Keep it Simple, But Make it Special

Today for Keeping Creative Kitchens I thought I would write about family dinners. Being a full-time mom is a physically demanding job even when you’re not 31 weeks pregnant, and I find that by dinnertime I’m usually totally wiped out and in need of some restorative down time. While I have friends who I greatly admire for preparing complicated and gourmet meals every night, I usually need to keep the actual food part of dinner fairly simple. I try to make almost everything from scratch, so keeping the food simple also helps meal prep take less time.

That said, I think it’s important that dinner be a beautiful and special time of day for the family to spend time together and wind down. It’s a challenge to achieve elegant dinners when you have toddlers and are still working on basic table manners (our big focuses right now are “we don’t throw our milk cups” and getting Hannah to say “may I please be excused” before getting out of her chair), but there are a few things I try to do that I think make a difference. Even small children can learn to appreciate beauty, and will pick up on the fact that you value the evening meal as special. While I wouldn’t suggest letting a lofty pursuit of elegance spoil your dinners with stress and frantic scrambling, I do think a little extra effort can pay off if it makes dinner time more relaxing and enjoyable.

1) Have a centerpiece
If you grow flowers in your yard, you can have a little bouquet on your table through most of the spring, summer and fall. I’m not a stellar gardener by any stretch, but I find that having a few spring bulbs like daffodils, and some mid-summer to fall flowers like zinnias and black eyed susans keep us well supplied. All of those are easy to grow even in bad soil, or can be grown in pots if you don’t have a yard.

For winter months or if you don’t have any flowers, even a simple centerpiece of fruit or interesting vegetables and leaves is nice. It livens up the table and makes it look special. If you need help coming up with ideas for simple centerpieces, there are some good ones in Edith Schaeffer’s book “The Hidden Art of Homemaking”The Hidden Art of Homemaking
or you can find myriad references around the internet.

2) Use candles
Related to centerpieces, having candles on the table (and actually using them) is a frugal way to add elegance and ambiance to your meal. Candles are easy to find on clearance if you wait until a season is ending to stock up, but even at full price they are pretty cheap and will last for many dinners.

3) Turn on background music
I have possibly the world’s hugest aversion to mouth noises – listening to other people chew, glug, snarfle, slurp, and so forth makes me feel physically ill. I have to have background noise. That is why I’m so happy my husband likes to have dinner music! Kept on low, music will mask any unsavory mouth noises, and really does add immeasurably to the feeling that dinner is special and something to celebrate. We like to have a variety of classical music, but sometimes Josh chooses theme music to match the type of dinner we’re having, which is fun.

4) Dress up the side dishes or condiments
Even very simple fare seems special if it’s served in nice dishes or dressed up in some way. It really doesn’t take much extra time to wrap up the rolls or breadsticks in a pretty napkin and put them in a basket or on a bread plate, or to mix the salad in a pretty bowl and use pretty utensils to serve it. The picture at left shows molded butter, which is also a fast and fun way to dress up your table. I got the idea from “Little House in the Big Woods” wherein Laura Ingalls Wilder describes how her mother used to mold the butter even for a simple bread and beans dinner. It’s not something you need to do every night, but if you keep an eye out for it, you can find lots of little ways to dress up parts of the meal here and there, and even little things like molded butter make things seem special.

I realize that different families have different priorities and are in different stages of life, so I’m interested to know if dinner is a big deal at your house, and, if so, how do you make it special?

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