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Top 5 Fun and Easy Meals for Your Youth Group

Pizza is as much a part of youth ministry as the Bible and a smelly van. We love pizza as much as the next guy/girl, but we all reach a certain limit.


As New Orleanians, food is a big deal to us. Our challenge has been finding food that’s affordable, fast, tasty, and (at a bare level, at least) nutritious.

With those parameters, here are the best tips and meal ideas we recommend after years of searching for alternatives.

First, follow these important guidelines:

  1. Nutrition matters. For one-day events, the physician’s creed is a good guideline: “First, do no harm.” For shorter contexts, cheap and not-too-messy are important, but we can also choose to lean toward healthy alternatives. That means grilled instead of fried, fresh instead of processed, lean instead of fatty, whole grains instead of white bread, low sugar instead of high sugar, no fructose instead of high fructose, water instead of soda, and so on. For a short retreat (two or three days), offer healthy alternatives at each meal. For a weeklong mission camp, be highly intentional about what you serve. Breakfast is cereal, fruit, yogurt, etc. with milk and juice to drink. Lunch is cold cuts on whole-grain bread with fruit, baked chips, and bottled water. Dinner is high in protein and carbs with a good dessert and lemonade and water to drink. And no matter the time of day, provide access to low-fat granola bars, fresh or dried fruit, and water.
  2. Consider kids’ age. Middle schoolers, especially the younger ones, need more intentionality in their meals than do high schoolers. Consider nutrition all around, but hold off on empty calories such as Skittles and Mountain Dew.
  3. Consider different food beliefs. When we were teenagers, especially growing up in the South, the only vegetarians we knew were just bad hunters. Everyone ate meat. None of our friends counted calories. No one was gluten-free or lactose intolerant. And parents never complained about whatever meal someone else provided for their kids. Today’s world is different, and the quicker you embrace it, the easier your life will be. Good food matters to a lot of people because they recognize its direct connection to overall health and well-being. Instead of complaining about picky parents, ask one more question than you normally would to discover their reasoning.
  4. Find a health-conscious cooking team. One of the smartest things we ever did was establish a dedicated team of adults whose only role is to plan, shop for, prepare, and clean up after meals. Other adults drop in to help, and students can “earn” the privilege of helping clean up, but having adults with health-conscious standards whose only responsibility is to provide meals has made it easier for us to connect with teenagers on getaway trips. Note: Even in shorter contexts, it’s worthwhile to bring along a key adult who likes to cook.
  5. Remember to plan. One way to save on food costs is to avoid wasting food. The time you (or your team) spends reading the “servings per container” and using a calculator is well worth it. If you’re a Sam’s Club member, you can plan menus and budget online with the “Click and Pull” plan. You can order online, and the Sam’s Club team will have your order waiting when you go pick it up.

As youth leaders, it’s important to encourage students to take care of their bodies, but also to help them understand their role in the body of the church. With LIVE Message Series: Many Parts, One Body, teenagers discover their spiritual gifts and understand their role in Jesus’ mission.

Second, try these creative meal ideas:

