Say you have a special someone in your life, and you want to do something romantic—but also reasonable. Jewelry is too expensive, planning a vacation is too much of a hassle, and sonnets are totally played out. No, your best bet is a simple one: Feed them. And nowhere presents more wallet-friendly options for sweetly feeding your loved one than the eclectic aisles of Trader Joe’s. Here are the six most romantic meals you can make with just one trip to TJ’s, as told through the fairytale romance of a writer (no one you would know) and his wife.
First Date Sandwich: San Francisco Style Sourdough, Oven Roasted Turkey Breast, Avocado
You pull up in front of her dorm a little early to pick her up, hoping to have a minute to compose yourself, but no such luck. She’s already outside, waiting for you. When she recognizes your car she flashes that smile, the one that hits you like lightning between the eyes, and jogs over. She opens the door and almost sits right on the sandwich you left on the passenger seat, uneaten because you were already full of butterflies. She looks over at you: “Oh my god, I’m starving. Can I?” Of course she can. The sourdough is fine, the turkey is ok, the avocado is a little past its prime. But, you realize as you lean towards her for a bite, this is the first meal you’ve shared. It is perfect.
Seven Monthiversary Charcuterie: Baguette, Columbus Peppered Salami, and Ciliegine Fresh Mozzarella Balls
It is exactly seven months later, and things are going well. You talk on the phone every night and you drive down to visit her every weekend. You are not old enough to go to bars and you’re too broke for the movies, so instead you wander the suburbs around her college at night, walking hand-in-hand on overlarge streets past rows and rows of identical condos. Your best find is a little park high on a hill, overlooking the unbroken sprawl. So for your seven-monthiversary, that is where you go. But first you go shopping, together of course, strolling the tropical aisles of TJ’s. You grab a baguette, squishy and dusted with flour. Then a plastic tub of fresh mozzarella, the little balls that come submerged in water. Finally, a packet of salami, thoroughly coated in black pepper and pre-sliced for convenience. You think about trying to buy a bottle of wine, but your fake ID is expired and it’s not worth the risk. And neither of you actually likes wine yet anyway. You make it to the top of the hill after dark, and the lights stretch out endlessly below. She bites the nose off the baguette while you rip into the salami, dip your fingers into the cloudy brine to pluck a ball of cheese and wrap them up into a little sandwich. Together you will go on to have sushi in Tokyo, pizza in Naples, and mole in Oaxaca, but this may be your favorite meal ever.
Moving in Meal: Madras Lentils, Frozen Jasmine Rice
One summer you get a sublet together, a studio apartment in an old building in a new city. When you move in, the person subletting it to you says that if her landlord ever asks, you’re her cousin and you’re house-sitting. The landlord never asks. The place is tiny, the shower head is chest height so you have to contort yourself in crazy positions to wash your hair, and the downstairs neighbor bangs her ceiling with a broom handle and yells at you for walking too loud. It’s fantastic. Neither of you really knows how to cook, and you’re an intern and she’s in a modern dance intensive, so no one’s making enough to go out. Date night is a bag of TJ’s Madras Lentils, the kind that comes in a foil pouch that you submerge in boiling water until it screams. You microwave some rice and try not to fry your fingers as you pour the lentils over the top. They are earthy with cumin and zingy with ginger in a thick tomato-butter base. It is more than good enough. You curl up on the couch and watch The Bachelor.
Settling in Salad: Organic Caesar Salad Kit and Chicken-Less Orange Morsels
You are working, for once, at a job that pays you real dollars. A few of them, at least. She is back in school—she’s going to be a nurse. You live together in a small apartment on a busy street in a trendy neighborhood. Things are easy, and you are happy. That means you’re putting on weight. You feel your shirts straining to wrap around your shoulders, your jeans clutching at your thighs when you sit down. So, it’s salads for dinner for a while, see if you can’t shed some of those easy comfort pounds with stuff you agree is healthy. A Caesar Salad Kit, the organic version so you know it’s good for you. It is iceberg, croutons, cheese, and caesar dressing. It is not actually good for you. But it is tasty, and especially good on weekends, when you decide you deserve a little treat—some frozen vegetarian orange chicken on the side. Believe it or not, the pounds do not melt away. You chalk it up to age, and stop caring. She never says anything about it anyway.
Virtual Victuals: Three Bean Chili a la Hospital Cafeteria
She has her dream job at the best local hospital, and yours is fine enough. But both gigs are both demanding, long hours at work with the kind of stress that doesn’t evaporate when you get home. And to make things worse, she works the night shift at the hospital—gone before you get home and getting home right as you leave. Your schedules are fucked every which way, and you hardly see each other. It feels like you’re hot-bedding on an oil rig in Hipsteropolis. How, then, to stay connected? One of her favorite meals at the hospital cafeteria is their vegetarian chili, scorching slowly in a big pot on the line next to the salad bar. It’s weird, but you’re on board. So at about 10:30 one night, you open up your haul from TJ’s canned aisle—cans of black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, and diced tomatoes—and pour everything into a pot on the stove. You mince an onion to the best of your ability. You pull out the bag of shredded cheddar cheese. A little after midnight you fill a bowl with the chili, top it with onion and cheese. You take a picture and text it to her. She texts one back. At 12:35 a.m., she’s on her lunch break. The chili is identical. You have found a way to share a meal.
Proposal Pasta: Orecchiette, Arrabiata Sauce, Parmesan Cheese, a $15 bottle of Red Wine
The years roll on. You travel, you eat a lot, you learn to cook all kinds of stuff. But the best meals are the simplest, split between the two of you at home on a quiet night in. Her schedule is still weird, but at least it’s weird during daylight hours. On one of those days off you decide to go back to basics. You light candles, pop a bottle of cheapish red wine (though not Two-Buck Chuck cheap—the slightly more expensive stuff), set water to boil. You open a jar of sauce, heat it up in its own pot on the side. You set the table—she will know it’s date night because you do not go straight to the stools in front of the TV. You drain the pasta, toss with sauce, top with Parm, and set it down. She’s on the other side of the room, but she jogs over, looking at you: “Oh my god, I’m starving. Can I start?” Of course she can. You sit and start too, but you’re full of butterflies again. How long do you think it will take her to notice the little box on the table?