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Nothing says Valentine's Day better than a home-cooked meal for your loved ones

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TORONTO - Many couples opt to dine in on Valentine's Day. Not only can restaurants be packed and the fare expensive, but there can be the additional expense of a babysitter, parking, wine and tip. If they have a family it's nice to share the love at home with a special meal.

By choosing an impressive but easy menu featuring quality ingredients, you can put together a dinner at home with restaurant flair, says Emily Richards, a professional home economist.

"You can make a delicious meal for fairly inexpensively and in some cases, like in my case, it's not always just two people, but it might be a family. You might have an extended family that might be there around the holiday, and Valentine's Day is a time that I'd never want to exclude someone ...

"I think it's all about love in general, loving your family or close friends. That's a nice way to share it," she says by telephone from Guelph, Ont.

"I probably have changed my thought of it because I do have kids. I do have extended family that I like sharing those types of things with them. And they always bring chocolate for dessert so that's really nice," she adds with a laugh.

Ever since her three children were small, Richards has tried to make food fun on Valentine's Day.

"If we have mashed potatoes I'll shape them into a heart on the plate. When the kids were really small they really liked heart-shaped burgers. So I just made a burger mixture and formed it into the shape of a heart and baked it."

She adds that as they're getting older — now aged 11, eight and six — they still like the idea of heart-shaped food on Feb. 14.

Some manufacturers make heart-shaped dishes, cookware, casserole dishes and cake pans.

"You could make a stew and serve it in a heart-shaped dish so you're bringing in that element of Valentine's Day," Richards suggests.

Extending the Valentine's theme with inexpensive table decorations can make the occasion memorable for kids too.

You can buy wineglasses bearing hearts at the dollar store. Or draw hearts or write messages with special pens purchased at craft stores. The adults can fill theirs with wine while the kids can have ginger ale or something more special than the average glass of water or milk.

"It's fun to have someone cook for you because that's very romantic as well, but then I think there's a whole different type of romance if it's more than one person cooking in the kitchen too.

"I think the element of those types of things of cooking with someone becomes a whole love experience as well."

In the leadup to Valentine's Day, Richards' cooking classes may be geared toward the topic of love, such as couples cooking or aphrodisiac-themed food.

At the end of class, she likes to show participants a trick for making something special that doesn't require a recipe.

"A lot of people like to purchase chocolate or exchange truffles whereas I'm the type of person that if I can make it and make it unique or different that always helps the (food) memory, I find. What I've started to do is make truffles.

"I take Medjool dates and stuff them with peanut butter or some nuts or leave them empty and then dip them in chocolate. It's just a twist on a truffle and you're getting a little bit of fibre and all that other good stuff in there too, but it's unique enough that people will remember that and it's easy to do."

At home, her kids like to help by dipping the dates in the chocolate. She also makes the truffles at Christmas.

Plump Medjool dates can be found in the fresh produce section of the grocery store and add a touch of sweetness to a Valentine's Day meal while being a rich source of fibre, potassium and magnesium. They are fat- and sodium-free and a serving of two dates contains about 140 calories.

With Valentine's Day being a weekday this year, Richards suggests planning and prepping as much as possible, including recipe selection and grocery shopping.

Have items ready to go when you get home from work or try a recipe that can be done in a slow cooker, such as a tagine or stew.

"You can get everything ready in the morning. If you are coming home late you know you can still have this awesome meal without all the prep work," she says.

"Or vice versa, something that's really quick that you can still enjoy. I know a lot of the times we think of quick food not necessarily being fancier food, but there's a lot that you can do.

"And then I think a big one is having the ingredients on hand so you do have stuff available if you wanted to make a quick salad to go along with it or like the truffle idea having some chocolate and dates in the cupboard, having a can of tomatoes if you're going to make a stew, those types of things."

And be sure to give your food a "wow" factor by making it look particularly attractive when you serve it.

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter

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