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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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!