Way before COVID-19 forced us all indoors, my husband and I held our weekly date night at home. Setting aside our to-do list to spend time with each other one-on-one helped us feel less like roommates and more like partners. And doing it at home was both practical and easy. We’ve saved lots of money on sitters over the years, and we’ve gotten really good at coming up with fresh, fun date ideas, too.
While I literally wrote the book on the topic (Date Night In, my first cookbook, came out in 2014), I’ll admit, it can be hard to find time to connect. Between our jobs, three children, and a towering pile of laundry that continually threatens to take over the house, date night often comes last on our list of priorities. But now, more than ever, with the stress of the news and claustrophobia setting in after months of social distancing, we relish our little weekly ritual. Here are some of the tricks we use to make our time together feel special — as any date night should.
1. Lose the sweats.
Trust me, I know how challenging it can be to think about slipping out of comfy pants and into something that feels a bit more “date worthy,” especially at the end of a long day. But date night should feel like an occasion — different from the daytime — and for me, when I look good, I feel good. Putting on an outfit I love, or my favorite shade of brick red lipstick, helps me relax and get into the right mind-set. My daughter, Ivy, who’s 9, likes to watch me put on my makeup. “Mama, why are you getting so fancy?” she’ll ask. “I have a date!” I’ll reply. She and her two siblings get to see their parents nurturing their marriage, a lesson we’re proud to teach them.
2. Try something new with your food.
I used to be a pastry cook at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, in Beverly Hills. Food is a big deal for me, so nothing says date night more than a meal that feels unique. (I also look forward to preparing what I want to eat, rather than worrying about the long list of things my kids refuse to even taste!) Sometimes I like to stretch myself in the kitchen with a new recipe; recently, I’ve made forays into the world of homemade dumplings filled with chili and pork. On other nights, we’ll order in from a new spot we’ve been dying to try. The point here is to keep things exciting with the food you put on the table. Make it feel celebratory and fresh, in your own way.
3. Set the mood with music.
Music helps create a bit of ambience. Making a playlist can also be a fun way to connect to significant moments in your relationship. Add songs that mean something to you — your wedding song, songs that make you laugh, songs that make you want to get up and move. Take turns every week, or give the task to the more music-minded of the two of you. My husband, Gabe, curates the music every week, often to coordinate with the food I’m making. If it’s pasta, you better believe he puts together an amazing Italian playlist.
4. Zhuzh your space.
Laptops, your kids’ homework — push aside all the tangible reminders of your day-to-day lives. Adding a tablecloth, some flowers, and candles can transform your dining room and set the mood. In the springtime, I like to decorate our table with fragrant lilacs from our front yard; in summer, hydrangeas from out back take center stage. Even the act of gathering them is fun for me — it helps me get excited, and builds a sense of anticipation. Think about mixing up your date locale, too. If it’s warm, take your dinner outside for a picnic. Throw a comfy blanket on the lawn, string up some twinkly lights, and suddenly you won’t feel like you’re at home anymore.
5. Focus on fun.
The news these days can feel overwhelming. It’s healthy to give yourselves a reprieve by finding things to enjoy and laugh about together. My husband and I have been together since college. In the early years of our relationship, our dates were as simple as sharing our favorite movies over a pint of ice cream. Think back to when you and your significant other first became a couple: What made you laugh? Rewatch your favorite, silly childhood movies (for my husband, that would be “Surf Ninjas,” not even kidding). Or play a game. Remind one another that even in these simple moments, alone at home, away from the bustle of a fancy restaurant or a crowded movie theater, you can find new ways to have a great time.
Ashley Rodriguez is the creator of the award-winning food blog notwithoutsalt.com, the author of two cookbooks — Date Night In (2014) and Let’s Stay In (2018), from Running Press — and the host of the James Beard Award-nominated YouTube series Kitchen Unnecessary. She lives with her husband and three children in Seattle.