  1. Healthy Chip-Bag Meals—Serve up fun meals using single-serving-size bags of healthy chips as the base. According to an Eat This, Not That online ranking, these are the healthiest chip options, from best to pretty okay: Lays Oven-Baked Original Potato Chips, Tostitos Oven-Baked Scoops, Pop Chips Sea Salt Potato, Pop Chips Cheddar & Sour Cream Potato, Ruffles Over-Baked Cheddar & Sour Cream, Pop Chips Barbecue Potato, Terra Chips Blues, SunChips Wholegrain Sweet & Spicy BBQ, Food Should Taste Good Multigrain Tortilla Chips, and Simply Ruffles Sea Salted Reduced Fat Potato Chips. Using single-serving bags from any of these choices, you can make…Chip Pie. It’s a classic! Simply provide lean chili—which kids add directly to a small bag of chips—and a “toppings bar” with shredded cheese, black olives, chopped onions, cilantro, etc. Bonus points for using sporks! Another alternative is Walking Tacos. No taco shells required. All you need are single-serving-size bags of one of the tortilla-chip options from above. Open the bag on the long side and top the chips with lean taco meat and fixings. Bonus points if you have an impromptu jalapeño pepper eating contest.
  2. Pasta Meals—If the sauce is tasty, you can get away with substituting a healthier pasta to make a “kid favorite” more nutritious. For example, try one of these six alternatives: whole-wheat pasta, quinoa pasta, buckwheat noodles, sprouted grain pasta, spelt pasta, and brown rice pasta. With any of these substitutions, you can make spaghetti with turkey meatballs, baked ziti, or lasagna. Don’t forget the whole-grain Italian bread! Bonus points for blasting Italian music during the meal. Double bonus if you and your team sing along obnoxiously.
  3. Grill Meals—This is a great way to feed lots of kids and involve that “grill master” parent. We look for the parent who may not be interested in becoming a weekly volunteer but is a beast at the grill. Lean burgers (try turkey), chicken breast, and pork chops all make great large-group meals. Be adventurous by grilling the rest of the meal, too—pineapple, watermelon, mangos, grapes, strawberries, and peaches are all yummy on the grill. You can also grill corn on the cob, green beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Bonus points for using the leftover condiments to play condiment twister.
  4. “Uncle Shane” Meals—Every church community has someone who makes the best local (healthy) comfort food. For us in New Orleans, it’s jambalaya from Uncle Shane. Who in your church makes the best…whatever?! Recruit that person to make their specialty on a large scale. Bonus points if you serve someone’s “famous” dessert.
  5. Theme-Night Meals—Whether it’s Unusual Meat Night (try lamb, duck, venison, bison, rabbit, or goat meat), Pancake Night (use gluten-free or whole-grain flour and make “batches” with unusual add-ins), or Egg Night (make large batches of scrambled eggs and create an add-in bar), theme nights are a hit. One fun twist on this is Skillet Night. Encourage teenagers to bring any healthy-ish food they want, and then use olive oil to cook it in skillets. Set up two stations using camper stoves or your kitchen facilities at church or camp—one for savory items and one for sweets. Bonus points if you have T-shirts made that match the theme. Double bonus points if you send Tim an XL of your shirt!

On youth trips and events, food is fuel. But fuel doesn’t have to be the same ol’ same ol’.

Take a little extra time to plan and enjoy meals. Bonus points if you add your favorite meal ideas in the comments below!


22 thoughts on “Top 5 Fun and Easy Meals for Your Youth Group

  1. Avatar

    Great article!

  2. Avatar
    Dustin Ichida

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention Chipotle Night. SMH!

  3. Avatar

    Those chip bag meals sound great in theory. Have you actually done this? And, if so, did any of the bags tear or did anyone drop them due to the heat from the meat?

    • Avatar
      Tim and Tasha

      Hey Eric,

      We’ve done the chip bag meals quite a few times. The bags have never ripped. Kids have dropped them, but not as much from the heat as much from the fact that they’re kids 🙂 As long as you don’t have the meat blistering hot, you should be fine.

      Our new favorite is the chili lime fritos with chorizo cheese sauce. It’s killer!

      Tim

    • Avatar

      In Iowa “Walking Tacos” are served at every little league baseball park, football stadium and even show choir competitions. The kids love them (just place a napkin in your hand first to keep it from getting too hot). To keep the bags from ripping use a pair of scissors to cut open the bag of chips along the long side. It also makes it easier to eat if you crunch up the chips a bit before placing the toppings in the bag.

      When we do walking taco night I provide the chips and meat and have others sign up to bring all of the toppings (cheese, lettuce, salsa, sour cream, etc.)

      • Avatar
        Tim and Tasha

        Hey Deanna. I love the idea of crunching stuff up before adding toppings. Thanks!

    • Avatar

      Love these ideas, Thanks!
      We do tacos in a bag every camping trip and the students love it. Of course I did think I invented it.

