How to Dine-in Without Feeling Deprived!

In my family it has been a long standing tradition to eat out on a weekend night, usually Fridays. This works fine for some families and works great for us when my family offers generously to pay the bill. When it comes down to my own meager buck-stretching, this weekly tradition has to be sacrificed occasionally.
Who doesn't love to order from a variety of foods (each person getting their own selection of favorites), having someone else cook it, and then being waited on hand and foot?  A pretty nice break from the daily monotony of fixing meals after a 10 hour work day, I'd say.
Unfortunately, when one has to make the decision between diapers and dining out, there really is no question which category wins.  It's easy to sort of feel bad for yourself in this instance, but when you look around and see all the wonderful things you have in life - shelter, clothing, love, health, etc. - it seems a little silly to dwell on it.
SO! Here are some of my favorite ways to make dining-in on your usual "treat" night seem just a little less like the short end of the stick!
My boyfriend's family has a neat tradition of "appetizer" night.  Basically they scrounge the freezer and hit up the grocery store for a few cheap appetizers that add up to a meal.  This sometimes consisted of several types of oven-baked wings (prepped by Tyson so you don't have to!), a nice rotel cheese dip with chips, and maybe even some home-made wheat crusted pizzas. Look at the bottom of this article for some recipe ideas. (Keep in mind, even prepped freezer foods are cheaper than dining out. Maybe you can afford to half splurge.)
Put on a Movie
Put it on in EVERY room.  This one takes a little bit of first-time prep-work, but it makes the night infinitely more fun.  Wherever you have a tv, run a cable or use whatever device is wireless you might have hooked up to it (xbox, wii, Roku, etc) to broadcast your movie to all sets.  Not sure how to do that?  Google to the rescue! Still not sure? See if you can agree on a show on TV that you can get throughout the house.
Switch It Up
Do you eat every meal at the table? In the dining room? Or do you eat most meals hurredly in front of the tv?  Whatever you normally do, switch it up. If you never sit at that gorgeous claw-footed oak set in the dining room - put on some music and have everyone gather in there. Toys allowed at the table - maybe a game of cards - whatever, just switch it up and let go.  If you can dine outside comfortably, try this as an alternative also - a picnic blanket in the back yard is fun! Wear bug spray or burn some citronella to make it even nicer.
Clean Up? Ugh
Ok I'm normally the "greenest" blogger you know - make things from scratch, reusable dining wear, minimalize packaging and all the lot!  This advice grates on my nerves, but it can really feel good to just not have a sink full of dishes.  Use paper. Paper napkins, paper plates, paper cups.  Or recycleable plastic. Just nothing you have to wash.  Rinse it, scrape it, toss it/recycle.  And just make finger foods and forget about the demonizing plastic utensils.
So you have entertainment, switched up the locale, maybe even made a "everyone must wear PJs" rule!  Great! What to cook?  Here are a few of our favorites (health benefits in parenthesis for you worriers!)
Rotel Dip
Depending on desired spiciness, choose mild, original, or hot Rotel.
Combine 1/2 block/pound cubed Velveeta cheese + one can of Rotel in a microwave safe bowl.  Put in a few minutes at a time, stirring between cook times, until a smooth dip is made. This recipe can also be made with a can of chili/vegetarian chili instead of Rotel. Serve with tortilla chips. (Calcium + veggies + protein + whole grains in chips.)
French Onion Dip
Combine a pint of sour cream with one packet of dry Lipton's French Onion Soup.  The longer you let this sit, the better it tastes. Serve with ruffled/ridged potato chips. (Calcium + potassium in chips.)
Ranch & Veggies *buy baby carrots and cherry tomatoes to save time cutting. (Veggies)
Tyson has several varieties of boneless and bone-in wings.  Our favorites include buffalo strips, garlic parmesan wings, and tequila and lime cajun flavored wings.  Want to make them yourself? Maybe to save a few bucks? No prob!
Boneless "Wings"
Follow instructions on bag to cook a couple batches of all-natural chicken nuggets.  In separate bowls, toss dipping sauces like honey + bbq, garlic parmesan, or even Frank's pre-made buffalo sauce with batches of your nuggets.  Set aside some plain for the kiddos. The more variety, the less deprived you'll feel. (Protein!)
For the wheat-crusted pizzas I mentioned above, I'll have to check with my boyfriend's dad (he's the expert) and repost.  A quick fix is one I've used many times:  prick a flour or whole wheat tortilla shell all over with a fork, spread on spaghetti/pizza sauce, add light toppings and a sprinkling of shredded mozzarella. Bake on a stone or pizza pan til crisp.  Other prepared crusts include half-hoagie rolls, half hamburger/hot dog buns, english muffins, bagels, biscuits - use your imagination!
See my other Top 5 Quick Meal Ideas post for even more yummy additions to this night-in.
Do it. Pick something.  A gallon of vanilla ice cream can even be a treat if topped with chocolate syrup and bits of candies.  Hey - we don't always order dessert when we're out... maybe this night just got BETTER than dining out!
So, just enjoy your night in! Maybe make that dining out a monthly tradition instead of weekly - or quarterly even!  Your pocket book will thank you.
Any suggestions from readers?
PS - Still want to dine out?  Bonus post - best bang for your buck:  Cracker Barrel, family-owned Mexican restaurants, buffets if you want a real treat - you pay the same $10 price tag per person, but get a wider variety.  Just go somewhere you can control your costs! (And skip the alcohol - way too pricey.)

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