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Cheap and Quick for kids!

I volunteer with an after school program for kids whose fathers are incarcerated. One of the main thrusts of the program is to provide a sense of family and basic life skills. We all cook together (volunteers, kids, and moms) and then sit down to a meal. Its a whole lot of fun, but with problems like lack of funding and not knowing how many people are going to show up. Sometimes we get 2 people and sometimes its 15-20.

I need your help! the stuff i'm making has been taking too long and is too "gourmet" for the head of the program (i'm told). She wants me to pare it down even more...

I'm looking for any and all recipe suggestions to fit within our very tiny budget (no fixed limit, just as cheap as you can get). It would be nice if these recipes had elements that kids could participate in (often they help making salad, breaking string beans, etc), and also be meals that dont take too long so that we can get a head count before we start cooking and still eat at a reasonable hour.


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  1. When my sister and I were little, my mom used to make us what I called "nunu and hot dogs". It's egg noodles tossed in butter, parsley and parm with browned, sliced hot dogs thrown in. We used to help her by slicing the hot dogs, tearing the parsley etc. My sister and I still make it to this day :)

    1 Reply
    1. re: krisrishere

      Campbells has some decent recipes on their labels for easy-chicken-bake type of stuff.
      I bet their website is a good source for such quick and easy.

      Also, try Bisquik. They have pizza bake and quick pot pie type stuff on the box, so again, i bet the web site would be a good resource.

    2. Pizza! Kids and moms all love pizza. You can prepare the dough beforehand or purchase small rounds of dough. (if your program is long enough, you can even make the dough together). The kids can prepare the toppings- grating the cheese, slicing peppers, mushrooms, and onions, chopping olives, setting out pepperoni. It's cost effective, fun to make, and everyone can customize their own. If you have time, you can even make a basic sauce with the families.

      Another idea along the same line- a taco/burrito bar. Everyone pitches in to prepare the toppings and then everyone makes their own dinner. Lots of veggies and lean meat or chicken makes it a healthy meal.

      Make sure you or another leader divides the taks- you don't want the kids fighting. Provide plastic knives for the littlest kids, or let them take part in something that doesn't require a knife. Teach the kids to work together. Mom can slice the avocado, while the her kiddies mash and add lime.

      Send home a printout of the basic recipe. If you budget allows, provide each mom with a looseleaf binder and an inexpensive 3hole puncher. Each mom can create her own cookbook and have memories of the program.

      BTW- really great program that you're a part of!!

      1. Quiche using crumb crust is quick. Crushing crackers, stale bread, and unsweetened dry cereal is something the kids could have fun doing, with the contents in ziploc baggies. Little kids could stomp on the bags, then the older ones use cans or bottles as rolling pins to even out the crumb size. Mix with melted butter and press into pie tins. The filling WILL soak through the crumbs but everything solidifies in baking, so it slices neatly.

        1. I sense that you're trying to introduce some new tastes to your participants as well as basic cooking techniques. Wishing you success. Not knowing what they find familiar and comforting, nor what their ages are, here are a few suggestions.

          Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (kids can help assemble sandwiches and spread butter), served with baby carrots and Ranch dressing to dip (maybe individual small containers that the kids could fill?)

          Breakfast for dinner. Pancakes and sausage links or dippy eggs and toast and bacon, served with fruit (kids can wash grapes, cut bananas with plastic spoons, even cut up peeled and seeded cantaloupe wedges into bite-size pieces).

          Eggs are cheap protein, so if quiche is too gourmet, how about egg salad? It only takes a few minutes to bring the eggs to boil, let them sit for 10-12 minutes. If you plan it right and have older eggs, they'll be easy to peel and the kids can help. Using a pastry cutter, they can take turns chopping the eggs. Make sandwiches or serve in lettuce cups with cherry tomatoes (kids can wash and pick off stems) on the side.

