Candlelight Dinner Family-Style

For the last several years, one of our big Valentine’s Day traditions is a family candlelight dinner. Here’s why this event is so unusual-and-looked-forward-to in my home:

a) It’s the only time of the year, besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, that I actually put a tablecloth and cloth napkins on the table. My mother would cringe, but tis the truth. While we do set the table every night for dinner, it’s usually ripped off paper towels and table settings via the 5-year old.
b) For some reason my boys think it is the coolest thing to eat in the dark with only the flickering light of the candles. The first year they thought we were going to tell ghost stories to each other until I explained that a lot of people use candles at dinner or in restaurants for special occasions that don’t involve scary faces and morbid stories.
c) Speaking of the boys (and one wee little girl), it’s a great time to emphasize manners and etiquette in a fun way that makes them actually willing to put a real live cloth napkin on their laps and not act like monkeys at the table. Let’s be honest, with four boys, most days I feel like my house is a locker room. We hardly ever (and that’s not really an exaggeration) eat out at sit-down, cloth napkin kind of restaurants as a family (the exception is when we take them out to a nice restaurant, which currently requires a 2-hour drive, for their 8th birthday) so this is the closest the kids get to experiencing this type of atmosphere and while I love raising wild, country boys, I still want them to have a tiny bit of a soft, cultured side.
d) Family time over good food and a properly set table is quite priceless.

I thought I’d share a few tips and menus and other tidbits about this tradition with you. It’s one of our favorite things to do as a family all year.

Candlelight Dinner Family-Style

I buy my taper candles from Amazon. They burn slowly and I am able to reuse them for a couple years. Plus, we’ve been known to break them out when the electricity bails because we can’t find a working flashlight.

Here’s a tip on the candle holders: if you are like me, you may not have candle holders just laying around, and they can be crazy expensive, depending on where you look. A few years ago, I bought these candle holders at Goodwill. They were a mismatched, in color and style, set but after a couple coats of white spray paint, they’ve worked great (I originally bought them for a DIY craft for my mantel that never quite finished itself). I think the candlesticks were 50 cents each so a thrift store is a great place to start.

As for dishes, you are probably getting the jist of the post that I am utterly unfancy. I don’t have expensive china (although I would love a set someday) so I use the same white ceramic plates (courtesy of Kohls, I think) that we use during the week. The boys are actually thrilled they get a big plate. They are all still relegated to using the smaller, Corelle nearly unbreakable dishes during normal dinners, and having a plate like mom and dad is, like, super cool. You could definitely fancy this up however you like – with china, goblets, nicer silverware.

Candlelight Dinner Family-Style

A few hours before dinner, I set the table. Just the usual, classic table setting: glass above the tip of the knife, roll/salad plate above the fork(s), salad fork on the far outside left next to the dinner fork, knife and spoon on the right (and yes, I have to look this up in one of my entertaining cookbooks every single year). I usually fold the cloth napkin in some type of shape/design. Googling this will retrieve hundreds of options. The one pictured here is the Fleur-de-Lys (instructions below the picture). But some years, I just roll them up in a napkin ring and call it good, too.

Candlelight Dinner Family-Style

Fleur-de-Lys instructions and visual (courtesy of Lion House Entertaining):
napkin instructions final

I tried once or twice to actually provide the family with a menu where they could order what they wanted (there were a couple options for each course). But, um, yeah, it was positively terrible. I didn’t love playing waitress (there weren’t any tips) and I didn’t get to enjoy much of the family dinner. Plus, I was making an astronomical amount of food without any clue about what the charges would end up “ordering.” New plan needed.

So now, I provide everyone with a little card that tells what the forthcoming dinner selection will be. Think: private catered dinner instead of restaurant dinner. I’ve provided sample cards and menus below. I try to do most, if not all, the prep and cooking/baking beforehand so that it is simply a matter of walking to the kitchen (you know, three steps away), retrieving the next course and bringing it to the table. That way, I’m not stuck in the kitchen slaving while everyone else enjoys the epic candlelight dinner. Basically, dinner usually consists of an appetizer or starter course followed by the main dish followed by dessert.

