Recipe for a 4-Course Weekend That (Almost) Costs $0.00

Herein are listed the ingredients for a 4-day summer weekend that I can vouch for as satisfying, affordable, and good for your (mental) health.

Please note that depending on your family’s dietary preferences and what you have available in your local cupboards, you may have to modify these ingredients to adapt the menu to your needs. Cooking is infinitely subjective, and this recipe should not be taking as universally prescriptive.

The important thing is to eat well, drink lots of water (see below), and be merry.

Especially since tomorrow we will not die.


1. Take a solo hike.

Before you do a dozen things with your kids, give them a kiss and abandon them for a few hours. Go take a hike by yourself. Be alone with your thoughts in the great outdoors. Marinate in the solitude of nature.

It will remind you that you are not only a parent, but also an individual. An adult with regular adult thoughts. A human being who has an identity beyond raising smaller human beings. A person who is, once in a very great while, permitted to listen to a full album or podcast without any interruptions.

I know, I know, it’s a slippery slope to narcissism and neglect. So once you firmly establish your individuality to yourself, crank the Harry Chapin on your way home and go hang out with the cat in the cradle and the silver spoon for the rest of the weekend.

2. Take a duet, trio, or quartet hike.

The only thing that’s as satisfying as hiking alone is hiking with nature-loving children. (Although fair warning: It’s considerably less quiet for some reason. And point B is considerably more elusive.)

So grab those kids, plop ‘em in their car seats, and take ‘em to the nearest trailhead. If they’re like my kids, their favorite thing will be pretending that each boulder they see is a house they want to live in, pointing out where each room of the house is and which houses lack a kitchen or even (yikes) a toilet. But I’m guessing that might be a specific quirk of my specific children.

In any case, nature is endlessly entertaining. Way better than TV. And there’s no breaking news! And no Viagra commercials!

3. Go to places without admissions fees.

On that note, the two places in society that may be the most antithetical to commercialism are libraries and parks. Especially in a state like Pennsylvania, where state parks have free admission. So keep your wallet safely ensconced in your pocket and visit these quiet bastions of serenity and simplicity. Your depleted checking account, and your oft-depleted soul, will thank you.

(In a perfect world, your kids will too. But my kids aren’t very good at showing gratitude. So in lieu of that, I just warmly thank myself. To which myself chirps, “You’re quite welcome!” Whatever works.)

4. Find a free outdoor David Bowie tribute concert.

To be clear, it doesn’t need to be David Bowie. Or outdoor. Or even free, for that matter. (It does have to be a concert, though. If it’s not a concert, then you’re simply going too far afield from the recipe at hand. I’m sorry, but it’s my list.)

Having said that, I recommend the above combination if you can somehow pull it off. Because as I learned last weekend, David Bowie songs are the perfect combination of music that is: (1) appealing to parents born in the 1980s, (2) fun for kids born in the 2010s, and (3) conducive to a family dance party in the grass on a mild summer evening while the sun sets at a local park. And it’s especially great if they wrap up their set with “Under Pressure.”

Rest in peace, David Bowie. (And you too, Freddie Mercury.)

5. Go to my parents’ house.

This one might be a little tough to pull off since most people reading this will not live within easy driving distance of my parents. But even if it necessitates a long drive, or a multi-day road trip, it will be well worth the gas money. Because my parents are awesome.

They’re so awesome that my kids get huge grins on their faces when they hear we’re going to “Grandma’s house.” (Sorry to cut you out of the mortgage agreement, Dad.) They know that whether they have an itinerary or just have 5 hours of unstructured play time, they’ll have a blast at that house, a house which is their favorite house of all the houses.

So head over to my parent’s place. Just be sure to call first to make sure they’re at home.

6. Pay a visit to the Sweetest Place on Earth.™

This might seem like a repeat of #5, but in this case I’m talking about Hersheypark. The catch is, it costs a lot of money. Between the $57 tickets (even for 3-year-olds somehow) and the $25 parking, you’ll drop $250 for a family of 4 even before you factor in gas, $11 burgers, and plush Hershey’s Kiss dolls for the kids.

However, if you’re lucky enough to know several gracious souls who warmly offer your family free tickets, the day trip will become exponentially more affordable. (Thank you, kind benefactors!)

Then you can spend 5 hours watching your kids delightedly hop from ride to ride — little cars, little helicopters, little space shuttles, a little pirate ship, and not-at-all-little bees. All while giant rollercoasters tower above you, filled with screaming adults who aren’t lucky enough to have small, wonderstruck kids. I felt bad for all those sad souls. (I assume that’s why they were screaming. Sheer despair at being stuck on those boring rollercoasters.)

7. Pat your wallet and be grateful for simple, mostly-free pleasures.

As you drive home from your final adventure of the 4-day weekend, think back on how much fun you had, and how little money you spent. And be grateful that despite the pervasive grip of commerce over nearly every aspect of modern life, there are still plenty of ways to beat the system and have fun with your children on a shoestring budget.

Because even without free “Hersheypark happy” tickets or easy access to Don and Anita Wingert’s happy house, the world is a place full of books, and games, and parks, and libraries, and hiking trails, and free concerts.

And happy ways to spend your next weekend (without spending all your money).

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