          For mains that need mostly adult attention, the kids could be making rice krispie treats or chocolate chip cookies. Make the CC dough ahead of time if possible, and the kids just scoop with a spoon or a cookie portioner if you have one. They take 9-11 minutes to bake. Rice krispie treats can be free-form blobs or packed into a pan.

          Also consider the potato. Soup now while it's still chilly, baked with cheddar-broccoli sauce (not too heavy on the cheese, use canned evap milk to stretch it), potato salad in the summer.

          1. KIds all love the many variations on Sloppy Joes.

            Then there is the amazingly delicious Mucky Gutchie--- basic recipe: brown one lb ground round, add one can tomato soup, and one cup dried elbow macaroni cooked to al dente stage. Fry up into one delicious meal. You can add, (canned corn, chopped onions,mushroms, peppers or frozen or fresh veggies) and you can s-t-r-e-t-c-h and you can substitute (different shaped pastas, different soups, different ground meats). it is infinitely variable and a big kid pleaser with some good nutritional potential.

            1. Sounds like its back to basics time. Here are some favorites I've enjoyed cooking with my own kids:

              Chilli & corn bread. My kids always liked mixing batter and messily spooning to mix into cupcakes or baking pans. A simple chilli recipe without any exotic ingredients or special meats, using a generic chilli powder (and plenty of garlic, even if the crowd can't handle the hot spices) is about as economical as it gets.

              Spaghetti & meatballs. Fun to mix the meatball dough. Fun to form them. Older kids can help with the frying. The cheaper the burger, the better the flavor. A nice relaxed pace to the cooking too.

              Baked pasta dishes. No need to bring back the dreaded tuna casserole, but that style of saute + can of soup + cooked pasta turned out into a baking dish and into a hot oven is a crowd pleaser. Plus once its in the oven its time for the lesson about timely clean up. Somehow getting the kids to help wash dishes and clean up is easier before they eat than aftwards.

              1. Meat balls are fun and easy and kids can make them. Add a pre jarred sauce
                Classic grilled cheese you can add ham or bacon if they want
                Pizzas, get the premade crusts and let them have fun. Give them lots of toppings to enjoy
                Tacos, great way to get kids to eat lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and to teach how to make the
                filling, not just beef, use turkey or something healthy
                Baked chicken fingers, easy dip in egg and crumbs and bake, serve with bbq
                Green beans for desert they can help with
                Corn on the cob baked or roasted or just served with a good butter and let the kids help
                Spaghetti sauce, let the kids help mash the tomatoes with a masher or a mill
                Make a cheesy sauce for pasta, then bake with crumbs the kids get to mash up
                Baked fish fingers also dipped is crumbs and then baked
                Making a good dip for veggies is a fun way to get kids involved
                A tasty cream cheese dip or peanut butter for celery
                Toasted breads and pita chips kids love to season with butter, cheese herbs, cinnimon
                sugar and jams and bake
                Kids love cucumbers, slice on sandwiches with cream cheese and ham
                Peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

                But with all this you can also teach nutrition. I taught several kids classes while at the restaurant. We taught kids how to oven fry veggies with nothing more than bread crumbs and egg and then dip in ranch. They loved it. Many other dips too but you got to go slow with them.

                Soups are fun even if it is just broth some cut up chicken and noodles

                Anything simplistic.

                Pasta butter, cream and parm, easy and quick

                Crunched up kellogs corn flakes are great for chicken wings and kids can relate.

                Shrimp just baked and then with a fun ketchup sauce.

                Make it fun but still educational. Muffins or pancakes in shapes, but things fun. Seasoning, they care less for the most part. Teach but let them do whatever.

                We did calzones once, they stuffed with whatever and then baked and cut in pieces. It was great 2 people made 1 calzone

                1. I am not sure what you have been making but there are some wonderful suggestions here. I would also add fruit salad....fun to make ,fun to eat.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: LaLa

                    Absolutely fruit, great idea. Easy fruit dips are a great way to get kids to eat fruit. Even honey and nuts to get to kids to try different things.

