If I had to name the one thing that made our small groups so successful, it would be the fact that we always had dinner together. Every other week, we had shared a meal with 10 teens, and we loved it. So did they. Eating together is a powerful and often underused tool to help make your small group successful.
With one small group, we managed to eat together every other week for two years without ever serving the same food twice. And we did this on a fairly low budget, we never asked the teens to pay for the meals. And by meals I mean home cooked dinners, not McDonald’s or the equivalent. I realize this may be very European of me, but there’s a difference in eating together at a fast food chain, or sharing a home cooked meal in a home. Teens love the latter, especially those that don;t get this at home.
So how did we do this? What are some tips for affordable meals for your small group? I’m glad you asked 🙂
1. Cook seasonal
If you want to cook low budget, cook in tune with the seasons. Look which fruits and vegetables are cheap and use those. In the winter, many fresh vegetables will be expensive, so either use the ones that aren’t (fresh spinach, kale, etc) or use frozen veggies.
2. Buy in bulk
Having a freezer is almost essential if you have to cook for bigger groups regularly. Buying food in bulk is often cheaper, like big packages of meat, or 10 for $10 pasta offers.
3. Use coupons
It’s a bit of a time investment to learn ow to coupon and how to use coupons most effectively, but once you get the hang of it it will save you a lot of money. Did you know for instance that you can ‘stack’ coupons? That means that you can use a manufacturer’s coupon plus a store coupon at the same time. And if you use them when an item is also on sale, you get triple discount. That’s how I managed to buy red pasta sauce for as little as 50 cents per item. And when you see a good discount, buy in bulk (see above).
4. Use cheap meats
Meat is often the most expensive part of a meal. So use cheap meats, like ground beef, chicken, or turkey. They are very versatile in use, and can be used in practically any meal. With different sauces, veggies, or seasoning you can make them taste different in every meal! Or use a vegetarian recipe every now and then – some are so good you don’t even miss the meat!
5. Know what works
Some types of meals are easy to cook in larger quantities, some aren’t. Pasta usually works very well, as do casseroles or other types of dishes that go in the oven (like lasagna). Because exact timing is often difficult with teens, I always made dishes that could simmer a bit longer if necessary. So for instance, I’d make the pasta sauce in advance and wouldn’t put the pasta in until everyone was there. Don’t forget that cooking times go up when cooking in larger quantities, so plan accordingly. And do some googling for easy recipes. Try them out with your own family first, so you’ll know if it’s good or not.
Cooking for larger groups is something that requires planning. You’ll need to think ahead:
- How many are coming?
- Are there any people with special diets or food allergies? If so, what can I do to accommodate them?
- What could I make for a group that size? Is this something I could reheat or freeze when I have left overs?
- How much will they eat?
- How long will the preparations take and how long is the actual cooking time? So what time do I need to start cooking?
- Is what I want to cook doable in my kitchen? Are my pans big enough? How many burners do I need? Does this fit into the oven/microwave?
- What groceries do I need? Do I have all the basics that I may need? (butter, spices, salt, pepper, herbs, etc.)
- Where can we all sit, and what do we need for that? (plates, glasses, water, napkins)
One last thing. I know I am Dutch, and as such, I’m a bit more used to home cooking and eating healthy (I don’t mean to be offensive, but we don’t have the fast food culture America has). But I think it’s important to set a good example for your teens when you eat together. Many teens don’t learn healthy eating habits at home, so why not use this opportunity to teach them? We served vegetables in every meal, always drank water instead of soda, and often has a salad or something on the side. We’ve used many new flavors, dishes, vegetables, fruits, and recipes that our teens had never had before. Some they loved, most they ate, some they disliked. But at least we opened their world a little bit by introducing new ways to cook and eat. Just some food for thought, pun intended 🙂