When I learned that my second child was also going to be a boy, a moment of panic struck as my first thought was: how are we going to pay the grocery bills when they get older?! You see, I grew up with a younger brother who grew something like 10 inches in a year, eventually landing just shy of 6’4;” I am married to a man who, while not very tall, comes from a long line of slender men who eat like line backers; and many of my best friends in high school were guys, so I know all too well how much teen boys can eat. This has meant that over the past 9 years, or so, I have thought a great deal about how to feed teens on a budget, so that I can be prepared.
Well, guess what? We’ve reached the moment of truth. While my boys are only 9 and 11, and I know it is only going to get worse, I have already seen an increase in our food bills and the quantity of food that seems to be required, especially in the late afternoon, so I wanted to share with you what I am already doing to feed my not-yet teens on a budget and also what I have learned from others who have more experience than I.
Three Legs of the Fullness Stool
Whether putting together a meal or snack, one important component to keep in mind that will help to keep those growing bodies satisfied for longer are what I like to call the three legs of the fullness stool: fat, fiber, and protein.
Having all three of these components in a meal can help to keep teens full and functioning for longer, which means less filler food needed, which, in turn, makes it easier to feed teens on a budget. Let’s discuss each component.
While many of us were raised to believe that fat is bad, it is more complicated than that. Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. You need fat to give you energy, promote cell growth, absorb certain nutrients, and balance out hormones (and what teenager doesn’t need help with this?). Having said that, there are fats that we should eat more of, fats we should eat moderately, and fats we should avoid.
“Good” fats include monounsaturated fats (think olive oil, avocados, nuts, and peanut butter) which are plentiful in a Mediterranean diet and polyunsaturated fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids (think salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, and walnuts) which help with brain development, as well as raising good cholesterol, lowering bad cholesterol, and reducing inflammation.
“Ok” fats include saturated fats (think dairy products, red meat, coconut oil) which will help to keep you full for longer, but should be eaten in moderation.
Finally, “bad” fats are trans fats, which became popular among food processors because of their long shelf life, but offer no health benefits and, in fact, can do a lot of damage. These are less and less prevalent in our food, but still sometimes show up in packaged foods, so try to avoid them whenever possible.
Fiber, especially when it comes in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are wonderful for keeping bellies full for longer (because they take longer to break down), stabilizing blood sugar, and keeping our digestive systems running smoothly.
Your body needs protein, and growing bodies need it even more. Protein is what the body uses to build and repair tissue, make enzymes and hormones, and build bone and muscle. It is also essential for brain function and development.
So what would an ideal snack look like using these three components? Here are some examples:
- Apples or celery sticks with peanut butter or another nut butter
- Whole grain muffins with walnuts
- Toast (preferably whole grain) with peanut butter and banana
- Whole grain toast with smoked salmon and cucumber/tomatoes/bell pepper
- Popcorn and a smoothie
- A snack platter with whole grain crackers or pretzels, veggie sticks, and hummus or cheese
Cheap Staples Save the Day
Getting filling, long-lasting meals into your kid’s bodies is one piece of the how to feed teens on a budget puzzle, another component is stocking the house with cheap staples that will serve you well.
The ideal staples are nutritious, filling, and low cost. They are also items that don’t require a lot of preparation in order to be enjoyed, after all no one enjoys battling a hungry teenager…
Some of my favorite cheap staples are:
- Beans: a super cheap and filling food, these are easily added to quesadillas or burritos, soups and stews, or turned into a dip for snack time (beans provide both protein and fiber)
- Grains: whether it is rice, couscous, pasta, or another grain, grains tend to be incredibly cheap and easy to prepare. Ideally you can offer the whole grain versions, but even the less healthy ones are a good base for a quick meal or snack. We love to throw already cooked grains into salads, soups, and stews to make them stretch farther (the whole grain version contain fiber)
- Eggs: these are a nutritional powerhouse and can be cooked in 2 – 3 minutes. We often serve eggs for breakfast in our house, but I also like to make a big batch of hard-boiled eggs that can be grabbed to add to lunches or eaten as part of a snack (eggs contain both protein and healthy fats)
- Popcorn: we buy it unpopped so that we can pop it ourselves and then flavor it in all different ways so that it doesn’t get better (bonus: popcorn is a whole grain and provides a good amount of fiber)
- Frozen fruit: I always have a bag or two of frozen fruit in my freezer. This is a great way to get some of the more expensive fruits, such as berries, at a lower price point. We use them for smoothies, mixed into baked goods, with oatmeal or overnight oats, and thawed and then served with yogurt
- Apples and bananas: these tend to be some of the cheaper fruit options, last pretty well, and are also both hearty and pair well with lots of foods
- Carrots and celery: these veggie staples are last a long time in the fridge and make a great addition to a snack platter or lunch box.
- Peanut butter: if you can, try to get the natural versions without added sugars or oils
Double or Triple and Freeze
Homemade versions of snacks and meals are almost always going to be cheaper, healthier, and tastier than the store-bought varieties, making them a winner when it comes to feeding teens on a budget. So whenever I make a meal that’s both popular with my boys and freezable, I make a double or triple batch. The leftovers I then use to stock the freezer with options for lunches or hearty afternoon snacks. Some examples include:
- Whole grain baked goods such as muffins, waffles, and scones
- Burritos and chimichangas
- Calzones or pizza rolls
- Soups and stews (frozen in individual portions)
- Smoothies (frozen in individual portions)
Teach Them to Cook
This is a bit of an unconventional tip when it comes to how to feed teens on a budget. I truly believe, though, that it is key since homemade food is cheaper, healthier, and tastier. If we teach our kids to cook, they are then able to make whip up an egg and toast or bake their own muffins.
My dad likes to tell a story about how when he was 12-years-old he used to come home from school and make three grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches for an afternoon snack. While that may have meant that his family was going through huge amounts of bread and cheese, it also meant he was eating nourishing food rather than empty calories that would leave him hungry sooner rather than later.
So if your teen isn’t yet confident in the kitchen, start with some basics that they love. Maybe it is scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, or a smoothie, but get them into the kitchen and feeding themselves, your wallet will thank you.
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Do you have tricks to feeding teens on a budget? I’d love to hear about them in the comments (especially since I’m still in early days of this insanity)!