Do you agree that dining-out with the whole family on a weekly basis can be a bit draining on the budget? If your family is like ours and you enjoy eating in restaurants to try various cuisines, the answer is probably yes!
Our eating out "tradition" probably began when the children were younger and got treated to the "Happy Meals" after every Sunday mass. Eventually, as they grew older, they got to discover the array of fast food court choices and the lure of the eat-all-you-can buffets. Not to forget the appeal of Chinese dimsum as the food was rolled out from the kitchen in carts and announced by the servers in a foreign tongue! And what about cooking your own food on the table in a Korean barbeque place? And the all-time favourite is Japanese food from sushi rolls to sashimi; the choice of cuisine is endless. I am glad our children are developing their taste buds and trying out many new foods and I feel bad when I tell them we can't always afford to go to their favourite restaurants all the time.
One day I thought to make our meals at home more appealing by having an international theme. Each night our dinner would focus on one favourite dish from a certain country. I asked for their suggestions and we came up with a few ideas like Mexican night would be tacos, Japanese night had nikujaga (a beef dish I learned from a friend), Italian night was lasagna, American night was burger and fries, Chinese night was steamed dumplings and fried rice .... you get the idea.
To economize on time and ingredients, I tried to use similar ingredients for the meals. Tacos and lasagna both use ground beef and shredded cheese. Thinly sliced beef could be used for both the Japanese dish and Vietnamese pho soup. Steaming and boiling are also great cooking methods that make the preparation time shorter. I also asked the children to participate in some of the preparations like grating the cheese, setting the table or chopping the vegetables.
To set the tone, I tried to be more creative and used appropriate dishes and cutlery for each cuisine. Out came the chopsticks and Japanese dishes. Cloth napkins and candles added some flair to some dinners too. No, I didn't go as far as hang up a pi¤ata for Mexican night but we had fun as the children tried to guess what country each theme dinner originated from. Sometimes we discussed trivia facts and enjoyed thinking up all the foreign words we knew from that particular country.
If you are thinking of doing a similar activity in your own home, I do have a few more suggestions that I learned from experience.
Decide on the right schedule for you. If time is a problem and you cannot do this every night, you can always choose just one night a week or every other week or even once a month, it's your choice.
Try to make the dish healthier. The advantage of home-cooked meals is that you can substitute healthier ingredients for their favourite dishes. I use canola or olive oil for the fried foods and add more cheese and lettuce to the tacos. Lean meat burgers and whole wheat buns are still enjoyable.
Keep it simple. Focus on just one main dish and maybe a dessert or an appropriate drink. You just want to re-create a dining out experience and not the whole restaurant.
Store-bought is acceptable. Don't stress if you don't know how to cook their favourite dish. Grocery pizza is still cheaper than eating out and you can add more cheese or pepperoni to it when you cook it at home. There are ready mixes available as well that you just add to the meat. And if you do want to try your hand at cooking from scratch, there are many recipes available online.
Have fun. Kids enjoy dining-out because it is a fun experience. For Chinese night, I was able to buy some fortune cookies and we passed them out at the end of the meal just like in the restaurant. I pretended to read it in Chinese (with a made-up accent)before giving them the English meaning.
Our kids are a lot older now but occasionally, I still prepare special cuisine nights complete with all the fancy trimmings that I can think up. We have added a lot more dishes to our family favourites and have even shared some recipes with our friends who have enjoyed them as well. And when we do eat out, the kids even mention at times that we could easily replicate a certain dish easily at home. Mom's kitchen is still a winner in their hearts and tummies!