When was the last time you hosted a romantic date night dinner for your partner? Instead of pulling those less-than-appetizing leftovers out of the freezer, you can spice up both your plate and your love life without even leaving the house—and cook up your appetites for each other in the process.
For those of us who don't have the chef's touch, it can be intimidating to plan a meal without knowing where to start. If you're the type of person who jokingly says they can even burn the water in the pot, you're not alone. We reached out to relationship expert Melissa Orlov, relationship researcher Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., CPLC, and psychologist Roni Beth Tower, Ph.D. for some guidance on what to focus on.
Meet the Expert
As it turns out, making that extravagant spread isn't as hard as it seems (and it's easier with steps to walk you through the process). No special occasion required: Treat your S.O. to something memorable, delicious, and perfectly satisfying.
Read on to learn romantic dinner ideas to share with your partner in our guide to at-home date night bliss.
Clear Your Schedule
Before getting into the specifics of recipes, flavors, and planning the meal, you'll want to set the stage for the romantic dinner by making sure the two of you will be alone. If you have children, now's the time to call in that babysitting favor. Or if you have a roommate, let them know you'll need some privacy.
It's also a good idea to set some ground rules: Try agreeing to a no-tech evening, which might mean turning off the television or putting phones out of sight. "Scheduling might sound forced, but it's a great way to protect your relationship from the huge amount of 'life' constantly coming at you," says Orlov.
Go a step further by sending an invitation: Design them online to print, or write up a hand-lettered invite for a more personal touch.
Once you've confirmed the date of the romantic evening, it's time to plan the menu. Be mindful of whether fresh ingredients are in season, which can affect how easily you'll be able to source the necessary items on the list. Other things to consider include your dinner companion's dietary preferences and restrictions, like someone who prefers a plant-based diet or who has a nut allergy.
"Being that our romantic partners play a large role in influencing our food choice, it is important that we are on the same page regarding eating habits and food prep approaches," says Cohen. Since it's a special evening, planning to serve your partner's favorite foods—or an improved version of them—is a great way to express how much you care. It might be worth splitting that fresh lobster you've had your eye on lately, or springing for salmon or a high-class steak. Don't forget drinks and dessert: If your partner is excited by a certain red wine or brand of chocolate, it'll round out the meal to incorporate the things they enjoy most.
Consider how you'd like to present each dish, and check to make sure you have any particular cooking tools, garnishes, and dinnerware you might need. It's also helpful to make a list of décor ahead of time (like fresh flowers or a new tablecloth). When it comes to setting the table, you might opt for a practical, stylish display or make it more formal.
One Week Before
If the kitchen isn't your natural habitat, you can still try out new flavors without risking the quality of the finished meal. Choose a recipe with ingredients and preparation techniques you're familiar with: If searing the perfect steak is your forté, make it different by using new spices or marinades that add a unique taste. On the other hand, if you're more experienced with baking, an extravagant dessert can give your partner's favorite meal a special, sweet touch.
Remember that it won't be a romantic night if you're stressed out—so have fun with it. You don't have to be a master chef to enjoy a good time together. Even easy slow-cooked meals can be delicious (and feel fancy) with the right ingredients.
If your partner is usually the one to serve up dinner in your home, they might also enjoy a romantic dinner that you cook together: "Not only is what we eat important to discuss but so is the way we choose to prepare household meals. Time spent together is an important part of relationships," says Cohen. "A great way to connect food and activities would be to cook with your partner. This would allow the two of you to come together to plan and execute a delicious meal."
Two Days Before
Rather than waiting until the night before dinner to shop for groceries, getting the items on your list an extra day ahead of time can keep things on schedule. It's also helpful in case you come across any ingredients that aren't in stock at the local store—so be sure to make note of any substitutions that can be swapped for specific items in case you can't find exactly what you need.
Be sure to check each detail to avoid any last-minute trips to the store: ice for cocktails, a corkscrew for wine, or a lighter for candles. If the recipe calls for frozen ingredients, it's okay to put them in the fridge today to allow plenty of thawing time. You may also visit your favorite local specialty market to find extra garnishments or side dishes that pair well with the main course.
When choosing the additional elements of the meal, keep your partner in mind. Even incorporating their favorite peppers, sweet ingredients, or spices in side dishes can make a difference (and express how much thought you put into cooking for them). "Restaurants and café sections of supermarkets are all too happy to supply prepared food," says Tower. "To show that love motivates the selection, pay attention to what might please the people involved in terms of when, where, ambiance, and menu."
Since you'll spend the next evening doing early preparation, two nights before dinner is also a great time to get started on the other elements of the date night. Create a playlist to set the mood, or think of creative ways to decorate the dessert. Remember that romantic dinners don't need to be forced; the more relaxed you are, the more fun your partner will have. The most important item on the menu is the two of you—so keep stress levels low. Entertaining is even better when the host is having a great time.
The Day Before
To make the date night go smoother, prepare as much of the planned menu as possible the day before dinner. Take out serving dishes, cooking utensils, and cutting boards, and get ready to set up your cooking station.
Start chopping vegetables and portioning them out to store in the fridge overnight. It's also helpful to measure out the spices or other ingredients, and locate the sauces and garnishments needed for the finished dish. If the main course is a protein, it's also important to season or marinate it early to bring the most flavor out when it's cooked.
If the recipe for dessert says it stores well overnight, save some time on date night by preparing it the day before.
Remember that you don't have to cook the perfect filet mignon or pork chop. One of the things that will make your partner feel special is that you're making the effort to cook their favorite recipe. It's about enjoying time together—not perfection.
If you're feeling nervous about cooking the meal, it's okay to make it easy. Pick up cooked shrimp or scallops to cut down on preparation, or buy the dessert to save time. Being together is what matters, so even if the meal isn't worthy of a five-star restaurant, having a romantic evening with your partner will still be a fun way to connect.
The Day Of
It's time to let all of that anticipation and planning come to light. Start by setting up the table and any décor, and ensure that linens, silverware, wine glasses, and candles are set properly.
If the dessert is still in the fridge, pull it out to let it reach room temperature (depending on the recipe) before it's time to eat. When you start cooking the main course, be sure to double-check the recipe instructions and avoid missing any important steps. Go through the list of spices, seasonings, and any additional garnishments to get the flavor just right.
All that's left to do is turn on the tunes, enjoy the meal, and bask in each other's company—if you're enjoying each other, a romantic night at home beats dining at a restaurant every time.