How to Spend Less on Food and Teach Teenagers Better Money Habits

Domestic Engineering

How to Spend Less on Food and Teach Teenagers Better Money Habits

Teenagers may still be kids, but as they start eating like adults they’ll need to learn what it takes to bring home the bacon.

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How to Spend Less on Food and Teach Teenagers Better Money Habits

As my family grows up, our monthly food budget does too. In the same way that your kid’s height can sneak up on you, an increase in spending on groceries (especially untracked spending) can surprise you, and not in a good way.

One night your kids start to complain that they are hungry after their usual two slices of pizza and a puny side salad. In my ideal world, my kids’ salads would get proportionately bigger and more nutritious.

So, one large hand-tossed pepperoni pizza becomes two (at $16.99 a pie). Suddenly, your food budget doubles.

Can you hope to feed your hungry, hungry teens on a budget?

Yes! You can spend less on food and feed your growing family. It will take some discipline on your part and clear communication with your teens about a topic that lots of people avoid: money.

I propose that you keep your food expenses in check by involving your teen in the effort. You will save money while your teen eats on a budget.  

What you will need is an unobtrusive way to track what is spent on food by your teen and also a way that your teen can optimize their choices under your family food budget.

THIS ADVICE IS IN NO WAY SUGGESTING YOU TELLING YOUR CHILD TO COUNT CALORIES OR RESTRICT THEIR DIET. EVER. PERIOD. (High School is hard enough. The last thing a teen needs is to feel body shamed by a parent.)

Consider a Teen Meal Plan on a Budget

My very athletic older brother shot up five inches in one summer and on a daily basis he ate a whole 14” sausage pizza and two pepperoni pizza hot pockets for lunch.

My mom couldn’t make him fill up on vegetables from our garden. Instead, she struck a deal with him. She provided three squares a day for him but if he wanted to eat more, he would have to get a job. He got a job as a pizza delivery driver a few nights a week. Our family got pizza at an employee discount and he got free soda refills during his shift and often, free pizza and garlic knots.

While I think that my parent’s “get a job” approach taught my brother the value of a hard-earned buck and the costs associated with feeding a family, it left out a few really important opportunities for discussion on topics such as the importance of good nutrition and the practice of budgeting.

What does a typical week of food spending look like for a teen?

Our primary goal is to feed our growing teen on a budget. Here is the secret of keeping your budgeting and meal planning on track:

Make it easy for your teen to track their food spending by keeping the structure of the meal plan simple.

I used Excel to create this very simple budget that essentially sets the limit on outside food spending to $50 a week, and tracks what was purchased. The price of each item entered brings the balance down.

Teen name: Olivia
Week*: DATES HERE
Budget: $50.00
ITEM PRICE BALANCE
Candy Bar $2.00 $48.00
Chips $2.35 $45.65
Fruit Smoothie $4.35 $41.30
Crunchy Taco Combo $6.69 $34.61
Root Beer $1.50 $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
$- $33.11
BALANCE $33.11

*The timeframe could be longer like two-weeks or a month. By keeping the timeframe reasonable for you and your teen’s attention span, you will improve usage and that increases the plan’s effectiveness.

The meals in a teen food budget

Where are the meals in this budget? All I see listed are snacks. Exactly!

Let’s face it, if your teenager is involved in any extracurricular activities, has a social life, and a part-time job, then there is a lot of snacking going on. Structuring around a meal plan and budget can help your teenager become more aware of how much they snack, what they nosh on, and how much it costs.

What this simple budget will show you and your teen might help to change their snacking habits (i.e. reduce snacks, choose healthier options). By tracking your teen’s food intake outside of your home for a few weeks to a month you will have some concrete data to work with and be in a much better position to create a meal plan that meets your individual teenager’s specific goals. Your teen might want to live that boujie (slang for upscale) life and and want to save up for a car or a trip to Europe with their friends and they are going to do it with their meal budget money.

Teens can also use a pre-loaded debit or credit card to make purchases and this eliminates the need to collect receipts and it will also give you control with no risk of overspending and no risk to your credit score.

Get out of it what you put into it

Meal planning for teens on a budget does take a little work to make it work for you and your family food budget. It could mean saving receipts and entering them after the fact or downloading your debit/credit card purchases to be a quick cut and paste away from your data analysis. The analysis may bring up other issues (i.e. odd or troubling food purchase behavior) that will need specialized attention.

And that kind of information is the advantage of any budget.

Budgets make prices more visible and that clarity helps domestic engineers to make better choices with money. If you were rich AF, price would not impact your choices. A rich AF person has a personal assistant who brings them Starbucks and a personal chef who buys the ingredients of their customized cuisine.

When it comes to what we buy to eat, we may not have unlimited funds but many of us do have the luxury of choice. So, it is key to give your teen a leg up on how to make smart food purchases. This meal budgeting plan can help.

Get ready to learn a lot about your teen and your responses to your teen’s choices using this plan.

Meal Plan and Budget Tips for Your Teens

Consider these 3 tips for setting up your teen for success!

Tip #1: Talk About Those Hot Pockets

My mom tried to instill in us a sense of personal responsibility for our choices, like eating hot pockets every day. What were we getting from those hot pockets? What were we giving up with our choice? What were the other options to consider?

Yeah. She would have to catch us at the right moment for those chats.  

