Ideas for Student Meals

For many youth groups, winter retreats are just around the corner and summer trips are fast approaching, which means planning has begun or will begin shortly. Part of planning for these trips may include meal planning and thinking through how to offer food that is affordable and tasty. Still other youth ministries offer meals weekly to their students as a way of blessing them and their communities.

But have you noticed how we can easily default to the same meals over and over? Perhaps you have run out of ideas about what you can offer to your students. I know I have been there many times. I’ve wondered what to offer for trips that wouldn’t drastically raise the overall price. I’ve defaulted to pizza way too often! And let’s be honest: the easy option can feel like the best option because it’s less work and simpler.

Today, I want to share with you some fun and affordable meal ideas that you can utilize on trips and in your ministry whenever they are needed.

Breakfast options.

  • Cereal bar. This is a fun and easy one. Grab a bunch of cereals from your local store and have them set out for your students. They don’t need to be name brand, there are a ton of store brands that taste just as good, but I’d recommend a broad variety so students have different options. Don’t forget that some students are lactose-free, so consider grabbing a milk alternative or two.
  • Pancakes. This is a really cheap option for breakfast. You can grab a large bag of pancake mix from your Costco or Sam’s that only requires water and mix it up to make a hearty breakfast that is fairly cheap. If you’re looking for your pancakes to have a little more taste and to be a little fluffier, grab a bottle of Sprite or 7up and substitute that for the water. Trust me on this one; these are sure to be winners with your students. Don’t forget some butter and syrup to top off this breakfast (check out Aldi for cheap butter and syrups).
  • Eggs and bacon. These are breakfast staples and honestly, it makes morning a little more bearable when you wake up to fresh bacon. Aldi has great prices on eggs, but you may also be able to purchase eggs in bulk at Sam’s or Costco at a comparable price. The same can be said of bacon, so make sure to compare prices. If you live in a community that harvests their own hogs, try connecting with a local farmer or butcher to check out their prices on bacon. You can also see if there are any local people who raise chickens for eggs who could help you out with a deal. A quick tip on making eggs, always go scrambled and add in milk or water to give your them more body and to help with making them go a little farther.
  • Breakfast sandwiches. This is one of those breakfasts I always look forward to. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Jersey and breakfast sandwiches were a way of life (don’t get me started on pork roll, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel), but these are a great last day breakfast. You get to look at your inventory of leftovers and utilize them in a way that students and leaders will enjoy. Cook up the last of your eggs, heat up or cook all of the leftover meat, grab some American cheese slices, toast up some English muffins or bagels, slather butter on the toast and voila, you have a gooey and delicious breakfast sandwich.
  • Baked oatmeal. I will be honest, I only got into this recently because I was trying to find a healthy breakfast alternative. I realize that most baked oatmeals are anything but healthy, but I did find one that is a little healthier because it substituted all the dairy with applesauce and reduced the sugar drastically. But all that to say, baked oatmeal is a fantastic alternative to regular oatmeal and is something that can be prepped the night before and thrown into the oven in the morning. If you are looking for some recipes, especially some that offer you different flavor options, check out this list at AllRecipies.com.

Lunch and dinner options.

