It was dinnertime, and the children were right to be nervous.
I was, that year, on a frugality kick, and the meals had become "interesting" of late, which is not the same thing as good. My husband had put the kibosh on my worst excesses. He made me stop buying the cereal that nobody liked and didn't want us to dilute whole milk with skim milk made from powder. The books said nobody would notice the difference. He insisted that the books were sometimes wrong.
The children and I had taken a break that day to go to the grand opening of a new grocery store. There they were treated as visiting royalty. They were given balloons in the floral department. In the deli, they were each offered a piece of cheese. The bakery had free cookies.
But the thing that delighted them most was the abundance of free samples. Each aisle had a different person manning a card table equipped with a toaster oven, and the children sampled small containers of pastries, watermelon, entrees, soda, and side dishes.
"What are these things called, Mom?" they asked several times.
I didn't want them asking for specific expensive items, so I gave them a truthful but elusive answer. "Free samples," I said.
"Mmm!" said my daughter, "We like free samples!"
They were so delighted that they wanted me to shop there every week or maybe every day. But when I compared the new store's prices for bread, milk, and produce to the prices I normally paid closer to home, I realized that there are no free samples; there are just creative ways of paying for things.
Back home, the children watched the video I'd borrowed from the library while I looked through the refrigerator, hoping inspiration would strike.
So far, it hadn't. I had been serving leftovers, undisguised, the day after they'd been the main course, and the children found it boring. I hadn't yet learned to let things rest a day or so and then disguise them with sauces and frozen vegetables.
I gave up on the refrigerator and turned to the pantry.
You know how sometimes you run out of something, and then you buy it, and the next time you go shopping, you still think you need it, so you buy more?
I had just gone through a bout of that when I ran out of muffin papers and was supposed to make cupcakes for preschool.
Some corner of my mind panicked and continued to broadcast the thought that I should never again be without muffin papers. Every time I went shopping, I picked some up – until finally I had enough to make paper flowers for a moderate-size wedding. "There's got to be a way to use these," I thought.
Finally, inspiration struck. I got out plates for everyone, opened containers from the refrigerator and pantry, and I started arranging things. A sprig of broccoli, a dollop of casserole, a small piece of chicken, and a tablespoon of potatoes – each plate had a good mix.
Next, I added mixed nuts in a pink muffin paper and apple slices in green. The parsley left over from a new recipe came into play as I artistically placed sprigs of it between each item.
"What's for dinner, Mom?" my daughter asked nervously.
"You go wash your hands and when you come to the table, I'll tell you," I said. They looked at me with no small amount of trepidation. But they when they came back, I had all the plates on the table, festive with ruffled muffin papers full of treats and sprigs of parsley garnishing everything. The children's eyes grew big.
"I saw how much fun you had at the grand opening today," I said, "and I thought we'd try some of these things at home. So for dinner tonight, we're having free samples!"
They cheered me and scarfed down all the cleverly disguised (and somewhat enhanced) leftovers.
"Mom, that was good!" my daughter said. "When can we have free samples for dinner again?"
Just as soon as I have enough leftovers, I thought, but I told them, "We're going to keep this as a special sometimes treat."
Frugality is easier to face if you dress it up just a little.