Grocery Geek Q&A: Feeding Teenagers Without Going Broke

Feeding your teenagers healthy and economical food is not impossible. Here are 8 tips for feeding teens without going broke.

Grocery Geek Q&A: Feeding Teens without Going Broke - Feeding your teenagers healthy and economical food is not impossible. Here are 8 tips for feeding teens without going broke.

I’ve been receiving quite a few comments and emails that pose great questions as concerns grocery shopping and saving money on food costs. This week I thought I would tackle a question that Kelley, aka Ma Hubbard asked earlier this week:

Any tips for families entering the teen years on how to “feed the teens” or actually keep food in the house? The way mine are growing and eating, I make a huge shopping trip and then two days later, I am like Mother Hubbard!

For years folks warned me about what would happen when my crew of six children hit the teen years. “Just wait until you see that food bill,” they would caution. “They’ll eat you out of house and home!”

Six years ago when they were all under 12, our grocery budget was $400 a month. This was our leanest time; we were working to get out of debt. I was couponing heavily and we ate a ton of processed foods that I bought on sale for cheap. Today our monthly food costs range from $800 to $1000/month, depending on what’s going on and how organized and/or stressed I am. (If I’m stressed and overwhelmed, I spend more.)

This price hike is not because I now have two, almost three teenagers. Sure, that might play into it, but we also buy fewer processed foods and more organics and use fewer coupons. The economy has changed dramatically in the last six years. I was at Ralphs yesterday and was stunned to see that their lowest cut beef price was $5.99/pound. This is 3 times what I paid a year ago! I had heard about a beef shortage, but this is ridiculous. Needless to say, we’re not eating much beef these days.

Food shortages and crazy economics aside, teenagers do tend to eat more than younger children and sometimes even more than adults. Though on pasta night, my 5-year old daughter can pack more away than the rest of us!

Grocery Geek Q&A: Feeding Teens without Going Broke - Feeding your teenagers healthy and economical food is not impossible. Here are 8 tips for feeding teens without going broke.

Here are some strategies that I use to keep my teens satisfied without breaking the bank:

1. I give them choices about what they eat.

As my elder two have matured, it’s become apparent to me that they often don’t like me to prepare their breakfasts and lunches. Dinner isn’t a problem, but those daytime meals were increasingly annoying me. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but they’d often balk at what I prepared or ask to make something extra. This exasperated me to the point that I said, “You’re on your own.”

I swayed back and forth on the issue of fairness before just drawing a line in the sand: Those under 13 eat what I make for the daytime meals. Those over are on their own. I make the younger ones go to bed earlier than the older ones, so I have no qualms about exercising my right to differentiate between the ages when it comes to meals. And like I said, dinner is non-negotiable. We all eat together as a family, and really, the “big boys” typically enjoy whatever I make and aren’t concerned about what it is.

2. I give an allowance for groceries.

My eldest, now 17, is very passionate about nutrition and eating healthy. I do not have to cajole him into eating sweet potatoes or spinach. He puts those things on my grocery list! But, there are things like whey protein and other nutritional supplements and vitamins that he has requested. I give him a $40/month allowance to order things like protein powder, chia seeds, and fish oil. How could I not? Can’t really complain about a kid who wants to be healthy.

3. I stock up on grains and beans.

These are cheaper, bulk items that help fill you up without costing a lot. Yes, they are high in carbs, but kids don’t really need to worry about that. My teens know how to use the rice cooker and often make their own batches to eat as snacks or with meals.

Grocery Geek Q&A: Feeding Teens without Going Broke - Feeding your teenagers healthy and economical food is not impossible. Here are 8 tips for feeding teens without going broke.

4. I buy lots of easy-to-eat veggies.

My kids love carrots, celery, cucumbers, and bell peppers. A veggie tray is a welcome sight. I try to offer a selection at lunch and snack time. Since carrots are cheap, whether baby or cut-your-carrot-sticks, it’s an easy thing to provide. Hummus is a great addition, too.

5. I use Amazon’s “subscribe and save”.

I have some items on a regular delivery schedule with Amazon. They are items that I know are a good deal and that my kids will eat, like rice cakes, steel cut oats, and popcorn. These are ingredients and snacks that my older kids can make themselves. Even the younger ones can make popcorn or slather sunbutter on a rice cake.