Candlelight Dinner Family-Style

Because I like the table to be fully set when dinner starts (simply so my kids appreciate what a nice table setting looks like), I take the plates away when serving. So for instance, when serving the appetizer, I scoop away the dinner plates and put them on the counter. I serve the appetizer plate(s) and then the dinner plates are already out of the way and ready for the main course (my boys think it’s crazy awesome to have dinner brought to them already dished up on a plate instead of our usual family-style routine). Our rule is that the next course isn’t served until everyone is finished with the current course. It’s interesting-slash-amazing-slash-eye-opening what sorts of details we hear from the kids when dinner takes an hour plus instead of the 20-minute rushed ordeal it usually is in order to get someone to wrestling practice or finish homework. (Sidenote: a few times when Valentine’s has fallen on a busy, weeknight that doesn’t lend itself to this dinner plan, we celebrate on the closest weekend.)

And truly, lighting the candles and eating dinner in this magical setting is something we all look forward to every year (especially me since Brian is the self-proclaimed Cupid-Dish-Doer; sweet).

Candlelight Dinner Family-Style

Below, I’ve offered five menus we’ve used in the past for this special candlelight dinner along with the menu cards that can be printed out and given to each family member at dinner if you chose to go the route of one of these preplanned menus. Of course you could change up the food selections however you please. Enjoy!

Elegant Taste Menu
{Printable Cards}
Spinach Salad with Feta, Craisins and Sweet-Spicy Nuts

Chicken Cordon Bleu
Au Gratin Potatoes
Roasted Asparagus
Buttery Cornmeal Crescent Roll

Crème brulee

Simple and Delicious Menu
{Printable Cards}
Marinated Caprese Salad

Beef and Broccoli
Fluffy Baked Brown (or white) Rice
Honey Lime Fruit Salad

Chocolate Molten Fudge Cake

Pasta Lovers Menu
{Printable Cards}
Rustic Crusty Bread with Herb Butter

Tuscan Garlic Chicken
Skillet Squash Medley or Steamed broccoli

Creamy Nutella Cheesecake with Chocolate Sprinkle

Fine Dining Menu
{Printable Cards}
Tomato Bisque Soup

Brown Sugar Spiced Pork Loin
Baked Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Lion House Dinner Roll
Vegetables Saute in Light Cream Sauce

Heart Shaped Cream Puff

Down Home Menu
{Printable Cards}
Spinach Artichoke Dip with Pita Wedges or Tortilla Chips

Glazed Mini Meatloaf
Twice Baked Stuffed Potato
Fresh Green Beans with Balsamic Dressing
French Bread Roll

Red Velvet Cheesecake Cake

41 Responses to Family Candlelight Dinner: Tips, How-To’s and Menus

  1. Adriane says:

    Just found your post. Love this. I’m going to try it out for V day this year. BTW I learned a handy dandy way of remembering where the forks and knives/spoons go. Forks go on the left (fork and left both have 4 letters) and knife and spoon go on right (knife/spoon/right all have 5 letters). Helps me at least. Enjoy!

  2. Heidi says:

    I love your traditions!

  3. Jen says:

    My older sister did this type of thing for a double date, restaurant style, when I was a kid. They had us kids wait on them. They gave their dates menus with several options, but every option on the menu was just another name for what they had already made.

  4. Sharon says:

    Thanks for terrific ideas and menus. I can’t wait to start this tradition with my four grandchildren.

  5. Katie Rose says:

    What an awesome idea! I read this the other day and we did it tonight as a surprise for my husband. When he got home from work the table was set, the food was ready, the kids and I were all dressed, and I had dinner clothes laid out for him (he’s a mechanic, not sitting at our fancy table that way! lol). It was lovely, the baby (14 months) was fascinated by the candles, of course my son (5 years) was too! My daughter (3 years) LOVES dressing up and was thrilled to wear her real jewelry and a party dress, especially since there’s not much call for such attire the way we’ve been shut in this winter! Thank you for sharing your family’s tradition, we enjoyed it so much that we may adapt it as our own!

  6. Alison says:

    What a fun idea – I love this!!!

  7. Christy says:

    Of course you have a molten cake, and it is make ahead!!! I love you! My favorite site ever. Thank you!!! Now, I have to decide between the Molten Cake and the Pudding Cake. You did claim that the pudding cake was your favorite! Thanks again!!!

