When my editor asked me to write a piece about the school supplies I’d be buying for my son this year, I told her that like many parents, I would be shopping from a hyper-detailed list provided by my kid’s school. But for the rest of the gear, I’m lucky enough that most of our big-ticket items have held up well enough to return to school for another year.
That got me thinking about my fellow parent friends and what survived their kids, so I called around to see what they’re holding onto. To my delight, many of these items were the same things my kid still uses. When parents all praise the same thing, you know it must be good.
Here are the 14 school supplies my parent friends and I (and our kids!) swear by.
There’s a reason L.L.Bean is known for its backpacks (and its mocs)—they’re practically indestructible. My fellow parents note that the reinforced bottom is a key feature and that the bags are machine washable. If you’ve been deterred by the utilitarian styling, the new Mountain Classic School Backpack has a sleeker retro style.
However, some of the parents I spoke with also noted that a novelty backpack (while not as tough as a big-kid pack) helps kids get excited to start school. Bixbee backpacks stand out for being more durable than many of the ones marketed to toddlers.
Easy to wash is the name of the game when it comes to lunch sacks. “Even if your containers are leak proof, there’s no stopping kids from making a sticky mess,” says mom of two Elise Hay and founder of Organized Sanctuaries in Seattle. Hay likes neoprene options that can go in your regular laundry load and that air dries quickly overnight, like the ones from BUILT New York.
Stephanie Seferian, the mom behind the Sustainable Minimalists podcast, sang the praises of Thermos’ Foogo containers. “We use them nearly every day in my daughters’ school lunchboxes," says Sefarian. "I love the Foogo because it's made of stainless steel (not plastic) and actually keeps the food inside warm until lunchtime.” When my own son started bringing lunch to daycare, his teacher specifically recommended these same containers and ours have been going strong for five years.
Lunchbots’ bento-style metal boxes were perhaps the MVP of all the products I heard about. My pal Maria, a mom of two in New York City whose older son is heading into 2nd grade said, “My son has had the same bento box since pre-school days and we still use it every day.” Personally, I love that I can put them in the dishwasher with no worries.
While parents mentioned many water bottles, only the Hydro Flask came up again and again. “It keeps the water cold for hours and it’s very durable,” says Crystal Nielsen, a mom of two and a decorator based in Utah. Plus, she notes the strap is great for kids to carry the bottle when they’re doing outdoor activities. My friend Christine, a mom of three, also chimed in to say that while an investment, this brand’s products last for years. For snacks, Hydro Flask also makes parent-approved insulated food containers.
In my quest to ditch disposables, reusable beeswax wraps have become an indispensable part of my lunch packing kit. They’re great for wrapping up sandwiches, muffins, and even leftover slices of pizza. Just be sure to remind your kid not to throw them out the first time you send one to school!
Chantal Lamers, a writer and mom of two based in Northern California, shared an off-beat product suggestion that I’m going to try. “An idea that I would love to catch on beyond reusable lunch containers are cloth napkins in lunch boxes,” she wrote to me. “I don't know whether my kids actually use their napkins at school (hah!), but I always pack one for them.” She notes that Heather Taylor sells kid-sized napkins in brightly-colored, durable fabric, but any cocktail size napkin will also work.
To make sure all those school supplies make it home, invest in personalized labels for your kids’ gear. “By far .the best product I ever bought for my kids for school were Mabel's Labels,” says Danielle Kurtz, a creative director and mom of two in Chicago, Illinois. “They never come off. They’ve often outlasted the water bottles and lunch boxes I apply them to even after years of washing."
My son’s kindergarten teacher insisted upon Paper Mate Flair Felt-Tip Pens for handwriting practice. They’re so easy and smooth to write with that I found myself stealing my son’s pens and had to buy more!
Stabilo markers are a staple for Friday Apaliski, founder of Sustainability Concierge in the San Francisco Bay Area. “They draw smoother than crayons and they don't break like crayons, or dry up like markers. We use them on paper, on the white board, and even on our windows,” she says. Plus, cleaning them up is a breeze. “At one point, a red one got used on a beige cloth chair, but just a little soap and water cleaned it right up. No stains. No mess. No plastic. I am literally in love with these.”
Apaliski also swears by Wisdom Supply Co. school year planners for both for kids and parents, which now come in printable PDF formats. “I’ve been using this for three and a half years. I return to it every year because it is so functional, but I'm also in love with it for all its sustainable properties.”
Hay's go-to notebook brand is Moleskine, also a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. It comes out with limited edition collabs every season, and its latest with Italian fashion house Missoni is super graphic and fun.
For a raincoat that goes the distance, my friend Ayn-Monique Klhare, a mom of two in Raleigh, North Caroline, relies on L.L.Bean’s wind and rain jackets for her kids. “We have an older version of this rain jacket, that is now on its fourth user! Our 14-year-old niece was the first wearer and now it's on to my younger daughter and is still in great shape,” she says.
If your kid’s school sends them outside no matter the weather, consider a full body rain suit. Diane Boden, host of the Minimalist Moms Podcast, loves Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite Suits, which she says are easy to throw on over clothes. “They keep you unbelievably dry and make for more fun outside on rainy days. My husband and I also wore our adult sizes for a great deal of time on our recent trip to Alaska.”
Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.
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