Everyone likes dates. Well, almost everyone, that is. I suppose there are a few exceptions. Regardless, nearly everyone enjoys going out once in a while with that special someone. In the current economy, however, it is difficult and expensive to go out for a dinner and a movie, espcially for those with small children who can't afford the added cost of babysitting. One simple way to get a date, even when finances are tight, is to have a romantic dinner at home. As an expert in romantic dinners at home, I'm here to offer some advice for those of you who'd like to try this simple alternative to the normal date night.

Planning the Evening
First, think about what you and your date enjoy doing. Do you like the basic dinner and a movie? Dancing? Candlelit baths? Cuddling and talking? Board games or cards? Whatever it is you decide to do, it is a good idea to prepare early in the day, especially if you have children at home. So go pick up a movie, make sure your deck has all the cards accounted for, make sure you have candles, get ingredients for dinner. No matter what, you don't want a major panic 15 minutes before your date begins.

Put the kids to bed early
For those with children, feed them early in the evening and put them to bed as soon as possible. Our children have always gone to bed at 7pm, so our at-home dates tend to start around 7:30. If your kids go to bed a little later, you can adjust your evening accordingly. For parents of older children who stay up late, you could feed them, send them to their rooms with a movie, and tell them they have to stay there and put themselves to bed. I know, it sounds like a terrible thing to say to your kids, but it doesn't happen often, and the family will be much happier as a whole if you get quality time alone once in a while. How you do it is up to you, but make sure you two are undisturbed for the evening.

Ambience is essential for a successful romantic evening. First, make sure the house is clean. Not just clutter piled into corners, but actually clean. I usually make date night days my cleaning days. With small children, it takes most of the day. By the time the kids are in bed the house should be nice and tidy. For those without kids or who work all day, try cleaning the evening before and then doing a 15-minute speed clean that night to get the last-minute details. Second, set the mood. Dim the lights: turn off all the bright overhead and flourescent lights and just use lamps or candles. I even turn off the kitchen lights and finish cooking dinner with only the small overhead stove light on. Scented candles are perfect for making the place smell inviting. Finally, set the sound. Turn on some low background music such as jazz or swing. Frank Sinatra is always a favorite in our home. The goal is to have a place where the weight of the day just falls away and you don't have to worry about anything but each other.

Setting the table
The appearance of the table is just as important as the overall ambience in the house. If possible, don't use your everyday dishes, but get out the set reserved for special occasions. If you don't have a nice set, try heading to the dollar store and picking up two plates, napkins, and nice glasses for just a few dollars. Then reserve them as your special "date dishes," and only use them for nights like this. Next, decide where to eat. You could eat at your table, on the porch, or on a blanket in front of the fire. Or, if it's snowing (or raining), open the curtains of a large window and set a table in front. Falling snow at night would be a beautiful backdrop for a romantic evening. Once you determine location, set the table and place a bottle of wine and a candle or two between you.

Finally we come to the centerpiece of the evening: the meal. A good meal is essential for a successful date night. It doesn't necessarily have to be time-intensive or fancy, as long as it's tasty and is presented well. Think about what foods your date enjoys, and plan a meal around that. Make sure you know any food allergies or dietary needs before deciding on a dish. For those who are comfortable in the kitchen, try making a nice homecooked meal. I tend to go with tried-and-true favorites for our date nights because who wants to mess up a romantic dinner? If you are unsure of what your date may like, I've found that Marsala Chicken or Parmesan Chicken are always hits with guests. If you're a little hesitant about cooking something very invloved, spaghetti with meatballs, salad, and garlic bread is always a tasty meal, and it's easy and very inexpensive.

If you're the type of person who is completely out of place in the kitchen, or you have no time to spend cooking a nice meal, pick up something ready-made. The cheapest option would be to run by a grocery store and grab a frozen lasagna, salad mix, and fresh french bread. Just pop the lasagna in the oven and pour the salad into a bowl. Additionally, many grocery stores have a great deli where you can get a hot rotisserie chicken, along with a large selection of sides that are ready to eat. Lastly, you could order takeout at a favorite restaurant. Whichever route you choose, just bring it home, put it in your own serving dishes and voila! Gourmet dinner for two.

For dessert, some low-effort options include ice cream or something from a deli. If you want to fill the place with the scent of cooking, warm cookies and milk is a great, inexpensive option. Just buy a package of cookie mix, stir in some eggs and butter (usually), and you have yourself homemade dessert. Mix them up ahead of time and then bake right after dinner so they're hot.

Top off your meal with a bottle of wine (or sparkling cider if you don't drink). It's fairly easy to find tasty wines under $10 in any liquor store. When in doubt, ask the clerk for suggestions. I'm a sucker for red wine, and one of my favorite choices on a budget is a red called Menage A Trois. A bottle generally lands around $8, and everyone I know who's tried it loves it.

Finally, a date at home is still a date, so dress for one. No, sweatpants and a grungy t-shirt won't cut it. You don't necessarily have to wear a ball gown and tux, but dress nicely. This is especially important for stay-at-home moms who don't ever dress up, and wear comfy clothes all day. This is your chance! Dress up! Ladies, do your hair, your makeup (if you wear any), and dress nicely in something your date will find appealing. Gentlemen, no hat hair, shave, put a little cologne on, and dress in something nicer than jeans and your workout t-shirt. Please. Your date will thank you.

Remember, this romantic dinner at home is about the two of you. Do something you enjoy together, and make it unique to your relationship. The whole point of having a romantic dinner at home is to take some time away from everyday life in order to spend some time together and remember why you picked each other in the first place. So, focus on each other, get to know each other, enjoy each others' company, and have fun!