6. I look to cheap proteins.

With beef the high price that it is, I look for proteins that the family enjoys that don’t cost us an arm and a leg. We go through a lot of milk, eggs, ground turkey, and Greek yogurt. I buy individually frozen chicken pieces at Trader Joe’s (about $2.80/pound) for a convenient quick-fix. They cook up easily in a fry pan or on the grill without a lot of hassle. In the old days, I looked to canned tuna to suit this, but with the issues of added soy (during processing) and mercury (via pollution), tuna has become a once-in-awhile treat.

7. I make/let my kids cook and bake.

It seems like it happened overnight. I’m not sure if it’s their skills or my easing up on the reins of control, but I’m cutting my kids loose in the kitchen a lot these days. More often than not, it’s my requesting one of the older boys to make the pizza dough or the hot dog buns. They’re getting very good at it.

Since they are eating a lot of the fruits of their labor, it’s a triple win: we save money eating homemade; they learn a skill; they are rewarded with extra food to eat. Often they will make the executive decision to make a double batch which saves me work and ensures that they get enough to eat. Works for me!

It’s not always I who’s making the decision to bake. Often they will do the baking of their own accord, in the instance of pancakes or cookies. I’m totally cool with that. Homemade is always cheaper so if they’re making it, that’s less I have to do. The less I have to do in the kitchen, the more I can spend time on other things on my list, feel less stressed, and spend less at the store. (see paragraph 4.)

8. I make my freezer work for us.

By preparing make-ahead meals and snacks and storing them in the freezer, I save a ton of money through bulk buying and cooking, giving us homemade convenience to enjoy for weeks. The kids love frozen burritos, Whole Wheat Snickerdoodles, and Chocolate Chip Banana Bread. Keeping these items on hand totally bridges the gap for us.

There are probably a lot more things that we do that I’m not thinking of now, but these seven strategies help us make ends meet and keep our growing teens satisfied without spending a ton of money to do it.

How do YOU keep your teens fed on a budget?

I’d love to hear YOUR tricks for keeping kids fed healthy and budget-friendly food. See you in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Great post. I have two teens – one’s a girl :) She doesn’t eat anything like her brother in volume but she is generally hungry on a different schedule – she’ll come home from school or work [in summer] STARVING and will basically have a dinner sized amount of food at that time and then just a small ‘after school snack’ sized dinner. The boy? ALWAYS hungry, ALWAYS eating.

    His revelation was, Mom, it’s not that I can eat more than I used to, it’s that I’m truly hungry again SO FAST.

    I get it – metabolism at uber speed

    He too is my ‘health conscious’ guy – though he’s less interested in supplements

    Some of our solutions:

    1. Skillet messes – the girl specializes in this – she’ll grab a handful of spinach and black beans in a small frying pan, then toss in whatever looks interesting – caramelized onions are a fave if they’re available [I often make a batch for her to have on hand] – some feta or other shredded cheeses, a little rice or pasta or whatever leftover this or that she finds. She will do this for every meal if she has to – she’ll never go hungry when she’s on her own and broke LOL – the girl LOVES black beans!

    2. Popcorn – huge help for the starving boy – he knows how to use the whirly pop – I get non gmo popcorn from amazon

    3. EXTRA PROTEIN – hard for the boy who hates eggs and will only eat tuna on a rare occasion. I find I can get packs of organic chicken drumsticks at TJs for $1.99 consistently – I will often make 4 packs at a time just to leave in the fridge. He will eat those any time of day or night, and it helps me make meatless meals work in our rotation when there’s some meat around for a snack. Also I’ll sometimes take a meatloaf out of the freezer [one of my freezer staples] and he [and we – but mostly he LOL] will eat it all week long

    4. Extra starch – I always make at least a double portion of rice or pasta while I’m making it – the boy will eat it covered in pasta sauce [either – I know, weird – he’s an italian in spirit though only 1/4 in background] at any time, good for filling up

    5. Teaching combos – apple with pb [or sunbutter in the fish house] fills you up much more than just one or the other – smoothies – I keep frozen bananas, blueberries and strawberries always on hand – their faves – and a smoothie with fruit and some pb and protein powder is SUPER filling.

    6. baking – as you’ve said – I now bake most of our bread – at least school lunches and special items – I do buy tjs tortillas and the occasional desperation loaf if I’m off sync [especially in summer when our schedules change]. We bake muffins, and various other snacks, granola bars etc

    7/ Nuts – I know not an option for your house but it surely fills him and works well – I buy peanuts mostly, at costco and/or amazon where I often find good deals

    8. Soups – those tjs tomato soup boxes are always stocked pretty high around here – both teens love it and will have a giant bowl as a ‘meal’ after school or later in the evening – other soups too

    I wish my hungry boy would eat breakfast type foods more – he won’t – I can make french toast but he won’t really eat eggs, occasionally he’ll have oatmeal – what can I say – he’s NEVER liked breakfast foods LOL

  2. These are wonderful tips! Do you have any advice for me as I have a 13-year old boy that loves the snack type junk food and will not eat beans, and only a few fruits/veggies (applies, apple sauce and romaine lettuce). I buy less processed food, but I keep things on hand like granola bars, rice cakes, nuts, and pretzels. He’ll try new foods, but spits them out.

