How Not to Screw Up Valentine's Day Dinner at Home

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

So, you've decided to take our advice and eat in this Valentine's Day, avoiding the crowds, the harried staff, and the overpriced, often untested prix fixe menus typical of restaurants on that very special night. We applaud you! While making dinner for two at home necessitates a little planning and effort, the benefits are many: a menu fully customized to your tastes, complete privacy to make out or argue or laugh loudly at your annoyingly couple-y inside jokes as needed, and zero stress over who's stuck driving home after a few drinks. Plus, it's a heck of a lot cheaper to cook pricey entrées, like lobster or steak, in your own kitchen than to suffer the markup on those same items in restaurants.

With that in mind, remembering a few simple tips will ensure that your homemade Valentine's dinner comes off without a hitch, and allow you to just have fun. To wit:

Tip #1: Know That "Romantic" Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Our Valentine's Day guide includes a boatload of ideas for "romantic dishes"—main courses that are easily prepared for two people; that incorporate particularly luxurious elements, like scallops or veal; or that...are French. (Everything seems fancier with a French name!)

Admittedly, though, coming up with recipes to fill that category was a tricky exercise. Why? Because the most romantic dish you can make for your SO is the one they love the most, be it mac and cheese, ramen, or pizza. Conversely, perhaps the least romantic option is the one that, however expensive, elegant, or labor-intensive, isn't really up your partner's alley—or your own. Don't serve a lovely mushroom soup to someone who's not wild about mushrooms. Chocolate may be inextricably tied to Valentine's, but if it's caramel that they'd rather lick off a spoon, well, take that as your cue. And whatever you do, don't spring for oysters for Valentine's Day without your partner's (enthusiastic) consent.

If the relationship is still pretty new and you haven't yet memorized each other's preferences, consider sharing the dinner responsibility equitably, rather than attempting to do everything yourself. Devise the menu together so that you're both happy with it, and divide up the prep duties while you split a bottle of wine.

Tip #2: Don't Overdo It

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

A great deal of more specific Valentine's Day advice (food-related and otherwise) basically boils down to those three little words. Unless both of you are pitching in, and both of you really, really love kitchen work, don't insist on making a round of fancy cocktails, an elaborate centerpiece dish, a side dish, and an intricate dessert. Most likely, you'll end up too exhausted to truly enjoy the fruits of your toil, or anything else, for that matter. It's perfectly all right to focus your energy on an impressive main course, then make a simple salad to go along with it and buy a little cake from your favorite bakery. Or, if you're a couple of sugar fiends, to whip up an old standby that you both like for the main dish, then pull out all the stops on a homemade dessert.

Tip #3: Anything That Can Be Made in Advance, Should Be

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Sous vide lobster. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This goes for any special-occasion meal, of course, but it bears emphasizing here. If you want to spend more time canoodling and less time prepping on the night of, think about choosing dishes that can be made ahead of time, either partially or totally.

If you've got the right equipment, that could mean tackling one of our sous vide recipes, many of which require just a bit of active time for searing and saucing once the precision cook is complete. For Kenji's pretty, seasonal beet salads, you can roast the beets, cut the citrus, and make the vinaigrette in advance, then simply toss all the ingredients together right before serving. In fact, you can pre-chop your vegetables and premix your dressing for most salads; wait until the last minute to incorporate delicate greens or soft cheeses. A baked pasta dish, like Daniel's cheesy stuffed shells, can be assembled and refrigerated in advance, so all you have to do is bake it. And practically any braise or stew can be made 100% ahead of time, then reheated and served with a sprinkling of minced herbs for a pop of fresh flavor.

Desserts, too, are excellent candidates for getting out of the way early. Soft, cakey Lofthouse Cookies, frosted in blushing pink and red, can be made three days in advance; fluffy Angel Food Cake can keep for at least a day before it's sliced and topped with whipped cream. Lemon Bars are a nicely seasonal choice that store easily for up to a week—and can be cut into heart shapes, too, if you're so inclined.

Tip #4: Tip #3 Goes for Drinks, Too

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This bright, sweet-and-tart sparkling cocktail is mostly make-ahead. [Photograph: Elana Lepkowski]

If you're into mixing your own cocktails, there's no shortage of make-ahead options—recipes that are easy to scale and start with a base you can make the night before. This chamomile and tangerine cocktail is great for exactly that purpose: Just divide some of the floral, citrusy syrup-and-gin mixture into flutes and top with sparkling wine when it's time to get started on dinner. For a make-ahead Negroni Sbagliato, measure out the vermouth and Campari first and store the mix in the fridge, then pour it over ice and add Prosecco to serve. The Mela d'Alba, a spicy, strong Negroni variation made with apple brandy, can be scaled up as needed and made totally in advance—just follow our instructions to make sure the base is adequately diluted.

In fact, when it comes to pretty much any shaken or stirred cocktail, you can feel free to mix up the components early, then combine with ice when you're ready (be sure to wait to add any carbonated elements until right before serving, though). And trust us: Even if you're normally wine- or beer-only people, having a festive beverage in hand does make cooking (especially cooking as a team!) a lot more fun.

Tip #5: Leave the Dishes

You probably don't need us to tell you this, but when you're stuffed to the gills and a little tipsy, nothing's less appealing than the prospect of washing a sink full of dishes. So follow in the footsteps of generations of college students, and just let them sit for the night. Despite what your parents may have told you when you were growing up, reports of mass disaster resulting from crusty pots have been greatly exaggerated. Plus, we're sure you can think of something better to do.