Kids’ Mystery Dinner

Having attended summer church camp every year from third through eighth grade, I have a wealth of wonderful memories. Now that I’m a parent myself, thinking back on all the goofy stuff I used to do at “Teepee Village” in the forest near Prescott, AZ provides a surprising treasure trove of creative activities to do with my own kids. Over this past summer, when downtime hit, I’d reach into my camp memories to give my kids something to do–like drawing eyes and noses on their chins for ridiculous upside-down faces, for example:

And last night, with my husband out of town on business, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally recreate another favorite camp memory: the Mystery Dinner.

This is something I’ve always thought of fondly, with memories of teenaged camp counselors taking campers’ orders from sheets full of mysterious symbols, then rushing around to create haphazard, randomly chosen menus. I think I once ended up with a cup of spaghetti with a straw. Sound a bit bizarre? That’s because it is! If there’s one thing I know about kids, it’s that they love totally off-the-wall stuff–and, as a church camper, I was no exception. I was pretty sure my kids would get a major kick out of a Mystery Dinner, too.

To replicate the experience, I created menu sheets for each child–but not regular menus, mind you. These menus are made up of symbols, each of which stands for an unknown-to-the-kids food item, utensil, serving dish, or drink. I made sure to have a meal of three courses (chili, cornbread, and cake for dessert), with three utensils (fork, knife, spoon), three serving dishes (bowl, salad plate, dinner plate), and three drinks (milk, water, and juice).

I of course had a cheat sheet, ’cause there’s no way I was going to remember all 12 symbols.

To start the Mystery Dinner, each child got to circle one symbol from each category for their first course.

I then served them with the corresponding food, utensil, serving dish, and drink. This meant that my daughter, much to her delight, began her meal with a slice of cake…in a bowl…with a spoon. (I bit my tongue to overcome my nutritionist horror at feeding my child cake before dinner. It’s only one night, right?)

Once the first course was completed, each child got to use a different colored pen to circle his or her selections for the next course. (No repeating anything previously chosen.) My middle child got chili…on a salad plate…with a fork.

And my oldest enjoyed his cornbread…on a dinner plate…with a knife. (This is starting to sound like accusations in the board game Clue.)

When all was said and done, our Mystery Dinner was an absolute hit–even for those who had to eat cake with a knife and chili from a plate. My kids asked if we could have Mystery Dinner every week. (Um, no.)

To me, though, having Mystery Dinner on a Wednesday night–just because–added a jolt of fun and spontaneity to our week. Of course you could use this idea for a birthday party, sleepover, or even a whimsical dinner party for adults, but squeezing it in mid-week reminded me that we don’t need a special occasion to be creative–and we don’t even need to go to camp. 🙂

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