Surprise Dinner–Make mealtime a fun mystery!

Guest post by Kendra’s sister, Trina.  This is a fantastic idea that can be adapted for so many events/parties.  Read on…

Here are my boys filling out their menus.

A Bit Late for April Fool’s, But Fun Nonetheless (Surprise Dinner) 
I love this idea because it’s a way to make an occasion special and fun without really spending any extra money—something many of us are looking for these days. When we were kids, my mom would periodically put on a “Surprise Dinner” for us. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t her original idea and that others of you have probably done similar dinners, but I actually haven’t seen it anywhere else.
The basic premise of a Surprise Dinner is that you order your dinner in courses, but the food all has different names, so you really don’t know what you’re going to get and when. Kendra has indicated in previous posts how incredible our mom is and these dinners were no exception. She’d have anywhere from 20 to 30 different items, including a main dish, bread, butter, various fruits and veggies, a few small desert items, the utensils, drink, napkin, toothpick, and even an ice cube. She’d usually enlist one of my older sisters to help her, then she’d hang a sheet to cover the kitchen entry so the meal could really be a surprise.
Each of us would get our own menu with intriguing names such as
“Neptune’s Trident” (fork)
“Pucker Up” (lemonade), 
“Crooked Wheels” (cucumber slices).
Of course we’d try to guess what each thing was, but Mom didn’t often repeat names she’d used the time before. In addition, there were usually some more generic names life “Chef’s Special” and “Pure Heaven,” that made it really hard to guess what they were. Some other names I thought were fun were…
Little Wolf Treats” (sausage links),
“Show Stopper” (cheese cubes),
“For Women Only” (quiche), 
and “Son of Noah” (ham).
Beneath the menu were squares for each course. We’d write our names in each and fill in our orders, choosing 5-6 items per course. Then Mom and her helper would serve the meal. In later years, my mom added a list of “rules” to the menu. These included no talking while ordering, ordering each item only once, and you can’t save anything from one course to the next.
A few things to keep in mind if you decide to throw a surprise dinner. Your kitchen will be a mess as it’s taken over by 20 or so different dishes. Dinner will take considerably longer than usual, but that’s often a really good thing. When serving the dishes, serve a small amount of each, because you don’t want your guests (especially the small ones) filling up halfway through dinner. Rules of etiquette definitely don’t apply, so just have fun.

We did a mini Surprise Dinner for our Cub Scout Blue and Gold Banquet this year (I’m Cubmaster—with 4 sons it was inevitable). The theme was “American ABC’s” so we ended up with a 9-item menu (we scaled it down since we were serving several dozen people), made up of state names. Each table had two “menus” and each person had a little 3-page booklet—one page for each course—that they filled out. For example, for their first course a Cub Scout could order Nebraska, Massachusetts, and Washington and end up with corn, mini Boston cream pie and a few apple slices.
We tried to come up with kid-friendly, mostly finger foods, and we did put ranch dressing and ketchup on the tables, but everyone thought it was really fun. Our full menu was as follows:
California—baby carrots
Idaho—tater tots
Kansas—wheat rolls (with butter pats)
Kentucky—breaded chicken tenders
Massachusetts—mini Boston Cream Pies (Nilla wafers with pudding and chocolate on top, in cupcake papers)
New Mexico—Biscochitos (traditional cookies)
Washington—apple slices
Wisconsin—cheese cubes 
I found a simpler version (where you actually get to sit and eat WITH your family) at the Family Fun website (at least I’m pretty sure that’s where I found it, but after some pretty extensive searching, I can’t find the link for it now. . . sorry). In this version you write the names of all the food on strips of paper (their real names) and put them in a cup for each family member (I made my kids do this while I was fixing dinner—good handwriting practice, right?). Then for each “course,” everyone draws 3-4 strips out of their cup, and that’s what they get. When we did this for April Fool’s Day, the kids got a big kick out of seeing me eat my mashed potatoes without any utensils (luckily I hadn’t drawn gravy or it could have gotten really messy).
I haven’t done it, but I think the Surprise Dinner would be great for a (smallish) Halloween Party. Just think of all the spooky/gross names you could come up with for the different food.
Just a couple of weeks ago we (finally) finished reading the Book of Mormon again as a family. We read in the morning and I wanted to do something to commemorate this accomplishment at dinner. I first started looking for foods that were mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but that didn’t yield much. I hit on the Surprise Dinner idea in early afternoon, and used the kid’s piano lesson time to brainstorm Book of Mormon names for food I knew I had on hand. When we got home, I hurriedly printed out menus for each family member (I color coded them so it would be easier to keep track of who ordered what), and got busy making dinner (did you know that finger jello will set up rather quickly if you put it in the freezer?). I even tacked up a sheet to hide the kitchen from the boys—just like Mom. We ate much later than usual, but the boys didn’t mind, and they now have fond memories of “The Zarahemla Cafe.
This is the menu that I came up with. I’m sure that with a little more time you could come up with way better names, but this is a starting point at least. (I had intended to use my perforation rotary cutter to make the order portion so the kids could tear them off, but I ran out of time and just cut them off and gave them the four pieces of paper.)
Lands Northward and Southward (breaded chicken tenders)
Great Waters (water in a cup)
Jaredite Barges (celery with peanut butter)
King Benjamin’s Tower (cantaloupe cubes—the way I cut it it looks like it could be a tower)
Knots like those Nephi’s brothers tied him with (chocolate-covered pretzles)
Swords and Spears (carrot sticks)
Iron Rod Reward (apple slices)
Liahona Halves (deviled eggs)
Ammon Arms (french fries with ketchup—my husband’s idea!)
Temple Blocks (finger jello cut into squares)
Trees of Life (broccoli)
Seeds of Faith (this was going to be rice, but I remembered at the last minute that I had some quinoa on hand and since that’s a New-World grain, I went with that)
Happy eating!
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  1. Such a cute idea. My mom’s Sunday School class once did something like this at Valentine’s Day. The only thing I can remember was Cupid’s Arrow which was a knife..

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I was searching for a fun dinner idea to celebrate our family finishing the Book of Mormon, this is perfect, thanks. I did try to pin it on pinterest, but couldn’t get it to work.

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  1. […] time to share… Family Surprise/Mystery Dinner (Great for April Fools or any time!) My sister Trina, explained some of the history behind these mystery dinners in her guest post here. My mom used to […]

  2. […] to carry the theme through to our dinner celebration after the baptism. At first I wanted to do a Book of Mormon mystery menu, like my sister had done before. BSB vetoed it on the grounds that it would be a lot of work to […]

  3. […] thanks to this blog post for the original idea and lots of ways to adapt this to other occasions. Share […]

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