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The guilt-free, back-to-school survival guide for parents

Shawna Cohen, a mommy blogger writes about her plans for getting her kids ready for school. Shawna is photographed with her sons Ben,5,blue t-shirt and Isaac ,2.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It starts with the back-to-school flyers that sneak through the mail slot. Then the mind wanders to the drudgery of making school lunches anew. Up next, a few minutes on the puzzle of how the heck Wednesday nights will work, with one kid in soccer and one in ballet at precisely the same time.

Venture down this treacherous mental path and you can feel the Muskoka-chair-and-lemonade vibe drain right out of you.

But summer's not over till you say it is, says Shawna Cohen, the editor-in-chief of a cheeky new parenting site called Back-to-school doesn't have to be awash in angst.

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"There's this idea that if we don't have it all done and done perfectly by 6 p.m. the night before school starts, we're bad parents or we've let our kids down, when really, they don't know the difference."

So, with that ethos in mind, a few tips from parenting experts on how to organize and prioritize without breaking the spell of summer just yet.

Keeping it all straight

If you only get one thing accomplished before Labour Day, many experts suggest getting your head around the idea of a master family calendar.

Love your Blackberry for work? Consider adding the free Cozi application, which allows you to sync up work and family calendars, along with to-do lists and other tools. More of a G-mail addict? Synced Google calendars, with each family member assigned a different colour, might be a better choice. Google spokeswoman Wendy Rozeluk says her three-year-old son already has his own calendar.

"It feels a little silly to micromanage life in a way," she says, but it helps to have a snapshot of his week or weekend to make sure he's not overloaded with activities. Having a visual prop also teaches older kids about being organized and taking ownership of their schedule. "It's a good visual for kids to understand time management."

And, contrary to the notion that computers are alienating, Ms. Rozeluk says shared calendars can even combat testy miscommunication. Want to warm your kid up to the idea of a family Sunday at Grandma's without springing it on her? Enter it on the calendar.

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If you're more of a Luddite, one new paper offering this fall is the Organized Family School Year Calendar by Toronto-based Glow Baby. The calendar has a standard month-at-a-glance on the top page, then the bottom page is a more detailed week-at-a-glance with spaces for six potential family members' individual schedules. There's also a to-do list and notes fields.

Whichever style you choose, experts say offloading nagging details is both therapeutic and practical. "If it doesn't get written down, it doesn't get done," says Lindsay Harris, who created the Organized Family calendar. "Sometimes it's 'Take the chicken out of the freezer.' But otherwise, I completely forget."

The stress of stocking up

Who decided children had to have all their new supplies and wardrobe staples bought and put away by Labour Day?

Shawna Cohen realized the folly of that deadline this summer when she was trying to get her son ready for day camp. She said she had every intention of stocking up on swim gear for day one. Instead, she got it done on day three and was rewarded for her tardiness by fantastic sales. "Not only did we save money but we avoided the crowds, too. And he didn't suffer wearing last year's bathing suit for a few days."

Now, Ms. Cohen is applying the same formula to back-to-school shopping; cool-weather staples can wait.

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"I kind of envisioned us going together and picking out cool colours together and then I thought, I know myself. At the end of August there's no way I'll do it. Now I'm relieved."

Experts also point out that shopping later allows kids to suss out which fall trends have traction in their circle.

Get the lunch monkey off your back

Sure, there are parents who make magazine-worthy bento lunches and 18-ingredient fancy sandwiches to keep their children entertained. You do not have to be this parent.

If your kid's been taking and eating a tuna sandwich everyday for the past five years, don't reinvent the wheel – give him a tuna sandwich, suggests Ms. Cohen.

Cookbook author Trish Magwood has come to the conclusion that worrying about lunch is waste of energy. "I can't control the lunch. No one's there to tell them to eat their vegetables and I'm so sick of seeing the carrots come back," says the mother of three.

Instead, she focuses on healthy breakfasts and after-school snacks. Hers is a smoothie household, with bananas, berries and yoghurt in high rotation. (And until colder weather sets in, Ms. Magwood says these travel well in school thermos for lunch.) Fruits and veggies are gobbled up after school.

Another ace-in-the-hole is homemade granola full of seeds and dried fruit. It, too, has seeped into the lunch bag.

"If they have cheese and crackers and an apple and granola, that's a pretty good lunch."

Gear up in a group

In a recent post on, Ms. Cohen addressed the back-to-school angst many parents feel as the summer winds down. Kids need to ease into their fall personas and some parents do too.

Ms. Cohen has devised a savvy salve after realizing her son hadn't seen his school mates all summer. She dreaded the idea of five separate play-date reunions, so she's thinking of hosting a bigger get-together with all the kids and their parents.

"Sort of an end-of-summer barbecue, with cocktails for the adults – that's pretty key – that will get everyone, including the parents, back into the groove." Discussing carpooling won't be as aggravating in this setting.

If you want to set the bar lower, arrange a pot-luck picnic in the park, she suggests. "You get props for being the organizer and all you have to do is send an e-mail and show up. Bonus points if you supply the popsicles."

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