Queen of free: Saving money in the pantry during the school year

You’ve done your research. You’ve picked up the supply list. You’ve budgeted. You’ve shopped. You’ve picked up the first day of school outfit. You’ve got “Meet the Teacher Night” on your calendar

You have pencils and backpacks and folders and crayons and glue and scissors … well, you get the point.

You have rocked this back-to-school season, and there you sit with a smile on your face knowing you have officially owned the beginning of the new academic year. There’s nothing left to do but wave goodbye to the kids as they get on the bus and pour yourself a congratulatory cup of coffee.

Press pause on that victory dance. There is still work to be done. You see, back-to-school brings with it a busy season of life for most families. There are meetings, practices, games and more. It’s a situation ripe with possibility — the possibility to bust your food budget.

The busier we become, the easier it is to hit the drive-thru. Running full speed, our grocery runs are rushed or nonexistent. So before you celebrate a successful return to the classroom, be sure you read these tips and then hit the store.

Focus on the staples

I’ve long said that every household needs a Pantry Top 10. Evaluate what 10 foods will help you maintain full and healthy bellies and then stock up on those items. Each family’s unique needs will differ (and may even change over time); however, I’m certain you can pick out the basics you require.

These staples typically have a long shelf life and are versatile enough to be used in a number of quick-fix dishes. To keep the Royal Family fed, I usually try to always have plenty of peanut butter, rice, cheese, pasta, pasta sauce, salsa, applesauce, bread, eggs and apples. With this Top 10, I can easily whip up a simple snack or meal in 15 minutes or less.

Prepare food quick

Maybe you’re a bit like me. The spirit of summer caused you to indulge a bit more than you meant to. You said yes to the ice cream more times than was probably best for your body. Back to school provides the perfect opportunity to provide healthier options for you and your entire family.

But bringing home fruits and veggies from the store is only the first part of your battle. As soon as possible, wash, chop and prepare those delicious snacks and side dishes so they’re at your fingertips when you feel hungry. Try to place healthier options at eye level. I also like storing those foods in clear or glass containers so they remain visible in the refrigerator.

Plan by calendar

Sometimes a change in the season of life will cause me to bite off more than I can chew. Certain that I can become Martha Stewart if only I try hard enough, I convince myself that I can whip up a four-course meal every night of the week. When reality sets in, I hit the ground with full impact, resulting in one overwhelmed me and very few options to feed the people who show up in my kitchen multiple times a day.

Life is busy no matter the age and stage of your family. Having realistic expectations saves you from meltdowns and that restaurant trap. When you plan your meals, have your calendar nearby. Knowing which nights you have meetings or practices will help you keep a good handle on what you have time to fix and when you should opt for a simpler meal with less prep.

You might even strategically schedule a night to dine out here or there on the schedule, fully able to budget for the extra expense. Now is not the time to decide you need to become the next cooking show reality star. Stick to practical, tried and true family favorites.

Identical breakfasts OK

Recent research has shown that those who narrow their daily choices by wearing the same or similar clothes to work every day increase their productivity. I’d argue limiting your breakfast options just might do the same thing. It’s completely fine to feed your family the same dishes each morning. Flex your culinary muscles on the weekends if you like, but having an automated system of breakfast prep will help you cruise through the mornings and reduce stress.

Encourage your kids to be responsible for all or part of their meal, too. This may require some leg work on you part ahead of time (perhaps preparing and then freezing your own pancakes or setting bowls and cereal boxes at a lower level so that kids can reach them), but the rewards of a peaceful morning will be well worth the effort.

I love the back-to-school season because our family returns to a familiar rhythm and routine. A few extra steps can make that routine just a bit easier. Before you get overwhelmed by the rush of a new academic year, pause to stock up, ensuring your family has the healthy and quick-fix foods they need to fuel success.