      • Avatar
        Tim and Tasha

        Tricia, you definitely invented it. Someone told me your name … Sorry I didn’t give you credit 😉

  4. Avatar

    I’m just getting started as the “food granny” for our middle school/high school group. For the fall kick-off we are introducing a mashed potato bar. Mashed potatoes with a variety of rollings.(Tested it out on my children and grandchildren.) We will see how it goes over.

    • Avatar
      Tim and Tasha

      Janet, you just made my day! We’re totally doing a mashed potato bar at our next event! Thanks!!

      • Avatar

        Ever try 5 way chili?
        Start with spaghetti, add chili, cheese, onion and sour cream. I think this originated in the Chicago area but another one of the students favorites.

  5. Avatar

    Great article! I am a new youth pastor and any ideas are “gold”! Love the chip bag ideas!!

  6. Avatar

    I’m guilty of going to pizza route quite a bit… But we have also grilled a few times! Hot dogs are so easy. There’s also a member of our church who always asks me if he can cook us a big breakfast in the morning on New Year’s Day to finish off our annual New Year’s Eve sleepover. Of course I say yes, and it’s always amazing! There are people in the church who love cooking for others–let them be a blessing!

    • Avatar

      Sara, I would love to hear about your New Year sleepover. Sounds like a great idea.
      I know I’m way behind the curve on this thread. Just found this article. But hope you see it anyway.

  7. Avatar

    This is pretty good…we never have any leftovers…keep a close eye on the sandwiches in the oven to insure the bottoms don’t get burned.

    Ham Sandwiches

    Ingredients:

    2 -12 packages of sweet Hawaiian rolls (the small dinner roll looking ones)

    1 1/2 lbs of Virginia ham (NOT honey ham)

    12 slices Swiss cheese

    1 stick of real butter

    2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

    1 teaspoon Garlic Powder

    1 teaspoon Onion Powder

    1 teaspoon poppy seeds

    Directions:

    You will need two 9 x 13 pans. Place the bottoms of 12 rolls in each pan.

    Place ham (about 2 shaved slices or so) on the rolls.

    Cut the cheese slices into 4 parts and place 2 small pieces on each sandwich.

    Put the dinner roll tops on.

    In a sauce pan, mix butter, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, garlic powder, and poppy seeds.

    Wait until all butter is melted and then brush the melted mixture over the ham sandwiches.

    Cover with foil and let sit in fridge for 1 hour or overnight. (If you want to bake them right away, you
    can also.)

    Preheat oven to 375 and bake for 15 minutes or until cheese is melted.

    To Increase by a Factor of 12: makes 240 sandwiches

    1/2 cup worcestershire sauce
    1/4 cup garlic powder
    1/4 cup onion powder
    6 cups sweet butter – 12 sticks

  8. Avatar

    We have asked a few of our small groups to sign up periodically to take over a night since we have a dinner every Sunday. They do a great breakfast for dinner. We also have nugget night with mac n cheese (stouffers is their favorite), pork roast with whole cranberry/onion soup mix glaze, burrito bar, fajita bar, chili, sub sandwiches (blt’s were a fav), Chick faux le’ sandwiches (super affordable), baked ziti, chicken parm, pulled pork, fried chicken, sloppy joes, quesadillas, lasagna, and fried chicken. All of these are made with quick cook ingredients that I get from Sam’s Club mostly. Kroger has the least expensive frozen chicken patties for sandwiches. If I’m feeling like working hard, I’ll make chicken marsala or lemon chicken…so that doesn’t happen often!

  9. Avatar

    I just volunteered to take on kitchen duties for 60 people for the youth group summer mission trip. I love these ideas. I’m thinking about trying a recipe we love at my house….tortilla pizzas. I figure I can make them with whole grain tortillas and the kids will never know!

    • Avatar

      Ooh, tortilla pizzas seem like they would be yummy and easy. It’s my first time cooking en masse for middle schoolers and it’s their last event of the school year, so I want it to be good. How did it go and what’s your recipe?

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