Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST

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I think I’ve finally let myself believe that school starts in just a week.

A week ago, I had hardly given it a thought, but now that teacher assignments and bus schedules are filling the mailbox, I can’t keep my head in the sand much longer. Time to buckle down and make some school year goals and good habits.

If you’ve been ticking down the “prep for school lists” and doing your supply shopping, I’d like to humbly suggest some real food and natural living line items to make sure you cover as the kiddos head back. Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

Good Habits: The Three Things

January is a popular time for resolutions and clean starts, but I think the beginning of a new school year is an even more appropriate time. I always appreciate the new routine and attempt to embrace it with routines of our own at home.

For example, as soon as my kids walk in the door, they have to do The Three Things:

  1. Wash their hands.
  2. Unpack their backpack.
  3. Take care of the lunch box (including putting the ice pack in the freezer).

This is immediately, before doing homework, before having a snack. “Have you done your 3 things?” is the question they are always met with when they ask their question: “Can I go play?” Here’s more on afterschool chores. It’s a routine worth starting, no matter what your personal “3 Things” are.

Snacks are Great, but the Kitchen Closes at 4:15

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

Quinoa Oat Snack Bars

This summer we’ve experimented a bit with no afternoon snack, and it’s gone quite well. My kids make it just fine from a 1:00ish end of lunch to a 6:00 dinner.

School lunch is a bit earlier and often a bit less filling because of the time allotted for eating, so I do think my kids will appreciate an afternoon snack. But I don’t want to spoil their dinner, so we’re starting a new rule this year: The kitchen closes at 4:15.

They get off the bus at 3:50, so that means that after The Three Things, they need to have a snack right away or not at all. Snack choices are always offered by mom, by the way. No free for alls around here (probably because there really isn’t any snacky food to just grab other than making a trail mix, which isn’t all that exciting – but it is often their top choice when offered).

Sunscreen at Recess? Not Here.

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

I know a lot of people put sunscreen on their kids before they leave in the morning, but I’m emphatic about that being a bad idea, especially if you’re using conventional sunscreen. I want my kids to have 20 minutes of sun if they can get it midday, and at this time of year, I’m not worried about them burning (but we live at a latitude that’s pretty gentle as far as the sun’s rays go).

If your kids do need sun protection (Texas, Florida, etc.), be sure to read my natural sunscreen review and more on sunscreen at school.

A No-Waste Lunch

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

School lunch rooms generate a lot of trash, both in wasted food and packaging.

Our lunches generally create zero waste. What can you do to keep up the good eco-friendly habits you build at home while your kids are at school?

Here are some baby step ideas and tips to moving toward a No-Waste Lunch. A lot of our supplies have come from Mighty Nest, one of my longtime sponsors.

Practice Lunch Box Training

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

Don’t forget, before you send a lunch box, thermos, or container with your kids for lunch, practice with them to make sure they can open it.

This is a great time to talk about what the lunchroom will be like, how long (or not) they’ll have to eat, and that they need to focus on their food and eat the healthy parts first.

Be Clean, But Not Too Clean

It’s frustrating when you strive for a natural environment in your home and then your kids spend 6-7 hours at school breathing in industrial strength cleaners and using strong antibacterial soaps all day. Triclosan is the reason antibacterial soaps are no good, but it’s an uphill battle with schools.

I teach my kids – and I need to remember to remind them before they head off to school this year – that they only need a tiny dab of soap to get the job done. The huge glob that comes out of most residential and commercial pumps is about three times too much for the biggest man hands ever.

But what about hand sanitizers? Aren’t those antibacterial too? Although kids really need to use soap and water to get dirt and grime off their hands, I don’t think (most) antibacterial sanitizers are as bad as the soap, and here’s why.

