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How to teach your teenager to cook on a very tight budget

Deciding what you are going to eat in the week, or month, ahead will help keep costs down. Picture: Alamy/PA

Deciding what you are going to eat in the week, or month, ahead will help keep costs down. Picture: Alamy/PA

Published Aug 2, 2022

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By Gemma Bradley PA

Leaving home and starting university is a daunting experience – even more so if you don’t know a thing about cooking.

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But learning to make meals from scratch can be expensive, and chances are their early efforts might not even be edible.

We talked to some food experts to find out how parents can teach teenagers to love cooking, without spending extra money in the process – and why it is so important to do this.

How can I get my teen started in the kitchen but keep it affordable?

Dr Alona Pulde from the nutrition app Lifesum, and Ben Ebbrell, chef and co-founder of YouTube food channel “Sorted Food”, both recommend putting your teen in charge of organising dinner one night a week, and encouraging them to invite their friends over.

Pulde says: “Letting them choose the menu is one of the best ways to get them started. On a budget this could become a game you play or a challenge.

“Another way is to plan a special evening with your teen responsible for the meal (plus or minus your help, their choice). You choose the price and let them get creative with their budget. They could invite friends over or they could choose a more intimate family setting.”

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She adds: “Make it fun. If your teens like music, let them pick a track and let it play. If they like to dance, include some moves to your music. If they enjoy company, cook together enjoying a conversation as you go. These are all free perks that only add to the overall experience.”

Ebbrell adds: “It’s so often clear to us just how much pride emerges from great results when they know they’ve been in charge – the responsibility drives results. Especially if they are able to achieve something awesome for the first time. This way, it doesn’t cost any extra to get them cooking, it’s simply what would already have been spent on ingredients for dinner.

“Getting them to cook for friends can also be a good motivation. The bonus of this is that it’s always cheaper (per portion) to cook for, say, 4 people than it is to cook for one. Plus, they can take turns with their friends, meaning different families share the cost of ingredients over time.”

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How can my teen avoid spending too much on ingredients when they start cooking at uni?

Deciding what you are going to eat in the week, or month, ahead will help keep costs down, Pulde says: “Meal plans are really helpful ways to stay on a budget while eating healthy, nutritious and delicious foods. You don’t have to fill your kitchen up all at once and you can be selective over how many meals you can make with the items you buy.

“For example, you can theme your week or month to have a certain flavour. In this way, spices and herbs you buy can be used for a variety of different recipes. Start simple with versatile products that can be used for a variety of things.”

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It is also important to consider where you are buying your ingredients, and to try to branch out more in your shopping habits.

Vedika Mansukhe, a food technician at East End Foods, says: “Visiting the world foods aisle at national retailers or your local convenience store to buy cupboard staples can be a great way to find your favourite ingredients in larger packs and at a cheaper price.

“Spices bring life and flavour to a dish and these aisles offer spice packs, like turmeric powder and cumin seeds, in sizes ranging from 100-400 grams. Additionally, dry items like pulses and spices keep well so you can stock up without worrying about food waste.”

Is there a way of kitting out a student’s kitchen on a limited budget?

Just a couple of well-sized pots and pans should set your teenager up to cook lots of dishes.

Pulde advises: “Get a big enough pot for pasta and soups or stews, a big enough pan for sautéing some vegetables or a lot of vegetables, etc.”

Ebbrell also says a few key pieces of cooking equipment are all that is really needed.

“Never worry about having to fully kit out a kitchen. There is so much amazing food that can be prepared and loved from the simplest of equipment. One pot cooks, a chopping board, a knife, a wooden spoon, a colander … job done.”

Why is food and knowledge of food so important for young people’s health?

Pulde says: “Knowledge of food – specifically what foods are healthy, why we should eat healthy, and how to make delicious and nutritious meals – helps young people build a solid foundation around healthy eating.

“The benefits they reap from this as they get older include prevention of chronic disease, achieving and maintaining a trim and healthy weight, feeling more energetic, enhancing their immune system, and improving mental health and overall well-being.”

What are the other benefits of knowing how to cook before leaving home?

Learning to cook can also help support your teen’s mental well-being when they head off to university.

Ebbrell says: “Over the last few years, through various lockdowns, we’ve seen the importance of just getting into a routine of cooking – to take some time to yourself each day to cook something you love, to feed and nourish yourself and/or flatmates. It’s brilliant for mindfulness and can provide structure and purpose in a new place/lifestyle.”

Mansukhe adds: “Alongside practical skills, teens can harness community and joy by learning from parents and grandparents once they’re able to recreate family favourites on their own. Food has the power to transport you back to happy memories and, while at university, is especially helpful when feeling a little homesick!”

Read the latest issue of IOL Food digital magazine here.

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