Preparing teens for life

The other evening on a date John and I got talking about ways to prepare our teens for the future.  In the process of our chat, we had an idea for a really fun economics project.  We decided to give each kid a shot at shopping for and preparing their own food for one week.

At one time or another, they’ve all campaigned for different food than I usually buy;  Mountain Dew and American cheese and take-out pizza are a few examples.   Most of the time I refuse saying it’s not healthy or it’s too expensive.  But for this experiment we’re going to let the money be the police, not me.

I currently spend about $80/month/person.  So for this experiment we’re going to hand each kid a $20 bill, have them investigate prices and make a menu for a week, then go to the store and shop for themselves.  Once home, each kid will cook for himself/herself for the week.  At the end they’ll fill out a little survey describing how the week went, what worked well, and what they’d do differently in the future.

We haven’t figured out all the parameters, but obviously they’ll be free to use our fully equipped kitchen to prepare their meals.  They can freely use our spices and basic condiments such as ketchup, yeast and soy sauce.  They need to buy at least one vegetable and one fruit for the week.  No skipping meals:  they need to sit down and eat something with us at every meal. I’ll be willing to answer their questions as they menu plan, but once they get to the store, the choices will be their own.  (Yes, even if that involves a cart full of ramen noodles and Mountain Dew.)

If they run out before the end of the week, we obviously won’t starve them, but they may need to do yard work or something along those lines for each meal we provide.  To minimize the chances of failure we’ll do the challenge one or two kids at a time, oldest to youngest, so that younger kids can watch and learn.  And for now we’re limiting this challenge to teenagers only.

We put this challenge to the kids last night and were amazed at how the idea intrigued them.  We ended up sitting up half an hour past bedtime listening to them brainstorm and answering their questions. Some were immediately scheming to buy sugary cereal and pop and ramen for every day.  Kids had the newspaper ads out, looking over prices and hunting for coupons. Our 16 year old daughter was quiet for a few minutes, asked me for prices of things like flour and rice, then confidently told us she knew what to buy.  Since she has the strongest cooking skills in the bunch and a lot of sense about putting things together, I’m guessing this challenge will be a cake-walk for her.  Others? I’m not so sure.  But everyone was engaged, everyone was thinking.  It was exciting to hear them.

I’ll be posting more about the great $20 experiment as we get deeper into it.  Today kids are starting their menu planning, and the first one to shop will be our 17 year old son.  Stay tuned!

What The Kids Thought of This Project

The Real Foe is the Beef (son, 17)
Wounded Calzones (daughter, 16)
Starvation Week (son, 13)
The Part I Liked Best (son, 13)
I Need Someone to Cook for Me (daughter, 14)


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  1. Ooooooo this is FANTASTIC! Can’t wait to hear the results! I am sure that MUCH will be learned by all. Please do photograph this week for all of us. 😉

  2. Sue from Buffalo says:

    But when’ you’re figuring about $20 per child per week, aren’t you also considering what you harvested from your garden? Is the $20 in addition to whatever you already have in your pantry or are you also allowing the kids to have access to that, too?

    Just curious. This is interesting. I’d love to see what they come up with. 🙂

    • Great question. It might be fair to let them each choose a jar or two from the pantry for the week, but we’ll see what my hubby and I decide once we chat about this…

  3. Love this idea, thank you for sharing!

  4. What a great idea! I have a question though – the kids will not have the benefit of economies of scale, like you do. For instance, you are able to buy in bulk a lot of your staples, like flour & rice. How are the kids going to be able to do that, since they’re only buying for themselves?

    • There may be some deals where they’ll end up forking over more for smaller packages. We may decide to allow each kid a couple items that they share with a sibling, like a gallon of milk or a pound of butter for example. (I have a pretty good sense of the items that may be advantageous to buy jointly and can steer them in that direction as they plan.) But our very favorite grocery store has a HUGE bulk department. It is totally possible for the kids to buy flour, sugar, oats, and rice by the cup at prices very competitive to what I routinely pay,

      • That’s kind of what I was wondering, if any of them were interested in combining their resources to potentially buy more, potentially eat better.

        Can’t wait to hear more.

  5. Ha! What a great idea! Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out …

  6. Completely fascinated by this idea! And I am so glad that the kids are really excited about it as well. They will learn so much. Keep us posted.