                    Chocolate dipped bananas and strawberries on sticks. Anything fun for kids to try.

                    nuts, crushed candy, coconut, lots of things to try.

                    1. re: kchurchill5

                      btw- kchurchill- sorry to read about your mother.

                      1. re: salsailsa

                        Thx, bad couple of months, my grandfather 3 weeks and mom last week. But appreciate the though, thank you.

                    2. re: LaLa

                      At every gatthering I have that involves the neighbors and the kids, or my friends and their children, I always put out a tray with fresh fruit. Green and red grapes, strawberries, bananas left in the peel and whole, watermelon, honeydew, apples, and pineapple. The platter is emptied. Fruit is not inexpensive, but for a short meeting or gathering, I'd consider it.

                    3. Lost of kids like the Porcupine meatball recipe.

                      I remember in home-ec one of things we made were hot dogs stuffed with cheese and then wrapped in biscuit dough. Easy.

                      Pancakes and sausage patties(made from ground pork).

                      Tomato, beef macoroni
                      Pasta e Fagoli soup
                      omlette or a big oven baked omlette.with hashbrowns
                      Chicken pot pie.
                      Chicken broccoli rice casserole witih mushroom soup.
                      Swedish meatballs on egg noodles.
                      Ground turkey burgers

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: salsailsa

                        With meatloaf which is fun I used to let the kids help make a big batch and then each kid shaped one in a small loaf them selves, put on cookie sheets and baked. It was a fun way for everyone to make their own. We wrote their name on a popsickle stick so they knew it was theirs. Some made round, some square, It was fun.

                        We also did a lunch with English Muffins and had tons of topping and let the kids make their own. Just some chopped chicken, pepperoni, some veggies, cheese, tomatoes, and let them make their own.

                        For the adults they can make full size meatloafs or full size meals. Depending on the ages it was fun to make the same meals for the adults and kids but maybe let the kids do their how they like them. Same ingredients and same cooking time, but makes the kids feel special

                        1. re: kchurchill5

                          Second the English Muffin pizza idea; my kids love to make that when there isn't time for regular pizza.

                          Also, eggplant parmesan (I use a my thrift store george foreman grill to speed the process and reduce fat).

                          Vietnamese summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce.

                          Empanada filled with just about anything.

                          1. re: kchurchill5

                            Ming Tsai made a turkey meatloaf in a cast iron skillet. It looked really awesome, plus he used literally one pan and one bowl. Great for kids..

                        2. Soup. There is plenty of prep work for the kids to help with in paring/ cutting vegetables, etc., can be made with inexpensive ingredients, and is more in the form of comfort food then "gourmet." Maybe served with some sort of quick bread, such as muffins or biscuits.

                          1. We just had a foodie friend come over to my place to make lunch with my 4-yr old twins (boys). They made homemade gnocci - it was the simplest thing ever. We just steamed some choped up BN squash (which you could do ahead of time) and then mashed it (which the kids could do on meal day), mixed I think it was 2 cups BN squash with 3 cups flour and then added a tensy bit of salt and pepper and nutmeg. Then squshed it all together so it was mixed up really well. Take a chunk and roll into "logs" and then cut with butter knives. Then just throw into a pot of boiling water (boys didn't do this part) and cook for about 5 minutes or until the gnocci are floating at the top. We (the adults) made a simple sauce of butter and sage melted/fried in a small pan and poured over the top. So simple, so cheap and my boys loved it. We added a side salad of kale (raw black/lucinato kale chopped up small with some chopped shallots, mixed with a dressing of lemon juice/olive oil and a little salt, and the mix and add grated ricotta salata cheese - that might be considered too "gourmet" for your plan but a simple green salad could be replaed). Might need an extra side of protein for growing kids - chicken or something like that. Anyway, long answer but it was great and the boys have talked about doing that again (and eating it again!).

