Order Up at Cafe Awesome

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Before I moved back to Anchorage I often took my niece and her two boys out to eat during visits. I still do, sometimes, but lately have been focused on setting aside dollars for a summertime trip to the East Coast.

When I invited them over one recent Sunday I knew I’d need to feed them. But our kitchen is stocked for frugal grown-ups. What did we have that would appeal to a couple of hollow-legged boys?

Then I flashed back on a game my daughter used to play: “Dinner and Movie.” She’d make up a menu based on what was in the fridge and we’d play restaurant, then watch something I’d videotaped (remember videotapes?) or just watch TV.

Thus was born “Cafe Awesome” – a game that’s become an awesome money-saver.

I made up a brunch menu divided into starters, entrees, sides, beverages, and desserts. When the boys arrived I told them we’d be serving their mom as though she were at a restaurant. I gave each a cook’s apron and a few instructions, then set out a beer stein that rings a small bell when you open the lid.

Moments later Britain was showing his mother to the kitchen table and handing her the menu, which I’d affixed to a clipboard. He carefully printed her order on a scratch pad and set the page on the butcher-block counter (just steps away, but in our game a separate kitchen area).

Ding! “Order in!” the 6-year-old waiter said.

Frugal fun

His 11-year-old brother was the chef (in theory, anyway) and I was the manager (a very hands-on manager). Malachi is interested in learning more about cooking, but I think his favorite part was opening the beer stein as each course became ready: “Order up!”

After their mom finished her meal we took turns serving one another. The novelty of the game kept them from noticing that they were eating some pretty ordinary fare: rolls and butter, sausage patties, oatmeal, orange segments.

I was delighted: If we’d gone to IHOP the tab would have been at least $30, plus tax and tip.

Cafe Awesome reopens whenever the kids drop by, even if it’s just the snack menu. The game makes it fun to eat whatever I have on hand:

  • “The cheese and crackers plate” (on-sale Monterey Jack with the Triscuits I bought on sale with coupon).
  • “Sausage bites” (loss-leader breakfast patties and homemade rolls pulled from the freezer).
  • “House special noodles” (a.k.a. ramen).

I don’t feel the need to buy special (read: expensive) treats, the boys are honing their kitchen skills and, unlike movie theaters or arcades, this kind of quality time doesn’t cost anything. Frugal trifecta!

The time spent together means a lot. I’m acutely aware that make-believe has an extremely short shelf life. It won’t be long before Malachi will be too cool for school, completely uninterested in hanging out with his brother and auntie. Pretending to be a chef will seem silly or, worse, boring. The restaurant will be just a kitchen once more.

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