned to eat at school and what she planned to take from home on the off-days. Then I got to thinking that packing a lunch wasn't the only hang-up during our morning routine. What about breakfast? If I left it up to my kids they would eat PBJ three times a day, every day. So instead I asked her for 4 breakfasts that she loved that were quick to prepare. We settled on Muffins (Monday, leftover from Sunday), PBJ (Tuesday/Friday), Cream of Wheat/Oatmeal (Wednesday), and Yogurt/Fruit and Cereal Bar (Thursday). This is not apt to change unless we have a special leftover breakfast item from the weekend - waffles, biscuits, pancakes, etc.
Taking that into consideration, I created a calendar that was simple yet displayed all the necessary information. I wrote in the days she would be eating at school, and then I filled in the blanks with the 10 lunches I know she loves. I tried not to put two meat-sandwiches or two soups in the same week. I didn't ask which lunch she wanted on which day, I just randomly assigned lunches to days and filled it in. I tried to list everything that I would need to pack in her box or bag. The morning of (or evening before) I also try to remember to include a disposable spoon, a napkin, and a straw so she doesn't have to try to remember to pick up anything in the lunch line. I taped the list of lunches to the cookbook shelf beside the refrigerator, and I taped the calendar to the door of the fridge where it is in plain sight.
Here's a link to the document I created: Breakfast/Lunch
As I mentioned before, I like to have my meals planned out. Last year I chose enough crockpot meals to see us through the entire year with a few alternates. With the winter we had, the amount of school we missed, I didn't get through all of them so they are on reserve for this year. However, I didn't want to rely just on my crockpot (shhh, don't say that too loud). Sometimes it's a bit boring to use the same kitchen tool every single day, and I should know because I have a LOT of kitchen tools (and I'm a Pampered Chef consultant :]). Plus I have all these gorgeously illustrated (and written) cookbooks with mouth-watering recipes that I have been dying to cook. Cooking and making things for people is how I express my love, and I really wanted to be a chef - it was second only to being a mommy! Sorry, tendency to ramble...
I pulled a few of my cookbooks: Taste of Home Winning Recipes (2010), The Everything Meals for a Month Cookbook, and Taste of Home Cooking for Kids/Kids Party Food. I sat down and went page-by-page through Winning Recipes and wrote down 100+ recipes that I want to try. I realize I can't do them all this year, but my kids will be in school for the next 14 years, so I've got plenty of time. I just needed a similar calendar to plan out our dinners. I haven't started filling it in yet, but I will over the weekend. There is a space for Main Dish and Sides for Mon-Fri. I can have my shopping list made out for the entire month, and when a certain cut of meat or other food item goes on sale I can see how much I need for the month and freeze what I'm not using immediately. An update will follow after I have a picture of my completed dinner calendar.
Here's a link to the document I created: Dinner