  8. Christy says:

    We are so doing this!! I told my kids about it and they are crazy excited. The only request was for a molten cake… Now, I need to figure out if that can be made in advance. 🙂 Thanks a million! Have a great Valentines Day!

  9. Angela says:

    I think I’m going to keep these menu’s on file…I’ve tried several of the recipes you’ve mentioned on the menu’s and I’d agree they are delish!! Tuscan garlic chicken, and broccoli beef, to be specific, and I’d give them both 5 stars. I’ll definitely be trying the pork main dish listed on one of the menu’s too! Thanks, Mel! You are pretty amazing! Don’t know how you do it with 5 munchkins!! Happy Valentines!

  10. What a fun tradition. I wish I would have thought of that before my kids grew up.

  11. Anne says:

    My children are all grown and now I have grandchildren. My mantra when setting the table is: fork with 4 letters is on the left (4 letters) and the knife and spoon (with 5 letters)is on the right (5 letters), I often hear the young ones chant this phrase as they set the table without asking THE question.

  12. This is great! I think it would benefit every family if they make at least one night of a one-on-one time! Dinner is a great family time to catch up on that!

  13. Holly says:

    We are having the missionaries serving in our ward at church over for a Valentine’s Day dinner. I am excited to use your hot tips and make it a fun night for everyone.

  14. Karen says:

    Very nice, Mel. And the kids will remember this their whole lives. When I was growing up, we would have candles on the table everytime we had a spaghetti meal. It was fun, and very memorable! We do this now for our kids for special meals, and you’ve motivated me to search for some better
    candle holders! Thanks for the post.

  15. Celeste says:

    Instead of trying to get away from the kids, I really like your style of celebrating the love as a family. Plus fire on the table–my boys will love this. I just picked up some candlestick holders at the local thrift store. Love! Thanks!

  16. Jeanine says:

    I love this idea! I always try to make this more of a family holiday–I LOVE Valentine’s Day! Since Valentine’s is actually on the weekend this year though I’ve got a hot date with my husband 🙂 But we might just have to extend Valentine’s Day through Saturday so that we can do this with the boys!

  17. Heather says:


  18. Meghan says:

    Hey Mel,
    What a fantastic idea! I love the idea of learning good manors early on– and the candle light makes it so fun for kids- and the folded napkins! You have wonderful recipes on here!

  19. Camille says:

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I cannot wait to start this tradition. What a fun idea! I will be making the Elegant Taste Menu! 🙂

  20. Jodi says:

    We’ve been doing this for several years and it really has become my boys (I also have 4) favorite tradition. I cut out a gigantic pink or red head from poster board and during the 14 days of February they write things they love about each other and we read it after our Valentine meal which for us has a theme of pink or red: strawberry soup, salmon, red velvet cake, purple cabbage, or whatever else I come up with that year. So fun!

  21. Carrie says:

    You are my fave. For realsies.

  22. Rebecca says:

    I love this idea! It’s just what I was looking for.

    I just have everyday white plates too. But, I bought some Fostoria Americana salad plates and water goblets off of Ebay to make my table sparkle. (Although, Candlewick salad plates would also have been a good choice.)

    Well done, Mel.

  23. keri says:

    This is awesome. Thank you.

  24. Sheila says:

    Love this! Your blog is so family friendly emphasizing family fun, yummy food, celebrations, learning, wonderful ideas, and love. You are the best! Because I love burning fireplaces, beautiful table settings (many from yard sale fines) and lit candles, my family often experiences these kinds of dinners during the winter and more recently with many of your exceptional recipes. My husband is a very tolerant man especially when he knows I am serving one of your over the top desserts. 🙂

  25. Jenn A says:

    I might have to try a candlelight supper this year. We did it for Thanksgiving and my boys loved it, although it was interesting trying to get them to behave for the fancy dinner. They would do well to have some extra practice. =) Thanks for the idea and for the menus!

  26. Jenn says:

    This is a great idea. I’ve been wanting to develop some traditions for my young family and I really like this. FYI, I learned a great tip for remembering silverware placement: left has 4 letters, just like fork, so the fork goes on the left. Right has 5 letters, like knife and spoon, so they go on the right.

