Today’s post is written by my sweet friend, Anne, from Quick and Easy, Cheap and Healthy. Anne and her husband are an example to emulate when it comes to parents of small kiddos. They work at their marriage! I have learned so much from Anne. I’m excited that she is sharing some practical tips on how to make date nights a priority when you’re on a budget and have small children. Enjoy!
One of mine and my husband’s favorite date nights is to go out to eat at a fancy restaurant. Eating out can cost a pretty penny, though, easily $50 for both of us, depending on the restaurant. To make it more affordable, we keep our eyes peeled for deals, like our city’s “Restaurant Week” (where a large selection of restaurants offer fixed price menus at an affordable price for the whole week), the Entertainment book, Restaurant.com, Groupon, or local coupon mailers.
Even at that, we can only afford such luxuries – to us, anyway – on a very occasional basis, so most of the time we opt to “dine in”. In our home! Who doesn’t love a nice date night in?
You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to re-create a fine dining experience from your very own kitchen. All you need is a little creativity, a little planning ahead, and a little extra effort to turn the moment into a special occasion.
Pick a night when you can afford to stay up late (on the weekend, maybe) and mark it down on your calendar. When the day comes, send the kids to bed (a wee bit early if necessary) and then get busy turning your dining room into a dining destination!
Don’t just pull from your weekly menu rotation. In order for this to feel like a real date, you’re going to want to make it unique and different, something you enjoy eating but don’t often (or ever) prepare. Here are a few menu ideas that are easy to “dress up” to create that gourmet feel:
- Italian food just has a romantic aura about it, especially the fancy pasta. Even spaghetti noodles can take on a romantic hue with a different sauce treatment. Search on Pinterest or Allrecipes.com for a new-to-you pasta sauce you think you might enjoy. Top it with freshly grated Parmesan and you’ll feel like a real chef! Serve it with steamed vegetables, and a loaf of rustic bread with oil for dipping (simply drizzle some extra virgin olive oil onto a plate and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper). My friend Mindy has an easy and delicious Alfredo Sauce recipe, or you can try The Humbled Homemaker’s Crock Pot Pasta Sauce.
- Surf & Turf is one of our favorites, although it’s on the pricier side. Every time I go to the grocery store, I scan the meat section for marked down steaks. I am rewarded on occasion with cuts we normally can’t afford, in packages just the right size for one special meal. Frozen shrimp is affordable – at least in comparison to what you would spend at a fancy restaurant – and is so easy to steam at home with some Old Bay seasoning. Combine these two with a buttery baked potato, and you’ll have a meal worthy of the finest seafood restaurant.
- Seafood on its own is always very elegant and lends a sophisticated air to any meal. Crab cakes are very easy, and can even be made with canned crab. Fish is also a great option, especially later in the evening because it is light and cooks quickly: try a pricier kind of fish than you would normally purchase.
The important part of the evening – the one that makes it even better than dining out, because you can’t experience this at a restaurant – is to prepare the food together. We’ve found it’s best if we each take a task and work at it individually, but we are still in the kitchen, enjoying each other’s company and working toward a common goal.
Even if you – or your significant other – are not comfortable playing chef, you can still enjoy the experience! On occasion, instead of cooking the meal, my husband and I have set ourselves a budget (maybe $10-$15) and browsed through a grocery store to find ready-made meals with a touch of sophistication. If you have access to more upscale grocery stores, their meat and seafood cases often have fancy entrees prepped and ready to cook. You can also find some really nice frozen foods like bacon-wrapped filet mignon and stuffed fish in the freezer section. They might not be the usual whole foods we enjoy at home, but let’s be honest: what is served in the restaurant usually isn’t either!
Just as important as the food is the ambience in which you enjoy it. Make sure your dining room is clean (no Legos or Matchbox cars underfoot!), then set your table with some elegance. Use your nicest tablecloth, and by all means, pull out your fine china! If you don’t have a set of fine china, then scour around a few thrift stores and find some plates with a pattern you really like. Save them for your in-home date nights so they retain that special feel. Invest in some pretty goblets or champagne glasses, whether or not you drink alcoholic beverages. They make even water look prettier!
If you have lights that dim, bring them down to their lowest setting. If that’s not an option, you may consider turning off the dining room lights completely and using only candle light and/or the light from a nearby room. You could also borrow a table or floor lamp from another room – those usually cast a little less light than the chandelier straight overhead. In any case, light a candle or two to give a romantic glow.
Last but not least, turn on some quiet music in the background. Everyone has different music tastes, but we like to set ours to the classical piano station on Pandora. There’s just something elegant and romantic about solo piano music!
Finish off your meal with a decadent dessert. This is the time to forget about calories and portion control; it’s all about creating a special occasion. And special occasions are the ones where we have permission to enjoy the sweet treats we might not otherwise. You can make the dessert yourself in advance (browse my dessert recipe collection), or you can purchase a small but special treat from a local baker (or the bakery section at your grocery store) like a cupcake or selection of petit fours. Even a selection of chocolates is a great way to end your meal.
Once everything is prepared, sit down. Relax and linger over your meal. Hold hands and look into each other’s eyes. Take the time to have a real conversation. Bare your hearts if you feel led. And enjoy.
When she’s not busy concocting something new in her kitchen, Anne Simpson can be found blogging about it at Quick and Easy Cheap and Healthy, where she shares how to make healthy food without wasting any time, money or energy.