                            1. Spahettti and meat sauce or meatballs - whatever you have time for, use turkey for the meatballs or a combo pork, turkey. cheap and easy.
                              Lasagne, or ziti with Italian sausage. One large foil tray, would serve your 20 then add a salad. If not everyone shows, at least you can package it up to freeze it.
                              Pizza, I think that pasta and pizza are two of the most over priced restarant foods out there, otherwise, why are there so many pizza places and Italian restaurants.
                              Flour and water.
                              Make your own dough, it's not hard, and so much cheaper and BETTER.
                              Go to smart & final you can buy bags of preshredded mozzerella, and mixed cheeses for so cheap. 5 pizzas for 20 people would cost around $40 pepperoni, vegetarian, cheese, sausage. Or a couple of margharite (tomato, cheese and mozzerella), and also a couple of meat lovers. So cheap... Take the dough wrapped and roll out on cookie sheets, put them together earlier in the day, wrap and refrigerate, and you can stack these. Begin to 30 mins prior to the gathering. I've done it, and after working my job all day too, it's like my own take and bake if you will. Try it!
                              Crock pots will also be your saving grace for time and for money. Pork shoulder, and make your own bbq sauce, I do, it's inexpensive and taste great. Get rolls or long loaves of french bread, cut into 6 inch sandwich size or smaller. Make your own bbq pork sandwiches, and serve with toss green salads. Or meatball sandwiches, do the same thing.Make them up wrap in foil with mozzerella, and keep warm in the oven. Italian salad too.

                              I've made marinated beef tri tip,bbq chicken,mac and tuna salad, and toss green all for about $125 served 50 people a very-very nice dinner. You can spend that easily on pizza brought in for for 20 people.
                              If you buy chicken get the hind quarters, where the leg and thigh are attached, this makes a nice presentation and very nice serving/ Make a couple of salads.

                              You don't say what you're budget is so I'm shooting in the dark here, but when I was doing events, everyone that needed me to do their event always had the same thing to say, "we want it to be nice, but not blow the budget". I've really had to learn how to shop around for my customers and to get them the most for their dollars, and it can be done.

                              1. Hey everyone who responded to this. Thanks for all your suggestions. I have used some, and i'm hoping that the kids will be inspired by these meals to come up with their own ideas of what they want (that doesnt include fried things!)

                                1. Could you please give a more specific time frame you'd want to spend preparing a meal- 1 hour? 30 minutes? Dependent on how many people come?

                                  Also, what are your cooking facilities like- standard stove, oven, available? Is there a microwave?

                                  The ideas here all sounds great- you might get a few more from the USDA Recipe Finder, which is geared towards affordable, "healthy" meals. One nice feature is that you can set search criteria like "30 minutes or less" or based on what cooking equipment you have.


                                  If you can find it, the Operation Frontline curriculum "Side By Side" is designed to include recipes that are easy for adult and children to prepare together.

                                  Forgive me if this is apparent....are you shopping for 15-20 people for every single meal, with no way of knowing who will come? Working for nutrition programs for low-income audiences, I know this can be a cost challenge. We often buy things that can be used at a later time (e.g. canned tuna, canned beans, frozen/canned vegetables, pantry grains/pasta, boxed stocks) unless we know a specific head count- in which case perishable meats are purchased (e.g. whole chicken to teach how to make homemade broth).

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: 4Snisl

                                    Yes! it is so frustrating! sometimes there are 15 people and sometimes there are 3 people. I never know who is going to show up. It varies each week (i think based on the weather!) I have looked at the govt website before, but not in a while. I'll certainly check it out again. I generally dont want to spend more than an hour, but closer to 30 minutes would be great. I want the kids to help, but sometimes they dont wander in til 6, when we are supposed to be starting to eat! We have a stove/ oven (electric) and an microwave. The pans are not great (and too small!), but i bring my own knives. Its not a bad space to work in.

                                    You work for a low-income nutrition program? I have been working towards starting something locally (even though I know there are a lot of them). I'd love to talk more about that. I just tried to look at your profile, but you have no contact info. You can find me on twitter (if you do that) @julsey414.