In our home, we use Benefect sanitizer, which is Thymol (thyme essential oil) based, but as long as there aren’t weird ingredients like parabens, I don’t get too worked up about sanitizers (just overusing them). I did send in homemade baby wipes for my son’s first grade class to use instead of Lysol and bleach-based wipes, and the teacher said the kids loved the fact that they could use them on their hands and face as well as their desks. (Score!) When they were forgotten for a few weeks, however, they had a mold problem (hazard of no preservatives). Sad smile

Community Snack: Be an Advocate for Real Food

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

In my daughter’s preschool class last year, as in many young children’s classes around the country, snack was a community affair. Parents signed up to bring “a healthy snack” for each day, and all the children ate together. I was fortunate enough that my daughter’s teachers were already on the real food warpath against frosted cupcakes counting as “healthy,” and they had just decided to assign snacks to certain days and ask parents to sign up for the exact food the teachers wanted to see. (Brilliant! Bravo! Standing ovation!)

They used Volunteer Spot, an online system, to facilitate sign-ups, and although I didn’t agree that graham crackers, Goldfish, and Gogurts were healthy, nearly every day had an actual whole food: either a fruit, vegetable or cheese. On the rare days that the only snack was crunchy or artificially colored (two good signs to teach very young children to help them determine when junk food is being served), my daughter had raisins or a cheese stick along with her.

I was lucky. If it had not been so, I hope I would have been brave enough to advocate for real food and suggest such a system. I know at the very least, I would have tried to make it easy and discreet for my daughter to eat her own snack and given her agency at home to make sure she felt involved and not deprived.

If you are in a school situation where your kids are being served junk food, I hope you are courageous enough to speak up for real food, too! For motivation, inspiration, and ideas from the whole KS community, here’s a great conversation we had when I was first navigating the waters of community snacks and school lunch.

Room Parent: De-Sugarize the Holidays

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

Last year I bit the bullet and signed up to be a room parent, with an ulterior motive: I wanted to de-sugarize the holiday parties. (insert maniacal laugh here)

My plan was largely successful, enough so that another mom thanked me just last week at church for volunteering my time to take that position and for “choosing fun, healthy treats instead of all that sugar.” I was humbled, and very pleased.

And fun we had! The no-sugar Halloween party was a raving success, Christmas was a bit more sugary, but I still got some vegetables onto the menu, and the healthy Valentine’s Day treats went over smashingly well.

UPDATE: My latest proposal is for school-wide changes to the birthday treat system

Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

Send Real Food Along

Most importantly, the foodie part of the day that you’re (almost) 100% in charge of, The Lunch. Do what you can to send healthy food in cold lunches and for snacks:

  • Lunch Packing: Healthy Food to Go (with dozens of ideas for real food school lunches)
  • Gluten-free school lunch packing ideas
  • Healthy Snacks to Go, my first eBook – many readers tell me they use this every week, or even that it doesn’t leave their counters!
  • MOMables offers weekly lunch meal plans that are almost always real food (and really adaptable if not). Get a free week when you sign up for the newsletter, which is one of my personal favorites to read).
  • The Healthy Lunch Box has 45 recipes and over 100 other resources for lunch packing ideas, plus efficiency tips, waste-free tips, and secrets to packing a sandwich-free lunch, if you’re cutting down on (or cutting out) bread for whatever reason.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

With so much to think about keeping your kids learning, nourished, and probably buzzing around to a bunch of after-school activities too, it’s easy to lose sight of the joy of family life. I highly encourage you to have a routine of connecting with each other, whether it’s a commitment to family dinners, a tradition you have at the table that keeps everyone talking, or night prayers all together.

I also encourage you (and myself!) to occasionally surprise your kids with something out of the ordinary and fun. Since food is my thing, I did it with silly meals this summer (pancakes, muffins) and try to think of other ways to have fun with food. Top 10 Back-to-School Issues that Might not be on your LIST (good habits for the school year, how to de-sugarize the holiday parties and more!)

What are your key real food and natural living routines for the school year? How do you advocate for real food in your kids’ schools?

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Tropical Traditions and MOMables from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. Mighty Nest is an August sponsor receiving their complementary in-post mention. See my full disclosure statement here.

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13 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    I am SO excited to get the Squooshies… We just got about a hundred pounds of free apples (with as much more as we can process, if we want them), all natural, no sprays. I have already made one huge pot of apple sauce which is getting canned up today; more is to come. That’ll be in those lovely Squooshies all winter, so there’s healthy, low-mess fruit options! Yay!!