  • Walking tacos. This is something I had not heard of until I moved to the Midwest, and honestly this is an amazing option for meals. Essentially you take a snack sized bag of your favorite chips (Doritos, Fritos, Lays, or really any type of chip will do), add in all of the ingredients that go with tacos (meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, etc.), and grab a fork to dig in. These are totally customizable by each student, quick to prepare, and also an easy cleanup option.
  • Spaghetti and meatballs. This is such an easy option for a meal and it is incredibly filling. Purchase a bunch of spaghetti and sauce, throw some meatballs in for added flavor, and you have a meal that will have your students ready for bed due to all the carbs! I would encourage you to consider making your own sauce if possible, or doctoring the store bought sauce to make it a little more tasty and special for your students. You can also up the ante by purchasing garlic bread or bread sticks, and by offering Parmesan cheese for students who like that on their pasta.
  • Grilled cheese and tomato soup. This is something that is pure nostalgia for most of us, and I would say the same is true for your students. Bring along a couple of griddles or utilize a flattop and get ready to toast up a lot of bread. A couple of ideas for this include having multiple types of cheese and breads, and making sure you have crackers and other toppings for your soup. Keep in mind you may have students with gluten or dairy allergies, so if you are able, try to have some options available, but understand that these items may not cook up in the same fashion.
  • Soup bar. Depending on the time of year, soup is the way to go! It offers not only warmth and a full belly, but is also fairly easy to put together. My recommendation would be to grab a bunch of crock pots and take them with you if you are going on a trip or have them ready to go in your kitchen space. Ask some parents to prepare their favorite soups ahead of time or grab a bunch of different pre-made options from your local supermarket or Costco, and start them in the morning. Periodically stir them and when dinner time arrives put out crackers, salt and pepper, shredded cheese, and other toppings for a night that will leave students feeling full and satisfied.
  • Sandwich bar. This doesn’t just have to be peanut butter and jelly or lunch meats, but could be a whole themed meal time. You could do different types of sandwich options including various nut butters and jellies, lunch meats and cheeses, BLTs, meatballs, Sloppy Joes, and chicken, tuna, or egg salad. Add in all the condiments and various toppings and you have yourself a DIY sandwich bar that offers your students any type of sandwich they could imagine.
  • Pizza. I know, I know. I said pizza is something we default to. But hear me out on this one. If you are doing pizza all the time, then skip this option. But if you don’t do pizza all the time or want to do something different than your normal pizza options, then jump right in to this one. I’d suggest that you get a bunch of take and bake pizzas from Costco, Aldi, or your local supermarket and do a pizza buffet. Having multiple options and types of toppings gives your students variety and a choice of what they’d like to have. This can turn a boring pizza night into a really fun buffet. I’d also encourage you to consider adding in a dessert pizza, which could be cookie pizza, cinnamon sugar pull apart pizzas (think cooked or baked in a skillet), or even a brownie pizza to round out the evening.
  • Hamburgers and hotdogs. Who doesn’t love a grilled hotdog or hamburger? They always make a great meal. And it gives students something to not only look forward to because they can customize them, but the smell of the grill is enough to entice anyone for dinner that night. I would encourage you to make sure to season your burger patties and have all the accompaniments for the hotdogs and hamburgers. If you’re able to and it is cost efficient, consider purchasing some local hotdogs because that will add to the flavor and uniqueness of your gathering.
  • Crock pot meals. This is a fun and easy option. There are so many crock pot recipes out there that the options are almost limitless. I’d encourage you to find some quick and easy crock pot meals that you can set and forget about and to ask your church families if they’d consider providing some meals for you. This can lead to all types of fun and unique meals and can make this mealtime one that students will look forward to.

Snack and dessert options.

When it comes to snacks, there are a ton of ideas to consider. There’s fruit, granola bars, snack bags of chips, snack mix, ice cream, puppy chow, cereal, popcorn, cookies and brownies, and even leftovers. Anything can be a snack or dessert for a hungry student, just make sure they know when and where they will be available.

A few things to consider.

Remember the students and leaders who have dietary restrictions. This is a pretty big deal especially if you’re planning a trip or retreat because there will be multiple meals. Start by including a question on your signup form asking if people have allergies or dietary restrictions. Then connect individually with that family to see how you can help meet that need. This will require extra work on your part but it will mean the world to those students who are often forgotten.

Always over-estimate on food. I learned this early on in my youth ministry career. Students can put away food like it’s going out of style and like they haven’t eaten all week. So always have extra food on hand to make sure your students are well fed. If there are leftovers or extras, you can always freeze them, use them at your next gathering, or even give them away to some of your leaders (especially your college students).

Don’t forget coffee, tea, and hot cocoa. Typically I reserve the coffee for my leaders because they are doing so much on trips already. Having some hot coffee for them each morning goes a long way. Make sure to have good coffee (go beyond Folgers or instant) and some fun creamers. The tea and hot cocoa can be for anyone and can be nice to have during those winter camps where it’s freezing outside. Having these drinks available make your trips and gatherings just a little sweeter and more special.