As I remarked on the main ideas lite page, my idea of a successful dinner is one that is memorable and fun, rather than one with particularly exotic dishes. The food can certainly contribute to success, but it isn't the only role, even the most important role.
Below are some of the things we've tried that have worked. There are simpler things that can be quite successful too: a chocolate fondue with cut up fruit for dessert greatly impressed my 4-year-old daughter. I think almost any participatory food works well - even a simple taco dinner, with a buffet of ingredients, seems to make everyone a bit happier than simply being served what someone else has decided.
5.1 Color Theme Dinners
5.3 Galylemeade and Collie Inn
5.5 Jungle Food
5.6 Western Night
5.7 Movie Night
5.8 Survivor Night
This began when our son lobbied for green ketchup, having seen it on the shelf in the local A&P. Once we had this nearly fluorescent substance in the house, it occurred to me that I could produce a decent barbecue sauce with it and molasses as the base. I marinated some beef or pork in it, and served it along with fresh peas and broccoli. It was interesting because it all was so shockingly green. We adults had light beer with green food coloring, and I may have colored the kids' milk with green too. The kids loved it.
The challenge of course is to try to do this naturally, without doctoring things with food coloring. You don't have to be perfect - the color theme is often enough to carry the day. A colored tablecloth helps, even if its paper.
This led to a series of dinners, once every few days, based on a different color. Incidentally, the kids would accept some rather strange foods in order to stay with the theme, so this was a side benefit. Here are some of the dinners I recall:
My friend John Pitrelli gave me the idea for this, and deserves much of the credit. I'd taken the family to several Japanese-style steakhouses, where the chef chops and cooks on the table in front of you, so the kids understood this idea. The idea here is to do this at home, with appropriate theatre.
When we were ready for dinner, I called the family to the table, where the empty plates were arranged around three sides. We all sat down - there was no silverware, and no food. Within a few seconds my wife (who was not in on this) gave me a rather bizarre look. I excused myself, and went in to the kitchen, put on a robe I'd acquired in Japan, took the electric griddle into the dining room, and handed the menus I'd made up:
This was received with quite a bit of laughter, as the general concept became clear. Notice that no matter what you order, you're going to get beef, and Green Tea ice cream for dessert.
I had found Benihana's salad dressing recipe on the Internet, and made that; I'd stopped at a Chinese take out place and bought fried rice ingredients (they were confused - I told them I wanted fried rice, but uncooked, as I'd do it at home; they finally caught on). I'd also made green tea ice cream from scratch. The beef was fine filet mignon, and I made up a vegetable platter like that at Benihana's, consisting of yellow and green squash, onions, and mushrooms. I also bought miso paste and other miso soup ingredients.
The food was excellent. While they worked on the salad and soup (and sake), I heated the grill at the table and did the beef, then the vegetables, then the rice, allowing them to eat while I cooked (the only down side to this - you can't eat yourself and cook at the same time). I adopted an obviously fake Japanese accent, spiced up my vocabulary with the few Japanese words I remembered, and used a number of the lines common in such places (e.g. referring to soy sauce as "Japanese Coca Cola").
Everybody enjoyed it, cleanup was quite easy, and it was actually pretty healthy.
My older daughter Genevieve and I decided to cook a number of Irish recipes for fun one night; she really got into this, and made up this menu (printed in landscape mode, it folds in the center):
We actually did cook all of the dishes mentioned, and surprised my wife when she got home. I don't remember offhand where all of the recipes came from - I have a largish personal collection (some of which is on the net, most of which lies in various folders), or it might have resulted from internet searching (see for example the Recipes section of my resource page).
This did lead to an amusing situation: my mother suggested that our Irish neighbor, who knows the kids pretty well, would be interested in seeing this; I dropped off a copy. He left it on his kitchen table, and his wife came home and saw it. Now there was a restaurant opening nearby (changing hands), and she got all excited about the menu, thinking it was from the new place - and called her husband, saying "Let's go out to the new place, it looks great!" He of course said "Sure. But which new place?" She replied "The one you left the menu from", to which he of course started to laugh, confusing her quite a bit.
No matter what you do for food, it can become something fun if you write up a menu for it. Sometimes it's fun to parody a high-end place, for example by listing appropriate wines for each course in italics off to the right - but instead of Chablis and Cabernet, list Coke Classic and Tab.
