If you spend more on casual get-togethers, especially with children in attendance and upkeeping a formal dining area can be bothersome, then it's time to change your dining room into a fun, hip place where the atmosphere speaks of warmth, casualness and familiarity.
The dining set is the hardest to let go. For one, it's probably a very expensive furniture set and knowing the state of the economy, it's better to put off unnecessary spending. Buying a new dining furniture is not really needed. You can make the formal table and chairs "friendlier" with a change in tablecloth, cushions and an addition of an area rug. It all boils down to the choice of color. Use shades that are lighter or brighter for a casual look. Why not store the candelabras in the meantime? You can take them out every Valentine's Day for a romantic dine-in experience, so it won't exactly go to waste.
The sconces and large picture frames are replaced by contemporary prints in smaller, color-coordinated frames. A casual wall look can be attained by mounting old, refinished frames to the wall. Inside the frames mount old plates directly to the wall or an old pressed flower or an old menu cover from a nostalgic restaurant. The buffet runner is replaced with a cotton sheet or a light chenille spread that drapes the entire surface and is colored to match the wall paint.
The change in tablecloth can immediately affect how the dining room looks. With a light-colored cloth, the space will look airy, cozy and warm. You can still use deep colors like shades of red if you want to emphasize elegance in the room. Just make sure that the color matches the rest of the room.
If the floor covering is wall-to wall carpet, that could be taken up and replaced by a casual style of wood flooring. A large area rug could be placed under the table (be sure to allow enough clearance all the way around the table so the chairs will still be on the rug when moved back to allow seating). The area rug colors should tie together the wall colors, the tablecloth colors, and the cherry wood color. If the carpet is to remain, an area rug can still be utilized over the carpet. You can't change the carpet color or the nap/texture but you can compensate for the carpet color/texture by the right choice of a large area rug.
The hutch is difficult to change structurally or in color but you can change what is in it. Instead of the glassware and figurines and porcelain pieces in there now, have more casual plates, pottery glassware, your thimble collection, a collection of small dinner bells, etc. Put in there things that the family recognizes and associates with good time and good memories. Place prints that contain some of the things found in the hutch on either side of the hutch. If you really want to get creative, you can always hire a local handyman service to help out with some of those small jobs that you just don't think you have the knowledge to tackle. Changing out light fixtures, replacing doors, installing crown molding. These are all perfect jobs for a handyman that won't cost you a fortune to have done.
The drapes can stay just like the carpet. It's understandable that curtains can be expensive too. So if you have a dark curtain, you can accessorize it with a ribbon or tie-backs in a contrasting color. If the drapes are dark, then go for light colors. There are also fabrics with fine prints that will look good with a deep shade.
The dining room should be a place for the family to gather, share great meals, good stories, and fond recollections. With some forethought and planning, and a little daring, you can go from formal to casual and, in the doing, go from unused to used.