  2. says

    Our school has “banned” cupcakes for snacks and party treats, but still allow cookies and other junk. We also have a “nothing homemade” rule, and all things must be prepackaged from the store with ingredient labels available.

    What are some good portable, packaged, stable (no refrigeration) healthy snacks for a class party?? All I can think of at the moment are raisins and mandarins.

    • says

      The “no homemade” rule kills me when it applies even to just cutting up produce. So sad. :(

      Larabars are good but pricey, yikes, and if you can find popcorn popped in an oil that’s not too objectionable, that’s another option. Natural applesauce in cups or pouches. I need to do some more brainstorming on this one! Great question – many people are in the same boat, I’m sure…

    • Charlotte says

      There are some dried fruit/veggie packages, too. Pricey, but labeled! Also small snack packs of cheese (we live near Cabot and they sell little packs of cheddar). Or snack packs of nuts…those may have oils you don’t want, but they’re better than Oreos!

    • Tammy says

      These are expensive here, starting about $10 / tray, but what would the school say to pre-packaged fruit, vegetable, or meat & cheese trays that are available from your local grocery store?

      I wonder if you could send instructions to make an item along with the items in original packaging and let the teacher help them mix it up together. I know peanut allergies are now tremendously common, but I still remember (40 years later) how my kindergarten class all worked together to make a no-bake treat that was provided for parent’s night that night. (They were a type of peanut butter ball with lots of goodness in them.)

      (I would not recommend the latter but just once in a great while, but if the teacher is amenable, that would be a neat thing for the children to incorporate what they learn about measuring, mixing, and working together to make something delicious. It could even go well with the story “Stone Soup.”)

  3. says

    My son started 3rd grade yesterday and is happy with his homemade, no-waste lunches. Last year his school introduced a “healthy snacks” policy, but they seemed to make exceptions for many occasions, so I’m glad he was no longer in grades that have a daily snack.

    This morning we walked to school with our 5th grade neighbor. My son told us that the theme for 3rd grade seems to be candy–all the name tags on desks and lockers, etc., are shaped like candy. Our neighbor said, dripping sarcasm, “Well, THAT will encourage healthy snacks!” :-)

  4. Charlotte says

    My son joined cub scouts last year, and I was horrified that every week’s snack was total junk food (Handi-Snacks, Oreos, candy, Smartfood, etc). I just made myself let it go as I watched him eat, because we homeschool and he didn’t know anyone there. I don’t want to make my kid feel even more shy than he does! This year it’s starting soon, and I keep wondering if I have the guts to ask the leader about healthy snacks. I hate making waves, and it’s only once a week…but at church the snack is always Goldfish, so that’s twice a week! I don’t let my kids have the library snack every week — we bring our own. I don’t want to go overboard, but it does bother me when it’s such terrible food.

    • says

      Charlotte, when I was a Girl Scout leader, we tried several different approaches to providing snacks, and the one I liked best was having a “snack mom” who provided the snack every week and was reimbursed by the troop. The girls voted on how much to increase their dues to cover the snack, and that gave snack mom a budget of 50c per kid per week, which was plenty. We got healthier snacks that way AND everyone’s allergies taken into account. I wrote all about it here:

  5. Tammy says


    I have one for you – church refreshments. We have a small congregation, yet when we get together, people provide enough snacks to give dessert to our local military base. I know we have at least one who is diabetic, one who is pre-diabetic, and others whose health does not need all the sugar, flour, and such – the latter would be my husband and myself, but we are actively working on it.

    I cannot afford to be refreshment person each week, but I would much rather see a pared down snack approach. Naturally, if there are 5-6 things to choose from, most folks are going to try 4-6 of those items, whereas, if there are 1-2 choices, they will choose from those and can still be satisfied.

    Have you seen anything like this? What are your thoughts? It makes me want to just run screaming when I see so many desserts piled up for so few people.

      • Tammy says

        I love the thought and time you put into your article. Those are some very good suggestions. I am trying out some recipes on my family at this time to find the ones that will work best to bring to church.

        I greatly appreciate the points you made about needing nutritious, delicious, and enticing foods and the tips you provided.


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