Budget friendly romance

Whether for Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, or just because, you can transform a routine dinner into a romantic experience with a few easy steps. Planning a special night doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive, just focus on a handful of sensual details and let the rest fade into the candlelight.

Instant ambiance. Tea light candles. Small, cheap, and white. And lots of them. Put a few on the table and more around the room. Nothing sets the mood faster than lighting a few candles.

You can find tealight candles just about anywhere, but the best deal I’ve found is a bag of 100 tealight candles for about $4 at Ikea. Ikea also sells a 12 pack of little glass tealight holders for $2, though you could also just put the candles on dishes or even paper to catch any wax.

Mood music. Create a playlist in iTunes to play softly in the background. Be sure to include all of those special songs.

If you don’t have the patience, energy, or music collection to create a multi-hour playlist, check out Pandora. It’s free and creates surprisingly great mixes. All you do is enter a song or band as a starting point. (One of my favorites: Mambo Italiano by Rosemary Clooney. Pandora created a fun and romantic “station” with plenty of swing and swank a la the Rat Pack).

Pamper yourself. About an hour before show time, take a bubble bath. Have a glass of wine. Take your time getting dressed. You want to be refreshed and pretty when your honey shows up, not hopped up on adrenaline trying to make every last thing perfect. The night will start off better if you’re not freaking out. Trust me on this.

Relax. If everything is not ready when your handsome beau arrives, it is not the end of the world. In fact, how lucky are you with such a hottie bringing you floweres?

Okay, even if he doesn’t bring you flowers, relax. In the end, the special evening is about spending time with the someone you love. Besides, you can razz him later about forgetting your chocolates. In the meantime, turn the music on, light the candles, and enjoy the night.

End the meal with chocolate. There is very little that can rival chocolate for its decadence or sensual pleasure, even in its simplest form. Buy a good bar of chocolate (maybe something from Valrhona, Scharfenberger, or Dagoba. Whole Foods has a great selection of chocolate) or a few handmade truffles. You don’t have to buy a lot, just enough for each of you to get a couple of bites, so go for quality over quantity. Then savor each nibble.

For extra credit: Pair the chocolate with a ruby port or a late harvest zinfandel. Ruby ports are sweeter and generally less expensive than tawny ports (whose price often increases with its age). Port is a fortified wine that will keep for a long time.

A few more ideas for chocolate endings:

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