Need a little extra something to put the sizzle back into your Valentine's Day? Don't waste your money on an expensive Valentine's dinner out. Do something truly special and cook for the one you love. Not only are these homemade meals delicious, but they're also easy on the wallet.

February 08, 2009

By Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
Need a little extra something to put the sizzle back into your Valentine's Day? I'm right there with you. I haven't been feeling particularly romantic these days, with a baby due next month. But let me impart these words of wisdom: Don't waste your money on an expensive Valentine's dinner out. Not only is the holiday known as "amateur night" in chef circles, but an average dinner for two will cost you anywhere from $140 to nearly $400 on this "special" night.

Instead, do something truly special and cook for the one you love. Not only are these homemade meals delicious, but they're also easy on the wallet (I just totaled up the costs on freshdirect.com, and my meal came out to be $42). This way, you and your sweetie will have more dough to put toward a romantic evening at a nice hotel some other night—or at least a babysitter for a kid-free evening out.

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Foreplay
Feeling weighed down is the last thing you want when you're trying to get in the mood. I recommend starting the meal with one of these light dishes.  The Shrimp, Grapefruit, and Avocado Salad and Goat Cheese and Spiced Walnuts on Endive have heart-healthy ingredients (avocado and walnuts), and our Light French Onion Soup has less than one-third of the sodium in typical recipes, making it much better for your ticker.

Hot, but not heavy
Seafood is always sexy in my book. It's hearty enough to satisfy your date but is still light enough to make sure he or she leaves plenty of room for dessert. For a light pasta-based seafood dish, try Pappardelle With Asparagus and Salmon. If you have a bit more time and want to put your big soup pot to use, our Cioppino With Garlic Toasts is seriously impressive. Once you plate this Italian fisherman stew in a nice bowl with the crispy toasts, it'll look like you slaved in the kitchen for hours.

If you're trying to cut down on costs even more, there's no need to use all the seafood called for in the cioppino recipe. And go with the cheapest ones—shrimp and halibut.

I love to order scallops when I'm out to eat, but they are also a cinch to cook at home. The key is to avoid overcooking them, which gives them a rubbery texture. Our Pan-Roasted Scallops With Sesame Sauce is absolutely mouthwatering and easy to make, even for first-timers.

I'm not sure about yours, but my guy isn't satisfied with a meal unless there's meat involved. You can serve up a nice piece of steak without breaking the bank or racking up too many calories. Our Steak Frites has less than 300 calories—and that's with the fries! Plus, flank steak won't give you sticker shock. For another steak idea that's light on the hips and the grocery bill, try our Hoisin-Glazed Beef Tenderloin Steak with a side of Minty Snap Peas.

The afterglow
Now for the best part—dessert. What's sexier than gooey, warm chocolate cake? Gooey, warm chocolate cake that only takes 30 minutes, is less than 300 calories, and basically takes three ingredients to make. If you want to dress up our Molten Flourless Chocolate Cake, make a quick raspberry sauce out of frozen raspberries and a bit of sugar. Not a chocolate fan? Try my simple, inexpensive Apple Tart Tatin hot out of the oven.

Next: Wines and table settings

Liquid courage
Champagne is festive and goes with nearly everything, but for something more affordable, try a bottle of Spanish cava or Italian prosecco. You should be able to find something decent for about $10 to $12 a bottle. If you’re not into sparkling wine, pair a pinot grigio with any of the seafood options. A viognier would be especially good with the scallop dish.

To go with a lusty steak, I often reach for a pinot noir or, if I feel like something a bit lighter, red zinfandel. You can usually find La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir for about $12. For a spicy zin that won’t stretch your budget, try Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend, which you can find for about $10.

Set the mood on a budget
Dress up a table without spending lots of bucks by using fresh fruit. The best part is that you can eat the décor once your "tablescape" has served its purpose.

For Valentine's, I suggest buying a giant pomegranate. The night before you want to use it, use a sharp knife to make a horizontal split in the stem. Allow it to dry overnight. Then, create any message—"I Love You," "Hot and Heavy," "Let's Be Friends"—on a small piece of heavy stock paper and slide it through the slit you made in the pomegranate. This is similar to what I used at my wedding, and it looks impressive, trust me.

Beyond the pom, you could use fresh or frozen cranberries to fill up a tall glass vase, and then place a votive candle on top. Candles of all types are amazing for creating warm light and an inviting atmosphere. Nix the scented candles at the dinner table, but put some in the bathroom and bedroom.

If you can find vintage Valentine's Day cards at a garage sale or antique store, they're fun to place around your table.

Next: Updated mood music

Updated mood music
Marvin Gaye may be the obvious choice for a Valentine's Day soundtrack, but it's time to think outside of your vinyl record collection. Here's a list of some songs that have an updated beat but the same smooth melody you'd expect at a romantic meal for two.

Rock
If you love a good power ballad, like Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"...
Then try Grammy-winning Kings of Leon. Tracks like "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody" have romance with a hard-rock edge.

Jazz
If you like smooth jazz like Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me"...
Then try the soothing voice of Amos Lee. If "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight" doesn't get you in the mood, I'm not sure what will.

Pop
If you still sigh when you hear Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You"...
Then try the more pop-inspired "If This Isn't Love," by Jennifer Hudson.

Country
If you hear Garth Brooks "The Dance" and start to two-step...
Then try the twangy but tender "Alabama" by Cross Canadian Ragweed. If that's too upbeat, I promise you'll want to slow dance to "When the Stars Go Blue" by Ryan Adams.

Disco
If you bring out the Bee Gees on date nights...
Then try MGMT's "Electric Feel." It may not have the disco-fabulous quality, but it's definitely something you can groove to. Or slow it down with "Woman" by Maroon 5.

Classics
If you still have a death grip on your seal-the-deal playlist...
Then try some of these remakes of your favorite love songs:

  • Sarah Bareilles brings her rich voice to Peter Gabriel's "Your Eyes."
  • Vampire Weekend adds a little indie rock to Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere."
  • Deathcab for Cutie does more than respectable job with the Cure's "Love Song."
  • Three Days Grace's version of "Wicked Game" may not replicate Chris Isaak's eerie vocals, but it's a great version of the ultimate love song.

Have fun, get cozy, and enjoy each other, feeling smug that you're not shelling out a fortune for an overcooked, overpriced meal.

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