6 things we can learn from Ina Garten about date night cooking

Put your phone down, get the flowers out and maybe roast an "engagement chicken"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 2, 2022 5:01PM (EST)

Ina Garten (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ina Garten (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

At some point as a "Food Network"-loving tween, I transitioned from daydreaming about finding my Prince Charming to finding my Jeffrey — just like Ina Garten did. Through season after season of "The Barefoot Contessa," Ina has made it clear how much joy she has derived from making meals to share with her husband of 50 years. 

Now, in celebration of her birthday and in anticipation of Valentine's Day, let's take a look back at what Ina has taught us about date night cooking. Here are six tips gleaned from her show, cookbooks and interviews:

1 Make a menu

One of my favorite parts of a "Barefoot Contessa" episode is when Ina lays out what she's planning to make that day — from cocktails, to the main course and sides, to dessert. While it can be tempting to fly to the supermarket guided by nothing other than the wings of love, special event meals tend to pull together a little more seamlessly with a game plan. Take a cue from Ina: Plot out what you're making, as well as what ingredients you'll need to pull it off. Nothing wrecks the mood like scrambling out of the kitchen mid-prep because you realize you forgot the pasta sauce. (Trust me, I've been there.)

If you're low on inspiration, the Barefoot Contessa website has a whole list of example menus. Take a close look at the "Date Night" and "Jeffrey and Ina's Valentine's Day" menus. 

2 Set the mood

In terms of what Ina is most known for, her "engagement chicken" and penchant for extra-full cocktails probably spring to mind first. Trailing just behind those, however, is her love of a good tablescape, typically made possible through the hard work of the folks at Bridgehampton Florist. Do as Ina does: Stop by your local florist for a beautiful bouquet to liven up your kitchen or coffee table. 

If you're on a budget, a few of those $2 Trader Joe's bouquets can go a long way — here's a guide to making the most of them. Beyond that, light some candles, dim the lights and pop on some music. If you're looking for the perfect playlist, consider this one called "Ina's Favorite Love Songs." 

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3 Put your phones away

Once the playlist gets rolling, put your phones away. As Ina Garten told The Kitchn in an interview around the time "Cooking for Jeffrey" debuted, making a meal for someone is a gift. "I think just making dinner takes a real effort — to shop and cook and clean up afterwards — it's a real gift to someone you care about," she said. "By definition, it's date night."

As such, it feels right to be fully present in the moment.

4 Keep it classic

"You really connect over a really nice, simple dinner rather than a fancy dinner that's meant to impress people," Ina said in her interview with "The Kitchn." "The key is to make something so when you're done with dinner, you can still be present for the people who are there — that's what makes them feel special."

There can be a lot of pressure to make a special occasion meal — whether that's an anniversary dinner, Valentine's Day or date night — feel absolutely perfect, and that can lead to wanting to whip out the most complicated recipes in your repertoire. 

And, hey, if you want to try navigating making Beef Wellington, whipping up miniature chocolate soufflés and baking your own sourdough loaf to serve with butter, be my guest. But also, keeping it classic and simple is a solid path forward, too. Roast a chicken with some sheet pan vegetables, try Salon's Mary Elizabeth William's two-ingredient nutella brownies, stir up a rye old-fashioned and call it a night. 

5 Store-bought is fine (really!)

Borrowing from Ina's now-famous saying, store-bought really is fine! Give yourself permission to offload some of the responsibility for the meal's success to a local shop or restaurant. Not great at whipping up cocktails at home? Grab a to-go kit from your favorite bar. Can't follow a baking recipe to save your soul? Grab a few slices of cake from the good bakery down the street. Part of putting together a good meal is knowing when to outsource certain tasks or courses so you can focus on what you're best at — and, most importantly, focus on the person sitting across the table from you.

6 Have fun with it!

Ina's approach to entertaining, and life, is really all about having fun. This is evident from the types of parties she throws — my favorite "Barefoot Contessa" episode shows her hosting a dog birthday party for a very good boy named Theo — and from her recent exchange with Reese Witherspoon about "healthy daily habits." So, mix up a big Cosmo and get into the kitchen. Here's hoping you find your Jeffrey to share date night with!

A brief list of Barefoot Contessa-approved recipes: 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Barefoot Contessa Date Night Food Food Network Ina Garten List Valentines Day