How to Feed a Pack of Ravenous Teenagers

            Last night we finished up our first year of All-Stars, Wednesday night program for our youth department.  We took advantage of the recently good weather and had a cookout on our church property.  While doing this it got me to thinking about all of the times we have cooked for a ravenous pack of teenagers.  Having become somewhat of a pro at this now, I thought I’d share some things we’ve learned along the way.  Admittedly, some of this goes against my own grain, as I enjoy things that are beautifully put together and engage all of the senses.  However, we’re talking about teenagers here who are not yet adept at appreciating things in this way, so, I’ve learned to concede some of my perfectionism and do what works. We generally feed around 45 people on average, but have also at times been in charge of feeding several hundred for youth rallies or even just about 10 for smaller gatherings. 
1.  This is not the time to think nutrition:  I know this may go against all of you who are health conscious or just simply have a family of your own that you are trying to nutritiously feed.  However, as 2nd man puts it, “we’re simply trying to sustain life here, we’re not in charge of their entire diet.”   It costs money to feed the ravenous pack and sometimes the “fun” food is cheaper.  If you are on a special diet of some sort, it is my suggestion that you eat beforehand so that you are neither tempted nor foiled in your plan.
  1. This is not the time to think gourmet:  I’m no great chef or gourmet cook, but I do enjoy trying new and interesting things I’ve seen in magazines or on the Food Network.  However, it has been my experience both financially and practically with the kids’ taste preferences, that teens are much more satisfied with something simple and familiar.  I’ve had times where I’ve tried new things with the kids and it usually doesn’t go over very well.  When spending this kind of money and time I suggest pleasing the crowd.  Save your special recipes for smaller groups of adults who can appreciate both the work and the ingredients. If you  simply must experiment here, perhaps do it with dessert.
* On a special note here:  I’ll share one of my recent mistakes.  We currently have a family with both kids on special diets.  I’ve gotten myself into the predicament of ordering special for them on pizza nights.  I guess they got me in a weak moment and a part of me is a softy for them.  However, it does complicate things for me.  So, my suggestion when this is the case would be to not charge them for the activity, but ask mom to provide whatever the special food is that they may need. It’s simply too complicated to have to be responsible for everyone’s diet.  Unless of course you’re a softy like me or can accommodate easily.
3.  Always buy too much:  Another maxim of 2nd man is, “It’s always better to have too much than too little.”  It can be hard to foretell how hungry the kids will be, so I always try to have more than enough so they may have seconds.  Of course you must be careful with expenses.  However, nothing comes across more inhospitable than rationing food at a fun activity.
  1. Pizza Numbers:  Along with number 3 above, we usually assign 3 people per large pizza when counting heads.  This number seems to always serve us well when ordering for a crowd.  We usually order from Pizza Hut or Dominos.  Dominos gives a better deal in general, but when our church built a new building we found it more convenient to drive to Pizza Hut.  We’ve struck a deal with them to get a discount since we usually make a large order at least once per month.  Usually managers will work some kind of deal with you if you order at least 12 pizzas or more.
  1. Set out only some of the pop:  Teenagers like pop.  They like it to flow freely and with abundance.  Therefore, I’ve learned that even though I try to buy more than enough, I only set out a few 2 liters at a time.  Otherwise they will open every single bottle and you’ll be left with partial 2 liters that you have to give away.  Instead, set out an appropriate amount and put out more if they seem extra thirsty or ask for more.  This way you can save unused bottles for future activities.  Speaking of pop, buy the name brand kind.  The idea is to be careful with money, but not to make the teens feel unworthy either.
  1. Charge for the food:  This may seem obvious, but let the teens offset the costs here.  Sometimes we do splurge and make it a free night.  However, charging $5.00 is not too much to ask when they’re getting a meal.  Assign a youth worker or adult to take up the money in an envelope.  Our church does allow fundraisers for our kids.  With this money we set them up with an account that they can pull from for large activities like camps and youth retreats or even small activities too.  This helps the parents from having to fork it over every weekend.  I know some churches aren’t comfortable with this, so handle it however, your pastor would allow.
  1. Let the kids help:  Recently we have a young lady in our youth department who loves to bake.  She seems to want to pursue this passion and has shown some good ability too.  Just last night she made All-Star cupcakes to go with our group theme.  They were simply beautiful with white chocolate stars poking up out of the beautifully piped frosting.  If you have someone with ability like this and the energy and desire to use it, let them.  It helps you and encourages them. 
On occasion, I also like to have the girls help me with cooking projects or setting up or even cleaning up.  It’s good experience for them.  Just don’t overdo it or they may get to feeling like it’s more work than activity.
             
8. Ask the parents for help:  I save this suggestion for smaller churches.   We’re not exactly ginormous, but big enough that this is actually kind of hard for me.  I have had the experience in the past of trying to do this and had multiple people back out for varying reasons at the last minute.  They think that there are enough other parents that it won’t matter.  It was in those times I was left to panic and whip something together.  However, in a smaller group, people wouldn’t necessarily have that “out” and it could work out for the better financially for all.
Some sample menus: One may look at this and think I have no creativity, However, I’ve learned to keep it simple.  Sometimes, I get a hankering to change it up.  But in general I stick with these few choices.
A. Hamburgers (buy the pre-made patties, this is often cheaper and much fast to cook up)
                 Sometimes we add hotdogs to offset the cost
Chips
            Cookies or Little Debbies
B.     Pizza:  we do this on a monthly basis and provide pizza and pop. We generally charge $5.00 for this activity
C.     Sloppy Joes:  this is a very cost effective meal but not all teens enjoy sloppy Joes
I use Manwich, the kind in the can.  I know people have different preferences here, but the flavor of this is usually pleasing to a wider array of people, it’s cheaper than buying all of the homemade ingredients and lets face it, it’s much faster to prepare.
 We usually pair chips and cookies with this one as well
D.     Snack night:  This one takes a little more time and planning, but the kids eat it up fast.  On these kind of nights we have:
1.      Rotelle cheese dip with tortilla chips: 1 block of Velveeta, 1 can Rotelle tomatoes and chilies, 1 tube of mild sausage cooked.
2.      Taquitoes with salsa and sour cream
3.      bagel pizzas
4.      egg rolls (the kind found in the frozen foods section
E.      Hot dogs: If we are doing hot dogs only, I try to add fun to it by providing chili topping along with cheese onion, ketchup, mustard and relish, so they can have more variety.  We usually add the chips and cookies here too.
Soooo not exactly rocket science, but just a few things that have helped us along the way. I might add that I’m open to suggestions if anyone else reading has done something different and would like to share.
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