How to Plan a Mystery Dinner

Written By: Jenn Cole

Last Updated: 2021-02-03

The Backstory & My Childhood Memories

One of my favorite memories as a child was when my Mom and a few other parents of our friends got together and planned a mystery dinner for us kids. It brought us so much laughter and fun. I have been waiting for this day to come, when my own kids are old enough to understand and have just as much fun as I did.

Preparing for the Mystery

So, let me start with this: it is a lot of work. But, don’t get discouraged. In this article, I'll give you some hints, tips, and mystery dinner hacks that we've learned along the way to help make this a lot easier! One of the boons most of us have working for us is that we are close to so many restaurants these days, and yup, you've guessed it - the "dinner" part of the Mystery Dinner doesn't have to be an all day slaving-away-in-the-kitchen ordeal. What's also great is that you can do this while at home or while camping (even if your home is camping!) - space isn't an issue, only your imagination and willingness to smile and have fun.

Step 1: Preparing the menu

What better way to set the mood of your dinner than styling it around a typical restaurant atmosphere. The easiest theming you can do is to create a menu for your kids that has random words - like real words, around a common theme, but still almost nonsensical words. For example, we are choosing to go with a Valentines theme… We made a list of valentine words, such as: hearts; flowers; love; chocolate; roses; cards. Then we made a list of the food and cutlery we would be serving. And I mean every single item you can think of. For example: chicken nuggets; fries; mac 'n cheese; ketchup; ranch; fork; napkin; plate; ice cream; sprinkles; spoon; bowl. Next, you match each theme word to a food item or utensil of some kind. In this case, we just went randomly paired real meal items to the nonsense Valentines day words - for example:

  • A picture of a heart = chicken nuggets;
  • A picture of a flower = fries;
  • The word "love" = mac n cheese
  • You get the idea?

Once you've paired each meal item to a themed word on your menu, you are ready to continue to the next steps. Remember, only the adults will know what is what, and it's important that the kids don't get to see the magic of your planning and ingenuity. The kids will get a menu with only the themed words on it. (For our younger kids, we are doing a coloring page with the items as pictures that they can color in as they order).

Step 1.5: Don't forget the food & menus

Before we forget, here is a mini-step:

  • Get all the food and supplies all ready.
  • Print out your menus.
  • Print out your cheat sheet to know which is which!


The Kids Menu

The Parents Menu (The Secrete Decoder "Ring")

Step 2: Serving the dinner with a touch of mystery (and a lot of laughs)

Alright, the night is here. The kids all are sat at the table, the only thing they have in front of them is their menu with the themed words and some drinking water. There are two ways you can do this: (1) either split it into three course meal and they have to order four items per course (or your list divided by three), or (2) you can do it one item at a time. As a kid we did the courses, but our parents were cooking and prepping the entire time. We are totally taking the simpler way by ordering food.

With the kids seated at the table, now the fun begins. Walk out in your apron and scratch pad (for taking orders), and each child gets to choose one thing off the menu. Write down what they said and then go back into the kitchen to get to work prepping. Each kid only gets what they ordered. If child #1 ordered "hearts" from your Valentine-themed menu, then according to our random word assignment they really get chicken nuggets. Sounds great so far, right? Oh, it gets better. Remember, they ordered 'chicken nuggets', but they didn't order a plate. So, you bring out their chicken nugget and hand it to them! If child 2 ordered roses maybe that means a fork, that is all they get! Watch them laugh, watch them quizzically look at what they got. It’s actually so fun! We will wait about 2 minutes in between before taking the next orders and bringing the next item out. In the time between orders the kids can talk amongst themselves to figure out what each other ordered so they can order something they need or want the next round. 

If you choose the courses, you do the same thing. It might be easier if they wrote their name on their menu and listed which items for course 1, 2, and 3. Then bring their first course. Next, you would serve what they ordered for their 2nd course. And, finally their 3rd. They could start with ketchup, ice cream, root beer, and a fork. See where the laughter comes in

Step 3: You get instant great memories

From my own experience, this was something I remembered and couldn’t wait to do with my own kids. We laughed and had such a fun night. Getting a scoop of ice cream literally handed to you brought up challenges and tears of laughter as you try to eat it faster than it melts. Trying to figure out what your friends ordered so you could make sure that you got that for next time was fun and challenging. The memories have lasted a lifetime! 

No matter where your family is, or what restaurants or kitchen space you have available to you, you always have a each other and finding ways to make memories that you can cherish for the rest of your life is the goal of any parent and the right of any child - make them memorable and worthy of smiles.

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