Real talk: Valentine’s Day is a minefield for many relationships.
Is it a made up holiday or a crucial moment to demonstrate your love? Is it a time for expensive bottles of champagne at the best restaurant in town or for an intimate homemade meal after a quiet walk in the park?
These questions are made all the more challenging when a relationship starts early in the year. How do you celebrate a day about love with a person you’re just figuring out if you like?
Not to be too pragmatic about romance, but early in a relationship I find non-lasting gifts to be sweet and wise at the same time.
Think of things that won’t be around by the time summer arrives–chocolate is a classic V-Day gift (and as far as many people are concerned, there really is nothing better), but there’s also candles, beverages, and homemade treats. If the relationship lasts for a short period of time, you won’t be left with another reminder around the house, and a thoughtful gift won’t end up in a thrift store (or the trash!) because it’s lost the emotional ties.
Gift giving is based on our knowledge of the person we are giving to. When not much is known, it becomes a bit like walking on a tightrope.
However, every gift is an opportunity to learn more about your new partner. As long as you genuinely are being thoughtful (full of thought, using the information you have), it genuinely is the thought that counts.
If you take the opportunity of not knowing much about someone to hand them a generic, careless gift… well, that does say something about you, doesn’t it?
Flowers are a classic gift, traditionally enjoyed by women, but there’s nothing fundamentally gendered about them. If your date likes pleasant things to look at or smell, a simple bouquet of mixed flowers is a lovely way to acknowledge the day. It’s a little early in the relationship for a full bouquet of roses, especially red ones, but there are lots of other great flowers to choose from.
Sidebar: a full bouquet of red roses can be seen as completely cliche and like you put zero thought into the gift: not a good look. Another reason to wait until you know someone a bit better before making what is an unusually expensive gift in February.
In 2022, Valentine’s Day falls on Monday, but maybe on Sunday you wander your local farmers market and pick up a bouquet that catches your partner’s eye. So much of gift giving involves paying attention. This is a great opportunity to learn something new about the person you’re seeing. (Which might be that they are allergic to daisies.)
Does your date have a sweet tooth? Cookies are delightfully snackable while still having the potential for portion control. (I mean, a girl can dream.)
If you have even a little bit of competence in the kitchen, some fresh baked cookies can be extra sweet (metaphorically). You might snag an attractive bin to deliver the cookies in.
Or make a date of it and show up with a basket of ingredients so the two of you can make some together. Is there anything better than a warm cookie straight from the oven? Chocolate chip cookies are classic, but I’m partial to an unexpected spin on an oatmeal cookie. If you want to explore your artistic sides, you might consider a classic sugar cookie with a decorating session afterwards. If you don’t have one, a four-season set of cookie cutters will only set you back $10-20.
However, know thyself. If baking is not your bag, trust the experts and support small businesses by picking up some treats from Mouth or Goldbelly.
You might expand on that concept and put together a selection of snacks. If you don’t know your date’s tastes, this is a great opportunity to find out.
Start with a large basket and layer in salty and sweet treats. Include some of your favorites and a few that might be a bit out of your comfort zone for a bit of exploration together. If your new partner eats meat and/or seafood, you can include some snacky versions of those things, but even for those who are vegan or vegetarian, there are some great hearty noshes to try.
Nuts and Seeds
Meat and Meat Substitutes
There’s nothing original about a bottle of wine for Valentine’s Day. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great option. Even if you don’t have a massive budget, you can still find a lovely bottle of wine to share.
One of my absolute favorite affordable red wines is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2018. It’s fruity but not sweet. Full bodied, but not heavy. It’s also incredibly versatile with food, pairing well with chicken, steak, mushroom risotto and even octopus. (If you want to drop a few more bucks on a bottle, this is a great step up.)
Is white better for your partner’s palate or the meal you’re having together? Zolo Torrontes 2020 is a great choice. It’ll pair well with white meat, seafood, and veggies, and actually holds up to spiced and spicy food like Indian and Thai. Whether you go for takeout and make a meal yourself, a great bottle of wine can make a meal sing.
Now, if you or your date don’t drink alcohol–for any reason–that doesn’t mean that you have to settle for water. (Don’t get me wrong, water is great, but is it…festive?)
Martinelli’s is delightful, but it’s not the only option out there. More and more companies are coming out with actually tasty alcohol free alternatives.
TÖST produces non-alcoholic sparkling beverages that get good reviews from teetotalers and booze drinkers alike. The rosé is a bit sweeter while the original offering is more dry (less sweet). Choose one style or get a mixed set to cover your bases.
