It’s happened again: Valentine’s Day is nigh upon us, and that big night out you’d been planning... well, the restaurant’s booked, the sitter’s busy, and you’ve got the sniffles. (Thanks, real life!) But fear not: True romance doesn’t require reservations. Indeed, with a bit of forethought and an hour or so in the kitchen, anyone can bring the sparkle and deliciousness of date night home.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz
Updated February 09, 2015
Ashley and Boone Rodriguez

Need inspiration? Look no further than Ashley Rodriguez, the celebrated blogger behind Not Without Salt and author of the lovely new cookbook, Date Night In: More Than 120 Recipes to Nourish Your Relationship. Rodriguez began her project as a series of blog posts called “Dating My Husband,” which grew out of the young mother of three’s realization that she and her husband needed to find a practical way to rekindle their spark (and make space in their lives away from howling toddlers and glowing laptop screens), stat. Now, four years later, Rodriguez says she and her husband look forward to those Thursday night “date nights” more than ever. “I’ll never claim to be a marriage expert,” she writes, “But I can say that, creating time for each other [this way], we’ve felt our relationship strengthen and our love deepen.”

In that spirit, Rodriguez has shared one of her favorite menus from the book—a delicious, DIY take on “dinner and a movie,” featuring a dressed up Caesar salad, show-stopping sausage and pepper pizza, and—for the finale—a highly munchable sweet and salty popcorn that beats the pants off anything at the local multiplex. Think you might want to make date nights a regular thing? She’s ready to help with that, too. We spoke about the thrill of anticipation, great date movies, and the power of a well-chosen cocktail.

First off, why did you start this ritual?
When my husband and I began this, it was out of true necessity. With three very young kids, we were in survival mode. We were just going through the motions—and that’s not what I wanted our marriage to be.

I knew we couldn’t afford a sitter every week, but I also knew we needed to not just get time alone once a quarter. Finally it dawned on me that if we didn’t just zone out on our computers at night, we actually had quite a few evening hours. So, we decided one night a week we’d set everything else aside and I would cook something a little different. The idea was to make it feel a little special even though we were in our own home. I think initially it felt like we were “settling” a little, but we really grew into it.

How are date nights different than regular dinner? Are there any details you always try to include?
I try and be intentional about making it special. I like to push myself in the kitchen a bit more than I would when I’m making fast, simple dinners for the kids. On date nights we eat food that’s more adventurous, or more “off limits.” A cocktail always helps make it feel festive and get us in the mood. But it’s also about small things: Sometimes before dinner, my husband will go upstairs and fix his hair or change his shirt. Even though we’re both tired, it’s sweet to find little ways we can make an effort.

How do you make sure preparing for the date doesn’t end up feeling like another chore?
It’s hard! But I try and remember we don’t have to do a full menu every week. I love cooking, so I use food to get me motivated. But other people should be motivated by the idea and find ways to execute it that are comfortable for them. Maybe that means just making each other a new drink, or one special new dish. It’s about figuring out what works for you as a couple.

You’re sharing a great “dinner and a movie” menu from the book. What are some of your favorite date movies?
A couple weeks ago we watched Chef and I made the Cuban sandwiches from the movie to go with it, which was really fun. My husband loves the movie Chocolat. Babette’s Feast is another classic—although I don’t know anyone who loves that as much as I do!

Any other advice for adding romance to the evening?
The anticipation of the date can be one of the best parts about it. Our date nights are Thursday evenings, so earlier in the week we’ll talk a little about the menu or drinks we might like to try, that kind of thing. Also, in general we do try to remember to do some of the things we did while we were dating, before we were married. For instance, for our last date, my husband brought me flowers with a sweet card. That certainly doesn’t happen every time, but it’s wonderful when it does.