The trick here is to stop at your local McDonald's, or other favorite fast
food place, and acquire the wrapping, boxes, etc. that they serve in (without
food). Then you do your own high-quality burgers, French fries, milk
shakes, etc. and serve them (I like to use Happy Meal boxes, and put in a
toy). Again, the amusement value gets everybody in a somewhat lighthearted
mood. If you're really extreme you could, I suppose, serve the family in
the car, handing the boxes in through the window. This wouldn't be too
nuts if you were heading off to a picnic.
This was an innovation when we were watching some sort of tropical-themed movie, perhaps George of the Jungle. It can certainly be served while watching the TV, but we try not to do that too much.
I bought large leaves: stores usually have these in the form of some green (e.g. Collard) in season. They were large enough to cover our plates. I did a quick sauté with chicken (dusted with corn starch), ginger, nuts, soy sauce, and sake. This got served on the leaf-covered plates, with some diced chives on top for decoration, a side dish of rice, and we had fresh Mango for dessert.
Music can help set the atmosphere (perhaps something Polynesian), and many
party supply stores sell cardboard (but 3D) palm trees, cocoanut bowls, parrots,
tiki lights, etc.
One rainy Saturday when my wife was out of town, I found an old John Wayne
movie to put on in the afternoon. We built a fire, and I served chili and
cornbread, and then we watched Silverado. The kids slept on sleeping bags by
the fire (at least for the first part of the night). They loved the whole
thing, even dressing a bit for it.
Some evenings a movie at home is the only option, especially with little kids around too. We often try to carry the movie's theme over to the meal. This idea offers endless possibilities for introducing new ethnic or historical foods. I've even been tempted to try a first-class dining meal from the Titanic, but haven't done so yet. Partly because I think the only reason to watch that movie is to see how they "virtually" reconstructed the ship.
A good dinner for this is to make up a large platter of rice pilaf, and grill some shish kebabs (usually just meat and some peppers and onions), and de-skewer the kebabs over the rice. Having people eat with their fingers would be the most authentic, but we don't usually go quite this far. There are lots of possible additions to this basic centerpiece of the meal: tabouli, baba ghanouj, Syrian bread, nuts, dates, etc. Goat's milk is fun if you can get it, and a yogurt-based dessert is also a good idea.
This is a movie about chickens trying to escape being made in to pies, so, of course, I like to serve a good chicken pie. In a similar vein, you might consider a ham roast before watching "Babe", or venison before "Bambi". This latter will get noticed, though, because the meat is unusual; the others often aren't.
My daughter first wondered about Gandhi when we ran across his likeness at Madame Toussaud's Wax Museum. In part to help her understand who he was, I rented the movie (I also wanted to see it again). We had my wife pick up a vast array of Indian take-out items, which we consumed halfway through. While I do like to cook some Indian dishes, finding the raw ingredients is often a problem - though they may be ordered at something of a premium over the Internet. The sweet lassi drink is favorite of our kids, and is pretty easy to make.
The old 1973 Musketeer movies have long been a favorite of mine, and it's a good excuse to prepare a decent French dinner. You can usually find precooked escargot in stores, with the shells, decent patés are not too hard to find, some decent French wines, then perhaps some Coquilles St. Jacques or frogs legs (our A&P actually carries these). A chocolate soufflé for dessert is rare and fun too. Then, while the kids clean up, sample some Cognac (not likely, at least not here).
I heard about this I believe over the Internet. I don't particularly like the show, and don't watch it, but my wife and daughter do. So the theme is that of shipwrecked or isolated people on an island. I cut up a chicken, parcooked it in the microwave, and got skewers to finish it over the fire - announcing that "Dad had caught some rats, so we'd have meat for dinner". A simple salad of mixed greens can represent weeds harvested, and some unleavened bread might be something you could make with a bit of flour and water. By the way, ration the fresh water, eat with your hands, etc. Eat out of wooden bowls or planks if you can.
We wore torn clothes, and started by choosing lots to see who would wear the "Cleanup Immunity Necklace", which meant that the winner would have no involvement in doing the dishes. We also had a boy team vs. girl team contest, in which one team hides an object (in plain sight) and the other team has to find it.
As with movies, it's fun to parallel the food from a current favorite book. One of the first meals like this I did for our first daughter when she was about 5, and we were reading about ancient Rome - I served a lunch of a rustic bread with olive oil, and various simple greens. (There are a number of books and cookbooks covering ancient foods which I've got; web searching will also get you pretty far). It can be fun to duplicate historical meals (say for example one from Martha Washington's cookbook, or one of Napoleon's meals), or match the food from the era of a fictional book.
(First ideas: 1992 and onwards; on this web page, December 16, 2002)