    • Well, sometimes it’s a question of habits and availability. If you stop buying the junk food, there won’t be any to eat — or he’ll have to buy it himself or try to wear you down. You have to be strong and provide plenty of healthy options that you know he likes. Have you read this series? http://lifeasmom.com/2014/01/how-to-improve-your-familys-diet.html

    • I’d also just start slowly – Jessica has some wonderful substitutes for takeout and ‘convenience/snack’ items – try making what he likes, then try broadening him bit by bit – but I agree – if it’s not in the house he won’t eat it – eventually he will eat something else :)

  3. June Combs says:

    Hi jessica ~ you have amazing boys! :-) i have 2 teens both boys and i cannot get them in the kitchen? I try to provide them with lots of protein which is pricey? But im finding organic pork is healthy and they prefer sausage over bacon so if i mix your turkey sausage with pork sausage its amazing! I try to minimize white flour and sugar using coconut sugar when i can. Local eggs and a fruit, i am very disappointed they wont eat beans???? Bfast usually involves more sugar and flour than i like sausage egg cheese sandwich? Or hi fiber pancakes and sausage? Yogurt – Lunch is boars head turkey or ham deli meat, and cheese nothing added, in a wrap with fruit. Im with you on dinner whatever i serve? I find empty jars of peanut butter around the house. Boys are creatures of habbit, they dont like change??? For a few years i only buy organic milk because of the added hormones and antibiotics and im glad i do plus i only buy beef chicken and pork with nothing added no hormones antibiotics? I dont know if it will give them a leg up by i dont want to risk their health??? It is very pricey to do that but earthfare has some good sales??? Jessica you help me alot to manage my families diet, i learn so much from you! Thank you! :-)

  4. I feed 1 teen & 5 adults most days. everyone is required to let me know if they are eating or not. Forget to tell me a few times & I have food that goes to waste you are out of luck. I make a lot of homemade soups with cornbread or muffins, stews & speg with a lot of chopped up veggies in them to stretch. I also use pop corn & quick breads for snacks. I tend to buy in bulk when I find sales or at wharebouse clubs. due to health issues it pays me to join for what I save on over the counter allergy & other meds. I tend to buy fruit & veggies & suppliment with meats . I watch on sales so we eat well & I have few complainsts by I always keep something for those who don’t like what I’m making usually a soup or leftover frozen for lunches. I enjoy your blog. Colleen

  5. One thing that really helps a grocery budget is a GARDEN :) , even a container garden w/ a few tomatoes, peppers, & such will help a lot….Of course I put up a bunch of stuff because we have a huge garden & lets face it you know what your eating when you grow it yourself :)

    • We have been thinking about this patch of dirt on the side of the house. It’s a place where an AC unit would go if this house had one. Anyway, we’ve been wondering if we could plant there. A watermelon volunteered itself, obviously from the kids spitting seeds. So, now we know. I think we’ll be planting after we get back from our trip.

      • Jessica borrow ‘square foot gardening’ from the library and have hubs whack you together some 4x4s – it’s easy

        Or look online at ‘earth boxes’ – very nice and on wheels – somehow I think your handy guy could make something similar that could be moved with you when you go elsewhere

        • I second square foot gardening! You can pack a lot into a small plot, and there’s less weeding to do without space between rows.

  6. Heather H says:

    My guys aren’t teens yet, but I just checked out the USDA food average http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/2014/CostofFoodJun2014.pdf and discovered we average the liberal week for a month for a family of our size!

    • Oh boy. You’re at liberal already? I guess I better check my numbers. I haven’t done that in awhile.

    • Thanks for that link. We’re below average, because we are lower than the thrifty column for our size family, which is amazing since we live in an area that has a high cost of living and not many grocery stores. Sam’s Club is my friend. I still think my kids eat me out of house and home, and we tease our 9 year old that he will need to find a job and pay his share of the food. :-)
      We don’t eat organic normally, but I do make almost everything from scratch and we eat mostly whole foods. The trade-off is that I spend ALOT of time in the kitchen.