  27. Heather bell says:

    Don’t feel too bad. We don’t own a tablecloth or napkins!! Lol but I totally doing this. Pasta lovers with chocolate molten cake:)

  28. Kelly says:

    I am so glad you posted this!! I have been wanting to get a true Valentine’s tradition going for years but considering I have had two sets of twins in 4 years, I just haven’t gotten around to it!!! So, the last time I did anything really great for my older kids was about 4 years ago. This helps so much and now that the babies are 10 months, I think I can pull it off. Your guidance motivates me and since I cook from your blog ALL THE TIME, I know we will all be happy with whatever menu I choose. Thanks for all of your fabulous ideas!

  29. I have four grown daughters now but when they were at home we would always make Valentine’s Day a family holiday. Valentine’s Day was one of the three days all year that we would eat in the dining room with the china, crystal glasses, and tablecloth. Everyone looked forward to it. I would make a fancy dinner with filet mignon and some kind of a crazy chocolate dessert and we would eat by candlelight. We always had a good time.

  30. Tara says:

    I love everything about this idea! What a fun way to celebrate as a family.

  31. Nan Beckwith says:

    That is so cool. However, since my now grown kids were small, I have only used cloth napkins. I have many and have even cut out/sewn more in a couple of hours- so easy to toss them in the laundry. It’s just so ‘greener’ than using paper! A few years ago in Bible school, we made cloth napkins as a craft and put the kids names on them. They loved them.

  32. Kim says:

    Love this idea! I think we may start this tradition this year. Thanks for sharing!

  33. Katie says:

    I love making a special Valentines Day dinner at home. I also love the idea setting the table fancy, eating by candlelight, and bringing out courses. I will have to wait a couple years though. It’s like pulling teeth to get my 3 1/2 yr old to eat everyday dinners, let alone with the distraction of lit candles (I’m pretty sure “Happy Birthday” would get sung to everyone at the table), and my 1 1/2 yr old does whatever big sister does. I can’t wait to use some of those v-day menus. This year our menu is Massaged Kale and Craisin Salad, Cornmeal Crescent Rolls, Salt Crusted Potatoes with Rosemary, Roasted Maple-Glazed Pork Tenderloin, and for dessert: Banana Caramel Cream Trifles. Notice they all come from your blog? All my good recipes do 🙂

  34. Krista says:

    We do this too! Love it, and it’s crazy how much our 4 kids look forward to this tradition we started because we were too broke to go out AND pay for a babysitter! Perfect!

  35. Nicole Hunn says:

    This is TOO sweet, Mel! Seriously. My kids would absolutely adore this, and the whole idea that you can make something incredibly special without spending extra or even having anyone else over (and pounding home those table manners which has always been incredibly important to me as a mom!)? Total and complete perfection. And you know I don’t blow sunshine. This is totally brilliant. And like the antidote to what ails us in the “modern” life. LOVE.

  36. Kim in MD says:

    This post is just one more reason why I love your blog so much, Mel! When my husband and I were dating and then newlyweds, our Valentine’s Day plans almost always meant dinner reservations. When we had children, we wanted to include them, so our tradition has become a special dinner at home. I love your menu ideas! Happy Valentine’s Day!

  37. Josie says:

    Mel, I absolutely love this post and this idea! My husband and I were just talking last night about how we want to turn V-Day into more of a family holiday with the kids vs a romantic day for us. My 5 year old girl would absolutely love this, but my 2 year old and 1 year old twins are still a little young for real dishes and an open flame… maybe in a few years 😉

  38. Teresa R. says:

    The simple and delicious menu may be my valentine’s day menu. Thank you for the candle stick tip! I have several mismatched candlesticks, but I never thought to paint them. Great idea!

  39. Krista says:

    My husband and I met on Valentine’s Day several years ago. Something we’ve started as a tradition with our three kids is chocolate fondue. We put the pot in the middle of the table, and everyone picks their own food to dip. Favorites for us are pound cake, angel food cake, strawberries, bananas, and marshmallows. Maybe I’ll set the table nicely as you’ve suggested, too. Thanks for the idea.

  40. Barbara says:

    Priceless. Thank you.

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