Last week, food blogger Robin and I decided to mix things up a bit with a post swap. I wrote a post for her about a local restaurant in my area that has a new initiative to serve local foods and give a portion of their proceeds back to local schools. And it seems schools are on Robin's mind too. Here are her thoughts on smarter back-to-school shopping:

My son and I walked into Target yesterday, and he was filled with dread. The entire store was screaming “BACK TO SCHOOL!” It was quite depressing. For us, summer vacation isn’t half over yet, and the last thing we want to think about is back-to-school shopping. But, from experience I’ve learned that if I wait until the week before school starts, finding all the things on the school’s list will be almost impossible.

When you’re trying to shop eco-friendlier, it can be even more difficult. I can’t always get every item on my sons’ lists in an eco-friendlier form. If I put some time and thought into it and start shopping a little bit at a time, I can do pretty well even with a budget.

My oldest is going into sixth grade this year (junior high!), so I’ve got a few years of back-to-school shopping experience behind me. I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned with you over the years.

Buy durable, neutral backpacks. A good backpack can last for years. There is no need to buy a new one every year. Younger children may beg for backpacks with characters on them, but as a parent, you can say, “No.” The character backpacks tend to be made cheaply and sometimes don’t last the year. Even if it does last the year, your child will probably be uninterested in the character the following school year. Buy well-made, neutral backpacks that your child can use until it’s outgrown — not out-of-style.

Scan all the circulars. I’ve found some of the best deals for back-to-school items at grocery stores. One store in my area has recycled paper spiral bound notebooks and composition books each year on sale for $.19 each. I stock up. If you watch the circulars and pick up a few things each week as you’re out running errands, you can save a lot of money.

Reuse last year’s items. When my boys bring the contents of their desks home on the last week of school, I pull out the scissors, the highlighters that still work, the pencil cases, and anything else that can be reused and put them away for the next year.

Shop tax-free in some states. This is something I just learned about, but some states offer tax-free back-to-school shopping weekends. Considering the fact that most public schools require students to show up the first day of school with many of the needed supplies, this can be a big help — especially to big families.

Go light on the clothes shopping. It’s usually too hot the first day of school to wear any of the back-to-school clothes purchased anyway, so wait until a few weeks after school starts for clothes to go on sale. You can afford better-quality, perhaps eco-friendlier, clothing if you do this. Also, consider shopping thrift stores and consignment shops. If your child wants name brand clothes, you’ll be able to find them at a fraction of the cost and feel good about giving clothes a second life.

Just because something says it’s eco-friendly doesn’t mean it’s good quality. This is a trial and error type of thing, but I’ve bought pencils made from recycled wood that were next to impossible to sharpen, recycled material pencil cases that have fallen apart quickly, and other “green” school supplies that were a waste of resources and money. Sometimes, it’s better to buy a trusted brand that you know will last a long time, even if the item doesn’t have a huge “eco-friendly” sticker on it.

Leave the kids at home. It’s really difficult to stick to only the items you need when the kids are with you. They’ll see things they don’t need and want them. It’s only natural. If you can leave them at home, you’ll shop faster and you won’t end up with unneeded items.

See also:

Back to school tips

MNN homepage photo: YinYang/iStockphoto

Smarter back-to-school shopping
Reuse that backpack, shop tax-free, buy recycled and more.