Hack to School: Making the transition easier for the whole family (part 1)

Photo by Mari Frost

Staff writer Shelley Sperry enlisted her teenage daughter, Mari Frost, to contribute photos and expert tips for this special back-to-school post. It’s full of useful ideas for both parents and kids, so pick out some favorites to share with your family.

Some kids and parents get wistful when summer ends, and some can’t wait to get back to the routine of books, friends, and after-school activities. We’ve had a quiet, laissez faire summer at our place, so we’re all pretty excited to begin the more structured school schedule again. But there are bound to be anxieties, no matter how eager you are for the learning to start.

My teen daughter and I decided to collect some back-to-school “hacks” we thought might help everyone transition gracefully. There’s no shortage of ideas in magazines, on YouTube, and, of course, Pinterest and Instagram right now, so you can have fun making your own lists—and please share ideas in the comments. Here we’ve selected the ideas we think are especially helpful for the week right before the madness begins, to relieve potential flailing and stress. We’ve broken them down into a few key categories: Food, Shelter, and Clothing. In part 2, we’ll share Mind and Body health hacks.


If you have room in your fridge and pantry, designate a particular shelf or space as the lunch station—and if you have even more room, create a breakfast station too. Get a few cheap bins or baskets and use them to corral the fruit, cheeses, sandwiches, and salty and sweet snacks kids will be putting into their lunchboxes. We like the idea of using a small corkboard—or better still, a magnetic blackboard or dry erase board on the inside of the cabinet door. That’s where kids can leave messages for Mom and Dad, like, “We’re out of peanut butter!” and “Can I have Oreos next week????”

Walk kids through the process of washing their lunch containers or putting them into the dishwasher. Create the expectation that they’ll do this right when they get home—before snacks and homework—to make sure they’re ready for the next day. This is the hack designed to relieve Mom and Dad’s “Why are there 26 dirty containers in the sink?” stress.

Don’t forget after-school snacks and on-the-go breakfasts, especially for constantly hungry teens. Keep it simple. Ask each kid to name two snacks and two breakfasts they like, and then put a week’s worth of those in the fridge, freezer, or cabinet. We love having all the ingredients for smoothies in individual freezer bags so all you need to do is pop them into the blender.

Keep things cold in lunchboxes the easy way: use frozen water bottles or drink pouches or frozen grapes (a yummy, nutritious treat) to keep the rest of the lunch cold.

During a family dinner about a week before school starts, ask everyone to write down a couple of favorite quick and easy (15-minute) dinners. Break out the recipe apps and websites for ideas. Make a shopping list based on those dinners and try to make sure you always have most of the items on hand. Make a card with each item, including the recipe, and put into a paper bag that you clip to the refrigerator or pantry door. When you get stuck with no plan and no inspiration 30 minutes before it’s time to go to soccer practice, reach into the bag and make whatever you pick.   

Helpful stuff to put on your shopping list: cups with lids and straws for on-the-go smoothies or other breakfast drinks; magnetic dry erase or blackboard (or blackboard paint), magnets or cork board with push-pins for inside cabinet door; a case of freezer bags and zip-top plastic bags!


What every house or apartment with kids needs is a designated school stuff area that is not the dining table or kitchen counter or middle of the front hallway. Get your kids involved in creating a spot in your house for backpacks and a small school paperwork center. Unfortunately, it’s easiest if the spot is in plain view, and not hidden away in a closet. It will be used morning and night!

Create a system that meets your needs, but at minimum, try to have plenty of hooks for backpacks and any additional gear bags (for sports, ballet, etc.). A table with a few baskets or a small set of cheap drawers (plastic drawers work just fine!) that you can label: PAPERS TO SIGN; IMPORTANT ASSIGNMENTS; and ARTWORK.

Put a family school calendar on the wall—a paper one or a dry-erase board—and make sure kids can reach it to add their own events, if they’re old enough. They can draw pictures or use stickers too.

Helpful stuff to put on your shopping list: hooks of all kinds—heavy duty, preferably—to hold backpacks, hoodies, umbrellas, whatever your family wants to keep out of the closet and in plain sight.  Over-the-door hooks for our front hallway closet have been a game-changer in our house because they are the perfect spot for all our raincoats and Mom’s purse. Efficiency sometimes has to trump style.


There are three shoe tricks we learned recently, and we love them all!

  1. We all know we’re supposed to lay out clothes and schoolwork the night before so it’s all ready to go, but sometimes there’s that little extra item you REALLY don’t want to forget—your new locker combination, the extra keys, the bus pass you only need on Wednesdays, the calculator that’s required for the big test. Put those things inside your shoes. You can’t walk out the door without remembering them!
  2. Do your kids leave stinky gym shoes and clothes in a locker for days or weeks at a time? Give them a few herbal teabags and shove them inside the shoes to absorb some of the odor and leave a hint of lemon ginger or chamomile scent in the locker.
  3. New shoes? Wear them around the house for at least two or three days—or have a new shoe dance party with friends to make sure they’re worn in and won’t create blisters or be too slippery on the first day of school.

School clothes shopping is not usually much fun, but maybe a family pizza night that includes some school clothes prep could be?

  • If your kids need labels in some of their clothes, make them together with colorful permanent markers.
  • Roll tops and bottoms into outfits and tie up with a ribbon or twine and stack in an easy-to-reach drawer.
  • Let kids help pick out a few cute dollar-store bins and baskets, label, and put them in the closet or dresser so they can put away their own underwear, socks, and pajamas. Forget about folding—just getting things put away in roughly the right place is enough!

Don’t wait until after you have the emergency to put together your emergency clothes kit. The littlest kids may need to have this ready to go on Day 1. For older kids, it’s just a good idea to have an extra shirt and shorts or pants rolled up and available in a locker—or even in your car, if you are often rushing from event to event, eating and spilling. Put the items into a small plastic bag and squeeze out as much air as possible to reduce the size.

Other items that might be helpful to have in a very small backpack emergency kit: ibuprofen (if allowed at your school), pads or tampons, extra pencil and pen, travel deodorant and hand wipes, dental floss for kids with braces, a tiny roll of tape and/or glasses repair kit—or for kids who play sports, a whole extra pair of glasses, an extra reed or violin string for orchestra, a few dollars for the inevitable “I forgot my lunch” day.

In making this list, we discovered we have a lot more tips related to prepping not only your family’s kitchen and closets but also your kids’ minds and bodies for the transition to school. We’ll do that in the next post!

Shelley Sperry, with Mari Frost