When you can get your teenager’s attention, start talking with them about the relationship between food and their pocketbook.

For example, here is what my pre-teen’s weekly food bill looks like:

Teen name: Olivia
Average Weekly Food Bill
Budget: $50.00
ITEM PRICE BALANCE
Bowl of Cereal x6 $6.00 $44.00
Kind Bar x4 $4.76 $39.24
Hot Lunch x5 $5.00 $34.24
Panera Steak & Cheddar Sandwich $8.29 $25.95
Sprite Drink 2x $13.38 $0.57
Dutch Bros Almond Roca, White Chocolate (Med) 2x $9.00 $13.95
Taco Bell Crunchy Taco Combo 2x $13.38 $0.57
Chicken curry, naan, & rice $2.78 $(2.21)
Vending machine snack (during dance practice) 3x $6.00 $33.11
Baked Salmon, Green Beans, Baked Potato 1x $3.18 $(11.39)
2% Milk 6 oz glasses x8 $1.44 $(12.83)
Spaghetti $ Meatballs with Mixed green salad $2.78 $(15.61)
2 pancakes and 3 strips of bacon $1.78 $(17.39)
Dinner out with Grandma $25.00 $(42.39)
Cottage Cheese & Fruit 2x $1.78 $(44.17)
BALANCE $33.11

It’s pretty easy to go WAY over budget. In this case, the weekly food bill of $94.17 is 88% higher than the $50 budget.

For all of you with pre-16-year-olds, think about how your food budget is going to blow up when your angel starts driving like a bat outta…Lay the groundwork for personal responsibility and budgeting now. You’ll thank yourself later.

When you broach this subject with your teen, remember that they most likely have no idea how much you spend on food on a weekly basis and, that’s kind of the point. We don’t want our kids to worry about anything.

By talking with them about how much all those hot pockets cost, you are giving them the gift of awareness. How can they start making informed choices about their health and wealth without awareness that money is finite and they are hungry!?

A food budget for your teen enables you to start talking about other hot-topic issues such as healthy and unhealthy eating habits, body image, and dieting.

The sooner you start talking about the price of hot pockets—both nutritionally and financially—the better off your food budget and your teen’s money management and financial future will be.

Nutrition and Teens

Domestic engineers tasked with feeding teenagers on a budget know that volume is a real consideration. We adults might go straight for the rice and beans trick to fill us up and save us real money on groceries. There are so many ways to make rice and beans!

You can’t feed your teen $0.79 ramen and $6.50 blended drinks from Starbucks, even though that is what they crave.

Teenagers regularly fail to eat the recommended diet for optimal nutrition choosing faster, easier options: grazing and fast food.

Teens crave salt, fat, and sugar

You’re not the only one in the house who wants to binge eat during an epic movie marathon. If you’re lucky, like me, you have two partners in crime. A recent 12-hour movie marathon junk food binge of chips, soda, and chocolate ran the three of us about $50.

We shopped at Target and made use of the 2 for $6 regular size bag of any Frito Lay product of your choice, 2-liter soda of choice ($1.49–$1.89 each), and three different fun-sized bags of candy goodness ($8.99–$10.99 each).

Imagine doing that once a month!? Don’t even start to think about the calories from fat and sodium overload. The $600 bill spent on thousands of calories devoid of nutrition is enough to make me do 10 burpees for imagining it!

On that same outing, I gave my pre-teens a per-person dollar limit and smiled when they balked at the price of candy and chips.

Tip #2: Remember the Goldilocks Rule

As with anything new, it will take a few tries before you find your stride with a teen food budget.

Aside from the weirdness of a human child named Goldilocks breaking into a bear’s house and then trying out each bed in the joint until she found the right bed for her nap, the fable points to something we all need help with: self-control. A budget is a great way to facilitate the practice of self-control.

Be sure to talk with your teen about the principles behind the budget: to encourage self-reliance, to develop new life skills, to learn how to make good choices for their bodies, and to satisfy their need for fat and sugar without blowing your budget!

Let your teens figure a few things out for themselves and resist the urge to create a perfect plan for them.

The more tightly my parents tried to hold on to me the more I wanted to rebel against their rules, their world view, and their food.

Tip #3: Commit to the plan for at least a month.

It takes us repeatedly doing something to form a habit. We all know that breaking a bad habit is even harder than creating a new one. I suggest that you and your teen commit to trying this budget for at least a month to build the habit.

Your teenager might be preternaturally organized, driven, and focused on their goals. The practice of tracking their food purchases and analyzing data might be really simple for them. The real value will come from the act of reflecting on how much they spend to eat.

Your teen might have trouble finishing tasks, remembering their schedule, or keeping track of their water bottle. The plan could be the thing that clicks with them.

Your teen may also really feel good about the extra responsibility and movement toward independence that this process signifies.

After a month, celebrate your child’s successes eating on a budget.

And, if this very simple method is still not working out, you can check out some budgeting apps for teens recommended by parental control app FamiSafe.

Be sure to #BudgetBrag in the comments below after your first month. Encourage others who are looking for ways to feed their teens without going broke.

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Laura Kim
Laura is a freelance copy and grant writer. In her mid-40s she swapped her single-with-a-career, living-in-the-city life for a married-with-three-kiddos and self-employed life in Portland, OR.