  7. I have been considering doing something along the same lines with my 17 year old son at this point. However, I was going to have him plan, shop, and prepare meals for the whole family (there are only 4 of us). I was going to have him start with breakfasts, move onto lunches, then have him tackle dinners. This will be part of his ‘Home Ec’ course. He has already completed the ‘laundry’ unit… :o)

  8. This is hilarious, fun, and brilliant. I cannot wait to hear the outcome!

  9. You are a smart, smart lady. I can’t wait to read all about the results.

  10. Brilliant.
    Since my 16 YO goes to school, lies in bed until the last possible minute and I did not want to take time out of my morning to fix him lunch. I transfered $75 a week (Wow, that’s almost a whole month’s worth for you..) to his checking account for lunches. He was told that if he wanted to pack his lunch and use the money for other things, like eating at the Mall, he could. When the money runs out, there would be no more until I got paid again. (I get paid monthly at the time.) The really interesting time was the month that included Spring break (and a whole week of not buying his lunch) and he was out of money halfway through the month. Turns out he was eating breakfast at school also. This lesson was a good one, and now as a junior, he’s better about managing and planning his expenditures. He’ll evaluate if it is worth packing his lunch the last week of the month.

    Next step will be meal planning.

  11. I cant wait to read about this experiment!

  12. $20 seems really low, especially (as someone pointed out above) they won’t have the advantage of economics of scale.

    If you look at the USDA Food average charts for December, they have the thrifty plan at $38.50 for teens: even if you are in a low cost area, $20 is still a lot less than $38.50, you know?

    I like the idea, I just wonder if $20 a week is setting them up to fail. 🙂

    • This website was very interesting! I know I could be doing better with our grocery shopping, but it made me feel better to see that my spending for our family of 7 was less than the moderate plan for a family of 4. I think I am doing pretty good after all – yea me!

  13. Love it!

  14. I am very interested in this too. It is more expensive to shop for one than to shop for a group, per person – so I also think $20 is extremely low – maybe you could have a list of pantry items that they can ‘buy’ at the bulk rate? You mentioned the store has a good bulk section, but I am sure there are other things not available, especially if you are having them do this separately.

  15. Very cool!!!

  16. I did something like this with my youth group once. I gave them each $20 to go shopping for as much food they could get that would feed a family. We went to the church food bank and gave it to them. but it was a great thing for them to see how far that money would go!

    I like this idea for my kids to do.

  17. What an amazing, fun challenge! It’ll be interesting to read about what they do, if they decide to go in on things together, how they plan meals, etc. What a fun idea 🙂

  18. Genius! I think $20 is totally do-able!

    Now, let’s see if I can remember this until my oldest is a teen….he’s six…. 🙂

  19. I think this is a great idea. $20 seems pretty low, but it makes the sense the way you have it written up. As someone that went from having all my needs met “behind the scenes” to speak, in my home growing up and moving to college and living in a dorm and then being married at 20. Reality was a little surprising! 🙂

  20. This is a fabulous idea!

  21. Alisha Martin says:

    Such a cool idea. . . i don’t have kids (only a husband and a puppy) but I’m forwarding this to my younger sister (who also doesn’t have kids, or a husband, or a puppy) but we’re alredy creating a ‘parenting journal’ for ideas just like this that we want to try someday. Thank you for sharing so transparently. LOVE IT!

  22. What a great idea! I need to do this with my oldest for sure because he is constantly asking us to eat out or buy lots of junk food.

  23. This is awesome! I can’t wait to see how it goes with each kid!

  24. Mary,
    I LOVE it…I remember being just out on my own and having to make my VERY MEAGER salary stretch…there was no mom to bail me out if I made bad decisions…it was do or die…and HOW MANY tales do you hear of people who LIVED on Top Ramen, Mac & Cheese and Tuna…I know people today who refuse to eat those things because of that…I think I may try this with my oldest son…and see how he does…
    I would love to see your survey and have you talk about how you would do the challenge differently…or what worked, what didn’t, etc…



  1. […] If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!What’s this challenge all about? […]

  2. […] evening on a date John and I got talking about ways to prepare our teens for the future,” she wrote recently. “In the process of our chat, we had an idea for a really fun economics project.  We decided […]

  3. […] want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!Our 17 year old son is almost done with his week of $20 meals. He’ll be guest-posting here soon to share his impressions of how the week went. Next up: our […]

  4. […] Mary at is teaching her teenages to stick to a budget when grocery shopping and feeding themselves.  Each teen will get $20 for a week’s worth of food to feed themselves.  They have to cook all their meals themselves as well.  I have some work to do before I can try this with my oldest, but what a great teaching and learning opportunity for her kids!  I can’t wait to try it myself. […]

  5. […] you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!I am asking each of my kids doing the $20 cooking experiment to write me a couple paragraphs about their cooking experience, detailing what worked and what […]

  6. […] few days ago I took my final two teenagers (13 yo boy and a 14 yo girl) on their $20 shopping trip. They’d had the advantage of watching three other siblings do their shopping, and had […]

  7. […] you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!$20/week thoughts from my other 13 year old son.  (See his shopping trip […]

  8. […] following was written by our 14 year old daughter.  She was the kid least thrilled by the $20 cooking challenge.  She actually did as good a job as anyone, but was less than impressed with her own cooking […]

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