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Nov 15, 2018 11:05pm

Julia Usher baking in her home kitchen
Blog Recipes and Tips From Julia Usher

Back-to-School Bonanza

OK, I admit it, I was and always will be a nerd. While other kids were cajoling their parents into taking them to Bob’s Surplus, where new stand-on-their-own stiff Levi’s could be bought for ten dollars or less, I was beating down the doors of Dudley & Beckwith, our small town equivalent of Office Depot, in hot pursuit of the latest in pencil pouches and notepads. (Oh, and my requisite Little Lulu fix.)

I’m well past my back-to-school days (as if that wasn’t obvious), but the start of fall still triggers the same Pavlovian giddiness about the prospect of new chapters to be opened and important lessons to be learned.

In celebration of my favorite time of the year, I offer you this back-to-school party, including some never-before-seen outtakes from Cookie Swap. Whether you host a cookie swap as I did, a school fundraiser, or some other affair, you’ll find plenty of ideas here to launch your next party to the top of its class.

I know you’re a quick study, so here’s the CliffsNotes-version of how I, inveterate nerd, turned school into cool. (Hopefully, by transitive property, this makes me cool, too!)

1 | Desktop Details.

Let’s start with the table (top photo). My feeling is: if you have any control over this focal point, then you should by all means choose something that works with your party theme. For my back-to-school swap, what better than a well-worn desktop? And why on earth cover it with a tablecloth when a chalkboard and old workbook pages could be layered a lot more smartly? (Who knew Fun with Dick and Jane could be so versatile?) For serviceware, vintage lunchboxes were a natural fit. But I wanted to go a step further and inject some humor, so I secretly gathered class portraits of my guests (think geeky) and copied them onto ruled notebook paper to make personalized lunchbox liners (second photo from top).

2 | Making the Grade.

If you weren’t the world’s most stellar student, then you’ll like my next project if only because it allows you to rewrite history. For invitations, I scanned one of my elementary school report cards, digitally erased all previous grades and other markings, and then superimposed my party details on top. (See third and fourth photos from top.) To make light of this task, it’s best to use a report card that has very little written on it. If you can’t find one in your stash from bygone school days, then flea markets can often be a prolific source.

3 | Book Smarts.

My guests needed something in which to take their cookies home, but even if they didn’t, I’d have made these clever book box favors (second photo from bottom). They’re super adaptable. Think about it . . . Hosting a school reunion? Then fill them with classmates’ photos. Or, for a laugh, notes once exchanged in class. Hosting a fall birthday party? Then enclose a special present and forget the gift wrap. Hosting a school bake sale? Then fill them with the recipes and raffle off the set as a door prize. The possibilities are endless. And once they’re home, the boxes can be used to store office or other household supplies, which makes them not only charming, but functional. To craft these particular caddies, I decoupaged cardboard boxes (yes, they come shaped like books) with scrapbooking papers and copies of a favorite cookbook cover. What really makes them stand out, though, are the details I added inside. My local craft store carries what look like the envelopes and check-out cards normally found inside library books. I typed my cookie recipes onto the cards (digitally, in Photoshop) and then mounted the recipe collections inside my boxes for an extra surprise.

4 | Party Appropriate.

If you’re going to go the length of crafting theme-appropriate favors and invitations, then don’t forget the food. It should ideally fit the mood, too. Here, I relied on easy-to-make treats that travel well in lunch bags, and with ingredients that pass most kids’ rigorous taste tests. I especially like this peanut butter and jelly combination (bottom photo and link below) that looks every bit the lunch box-part.

On that sweet note, I conclude this brief lesson. Enjoy!

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