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Newsletter: August 2020

Back to School? How to Plan When There is No Plan

Back to School 2020 isn’t exactly the new beginning we’re all used to.

By now, most parents would be gearing up for the school year schedule, filling in the calendar, checking supply lists and going through the closets to figure out what still fits — in a normal year, that is. This Fall is anything but normal. And with some families still unsure whether their kids will even go back to school in person at all, trying to make plans of any kind feels like a recipe for frustration.

Take me, for example. I’m the Content Manager for The Family Dinner Project. One of my personal habits (okay, obsessions) is meal planning. I’m so devoted that I carry a spiral notebook everywhere I go, and I plan full months of dinners at a time — usually while sitting in parking lots and waiting rooms while my kids finish up whatever activities they’re doing. If anyone should be ready to go with a mealtime game plan for this Fall, it would be me. But…nope. All the freezer meals I usually cook and stash away each August? Not happening. Lunchbox supplies bought and organized? Get real. At this time last year, I had the months of August, September AND October already color-coded on my calendar, and dinners planned for every single night. (I told you I’m obsessive.)

This year? I don’t even have half of August straightened out. I’m so busy refreshing my email inbox looking for news from the school district and my kids’ athletic and performing arts organizations that I can’t even think about cracking open my spiral notebook to plan some dinners. And the truth is that the more unsure I feel about plans outside our home, the less I feel able to plan for things inside our home.

But the school year will start soon, in some way — even if it starts with my kids sitting at their shared desk space just across the room from me, the way we ended in June. And when it does, even if things haven’t changed very much, I know what we all really need is to feel that sense of a new beginning. We will need a way to separate the old from the new, eighth grade from seventh, autumn evenings from summer picnics. And because things could change from day to day and minute to minute, yes, we will need some sort of plan.

So after lots of thought, here are the things I’m thinking about trying in our house this back-to-school season. It may not be the back-to-school we were hoping for, but I hope we can make it the back-to-school we need.

  • Be Ready for Breakfasts.
    Wherever learning happens this fall, the way the morning goes sets the tone for the whole day. I know we, like many other families, spent the Spring getting a little too comfortable with letting the kids roll out of bed just minutes before their first school Zoom meetings. A bowl of cereal eaten at the computer is okay as an emergency backup plan. But now that distance learning may be some part of a new normal, I think everyone will be more alert and ready to focus if we’ve spent a few minutes to get the day started off right. I’m eyeing breakfasts like these Pink Chocolate Smoothies and Make-Ahead Egg Sandwiches, that will translate seamlessly from at-home learning to rushing out the door for in-person classes.
  • Have a Kickoff.
    Every year since my boys started school, we’ve tried to mark the transition between summer and school year. On the last night of summer break, we usually have ice cream for dinner at the neighborhood shop; then we spend the first week of school making the kids’ favorite dinners, to help give them a little familiar comfort at the end of those first long days back. It would be easy to forego those things this year, as the sameness of the pandemic drags on, but I’m going to try to stick to them so we can appreciate the sense of “getting back to normal.” Other ideas might include having a special backyard picnic to mark the end of summer, or letting the kids plan dinner for the first day of school.
  • Speaking of Transitions…
    If “back-to-school” looks more like “back to distance learning,” weekends and weekdays likely won’t feel much different from each other. It might be a good idea to think about a way to officially transition out of the school week — a Friday night pizza party, dinner in your pjs, a family game night or a weekly Dinner and a Movie date on the couch are all easy ideas that we might try this Fall.
  • Share the Load.
    A popular internet pandemic meme lists all the potential life skills kids might learn while they’re not having full school days. While I’m not a fan of the pressure that’s been put on parents to handle multiple jobs and “make the most” of this time, I do think there’s an opportunity for some of us to put our bored kids to work. My own kids have started asking to learn more cooking and baking skills, and since they’re spending more unstructured time at home, I’m happy to point them to the kitchen. Even if your kids’ cooking looks more like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches than chicken cordon bleu, this back-to-school season might be the perfect time to give them a little more responsibility. (And possibly lighten your load!)

There’s no way to fully ease the anxiety of a back-to-school season that feels so different from what we’re used to. But remembering that rituals and routines are good for us — kids AND parents — is one place to start. A little structure at home may be the one thing we can plan for.

Family of the Month

The Uchida-Wood family knows all about getting the kids to help out with dinner! Check out how 5-year-old Taka and 3-year-old Genji contribute to family dinners.

Real Family Dinner Projects: The Uchida-Wood Family


Dinner can be easy, fun and creative when you make a meal that’s also an art project. Try these Raggedy Ann Salads for a kid-pleasing low-cook meal on busy nights.

Raggedy Ann Salads


Sometimes it’s easier – and more enjoyable – to tackle difficult topics or big questions from kids when you have a little help from movies or TV. Spend some family time together enjoying our latest Dinner and a Movie recommendations, about an important subject that’s been on everyone’s minds lately.

Dinner and a Movie: Food, Fun and Conversation About Anti-Racism


When Back-to-School looks so different from years past, you need some new questions to ask at the end of the school day. Try these conversation starters to help ease everyone into the 2020-2021 school year.