      • Those USDA reports are so helpful for a reality check. It’s too easy to compare ourselves to the people who spend $35/week on food. It’s not realistic for most of us.

  7. My 15 year old can/will eat a BOX of cereal as a snack, along with an entire package of cookies (and have you noticed that the amount in a package has decreased?). I started buying a big bag of trail mix at Costco instead of buying cookies. He can nibble on it, the nuts are protein and he can certainly use the extra calories. And I use Amazon Subscribe and Save to get cereal cheaper.

    • I’ve found that homemade granola is a cheap alternative to boxed cereal. Have you tried that?

      • And so easy!!!!!

      • Heather H says:

        that is unless your boys eat 2 cups worth of nutty granola in 1 sitting than its way more expensive! I have to watch them when it comes to granola

        • One teen boy, one early 20s young man and a husband means I completely understand. I make granola (doesn’t come out crispy but they’re OK with it) in my crockpot with a base of 12 cups of oatmeal. Costco is my friend here; the 150 serving box of oatmeal is about $8.

          When I can get to the farm to buy raw milk, it is more expensive but definitely more filling, especially the whole. ($5/gallon v. $2.49/gallon at the least expensive store)

          Drink lots of water. It’s inexpensive and good for you! We’ve added fruit flavored waters and homemade iced tea or iced green tea to our summer drinks. I basically stopped buying juice. The younger one has taken over one of my quart canning jars as his glass. You can imagine how much juice we could go through at that rate!

        • Ah. I don’t put nuts in it. Oats are $0.69/pound here on sale, so it turns out pretty cheap.

  8. OK, so I wrote this really long reply and then it went away with the push of some wrong key. SIGH! Just know that I enjoyed the post and all the comments.

  9. Jessica,
    What great ideas you and Cherie have! I love the allowance for extra food. I was just thinking of doing something like that for my 17 year old too! I wish I could get him in the kitchen more. He does make a mean hamburger though!

  10. Our girls are tweens. They wait to eat until they are “starving.” One strategy that has worked for us is prepping snacks. We have a couple dozen ½ cup storage containers. Every week I make up ½ cup servings of fruits and veggies – the usual carrot sticks, applesauce, berries, pineapple spears, etc. –and I stack the containers in the fridge. I also have a shelf of pre-measured snacks in the pantry – nuts, seeds, crackers, quick breads, peanut butter and popcorn. The girls know they are to select one serving of fruit/vegetable and one serving of a pantry item along with a glass of milk or ice water. Once they have eaten that they are not to eat anything else for at least 30 minutes. Nine times out of 10 they do not come back for another snack before the next meal. We are trying to teach them to give their bodies time to register that they have had enough to eat. We are also trying to teach them to recognize an appropriate serving size. Our entire family, young and old, has struggled with obesity.

    • Oh, I like the idea of having pre-measured snacks. My daughter is 19 and perfectly capable of cooking (she takes care of a 90-year old woman and cooks for her) HOWEVER, being capable, and actually doing (at home), are two different things. Emotional and hormonal fluctuations translate into rarely being hungry. Sometimes she has to force herself to eat because she knows she has to. I think if I had containers of healthy snacks like that on hand it would be a great help – she wouldn’t have to think about what to eat – just see what’s available, then grab and go. Thank you!

    • I like this idea too! I do similar prepared containers on Sundays, before the school and work week starts. Kids are welcome to grab and eat as snacks throughout the week, we use them for packing lunches, and any left over at the end of the week are used for stirfrys or buffet type quick suppers etc. Teaching appropriate serving sizes is very important. I do this at home as well so our kids (and my hubby) understand how much a serving of vegetables is and how much a serving of protein is. We have pulled out the scale and measuring cups on more than a couple of occasions. Thanks for sharing everyone.

    • Great tips! I wish I had room for the number of storage containers we would need. .LOL.

  11. These are all great tips and I do most of them except for having my kids be more independent in the kitchen (guess I need your cookbook, huh?) This is something I have been meaning to do. The more I read about you doing it, the more it is encouraging me to get them going. They do a few simple tasks, but I need to bring it up a notch. Thanks for the reminder!

  12. Teenagers will eat what’s around. If there is expensive and or junky stuff or favorite brands around, they will eat it. If we are out of something and I will “put it on the grocery list,” they will, if hungry, eat whatever is available. :)

  13. Love all the ideas! I have a 15 year old girl and an almost 11 year old boy who already eats like a linebacker and is built like a string bean!

    A good freezer option is burritos or breakfast burritos that can be heated quickly and are good for grab and go.

    I also try to keep item on hand for quesadilas which are quick and easy

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