Make your own beer gift set
If your new squeeze is a beer geek, you might pick out an eclectic and playful selection of beers for them to try.
If you know they’re only into one kind of beer, you can find several options for a variety of brewers in that style.
If you don’t know, or they’re open to trying new things, there are a broad range of quirky styles to explore.
Pop them into a clean crate that they’ll be able to reuse, and you’re all set!
Picnics can look like a lot of things, from living room leftovers spread to an apple on a park bench in Paris to some cheese, crackers, and Champagne for a mountain top proposal.
For many, the joy of a picnic is found in its spontaneity and simplicity. Stopping at the prepared food section of your local grocery store on the way to a park or overlook can take care of most picnics.
But on special occasions, a few extra steps can help bring a little more magic to a simple moment.
Consider a fold-away food cover to keep the bugs from coming between you and your treats.
If you’re driving instead of walking for a long distance, you might bring some outdoor pillows to make the whole “sitting on the ground” prospect more comfortable.
A bamboo cutting board is both light and can be large enough to stabilize anything that needs to be balanced on uneven ground.
Finger foods are ideal. If you’re creative in the kitchen, try your hand at making your feast.
If not, you can still chop up some fresh fruit (or, if you really shouldn’t be holding a knife, berries are always an option), find a fresh baguette from the bakery section of the grocery store, and pick up a pre-packed cheese and/or meat platter.
Tuck a few cloth napkins in your pack to reduce waste and lend an elegant feel to a casual setting.
Ideally, try to visit your planned location around the same time the week before–you’ll get a sense of how busy it is, how the light falls (are sunglasses required?), and how many layers you’ll want to pack so you and your date are comfortable.
Of course, like an outdoor wedding, always have a backup plan–under a park canopy, or even your living room floor.
Not everyone is a candle person, it’s true. So if you haven’t been to your partner’s home yet, maybe hold off on this one. But if they have a few partially burned candles around, another is usually welcome. And hey, everyone can use a candle in the bathroom, amirite? (Oh, not so great for Valentine’s Day? Noted.)
Personally, I’m partial to Woodwick candles. I grew up with fireplaces and miss the ambiance of a crackling fire. However, it must be noted that sometimes the popping sound is less fireplace and more… farting… Sad to say, but true. So maybe don’t exclusively rely on one of these to set the mood.
Creating something together offers a chance to learn a lot about someone:
How do they learn? How do they respond to unexpected challenges? Are they competitive?
Crafting out of clay has an added benefit of taking us back to childhood and opening up stories and memories that offer additional insight into your new partner.
Already have some experience with clay or just want to give yourself some extra tools to work with? There are lots of clay tool sets to take your date to the next level.
Pop an instructional video onto one of your phones and you’re ready to get messy!
Don’t forget to have lots of towels and maybe a nail brush for cleaning up afterwards.
A gift of We’re Not Really Strangers is technically a lasting one, but the real gift is the opportunity to get to know each other better.
The goal of the “game” is to get to know each other better. Each round involves a series of more personal questions to make space for honesty and vulnerability.
You might pair this with one of the food or beverage options above and make an evening of it.
The reviews are pretty extraordinary, and if it’s something you both enjoy, there are many expansion packs to dig even deeper.
If it’s too soon for that level of vulnerability (no judgment!), a game night can still be a great option! Decktective games have gone over great in my experience. Racoon Tycoon would be a delightful change of pace for fans of strategy games like Settler of Catan.
If “Netflix and Chill” is more your speed, consider taking things old school with a classic film.
If you prefer your romantic evenings to have a more, er, tragic bent, Brief Encounter tells the story of a brief, ill-fated love affair. Voted as the most romantic film of all time, it has influenced many similar films since (think the Before trilogy), and has a script based on a play by Noël Coward.
Either of these will elevate a simple evening of takeout into something memorable and special.
Remember, even if you don’t know much about your partner, any piece of information you do have can be used to guide you toward a gift they’ll think back on fondly in five years–whether you’re still together or not.
[This post includes products from… Anthropologie, Astor Wines & Spirits, Barnes and Noble, Bed, Bath, & Beyond, Blick Art Materials, Bouqs, Craftshack, The Criterion Collection, Eddie Bauer, Food52, Garrett Wade, Goldbelly, The Home Depot, L. L. Bean, Moku Foods, Mouth, Nordstrom Rack, REI Co-op, Sur La Table, Target, Urbanstems, Wayfair, We’re Not Really Strangers, West Elm, Wildfish Cannery, Wine.com, World Market, Woodwick.]