In an early episode of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling’s character muses in one of her signature Carrie Bradshaw-inspired voiceovers that the first time your boyfriend invites you over to cook for you, “you know that you’ve taken your relationship to the next level.” According to conventional dating wisdom, the at-home dinner date represents both a romantic gesture and a relationship milestone, the kind husband-hungry single women have been presumed to lust after since the days of Jane Austen. Finally, a man is inviting you into his home and assuming the personal responsibility of not letting you starve and/or be poisoned! Now’s your chance to sink your little claws into him, set up camp in his home and refuse to leave until he proposes. And besides, as Mindy continues, “There’s something so sexy about the role reversal” of a man showing off his skills in the domestic arts. “It’s like the guy version of the girl wearing the oversized football jersey to the Super Bowl party.”
But one woman’s romance is another woman’s red flag, and the at-home dinner date is vulnerable to less favorable interpretations as well, particularly from vaguely commitment-phobic cynics like myself. Is cooking and eating at home really a romantic gesture signifying the increasing seriousness of a relationship, or is it — as some more skeptical daters may fear — the beginning of an inevitable descent into monotony, a sign that you’ll be spending the rest of your life together cooking at home and watching TV instead of going out on dates? There’s a fine line between a romantic at-home dinner date complete with red wine and candles and the dreaded Netflix and chill session, and the former seems like a potentially slippery slope to a lifetime of the latter. Once you agree to a date that takes place in a man’s home, you run the risk of never leaving — not because he’s going to kill or imprison you (hopefully), but because you may quickly slide into too-comfortable territory and never go out on a proper date again.
Moreover, as Nicole, host of the Modern Romance Podcast, points out, an invitation for an at-home dinner date can also “come across as a tactic to get me to spend the night,” particularly if it’s issued “too early in the game.”
Indeed, Adam Heath Avitable, cohost of the Dating Kinda Sucks Podcast, agrees that the overall tone of the at-home dinner date depends on a couple’s current level of intimacy. “If dating has been limited to meeting out for drinks, dinner and events, and mostly chaste making out and car-based over-the-clothes shenanigans, an invitation to join a man at home for a home-cooked meal usually has the potential for some next-level bedroom fun too,” he tells InsideHook. Again, while the implicit sexual undertones of such an invitation may seem romantic to some — more romantic, arguably, than simply asking a woman if she wants to come back to your apartment after a night out — an at-home date may also come across as nothing more than a ploy to get a woman into bed. “If, on the other hand, sex is already a part of your relationship,” Avitable continues, cooking dinner might simply “be a nice time for [a man] to show off a set of skills that he’s proud of, and expose a little bit of vulnerability he might otherwise hide.”
So what is an at-home dinner date? A romantic gesture? A relationship milestone? A chance for a man to show off his domestic skills and, in the process, impress his date with a potentially vulnerable, potentially sexy display of gender role reversal? Or is it just a cheap ploy to seal the deal and save money on a pricey restaurant check by going the DIY route?
According to Harrison Forman, host of the live dating show UpDating, cooking dinner for a date is “without a doubt a romantic gesture,” one that signals a relationship is entering “more intimate” territory. In inviting a date into his home and cooking dinner himself, “a man is removing all external distractions — crappy waiters, loud music, delayed food -— to take full control of the situation,” says Forman. “There is a limit to how much you can get to know someone from dialogue alone at a public restaurant or bar,” he adds. Bringing a date into a more intimate, private environment is “just another way to get to know someone in a romantic context.” After all, he points out, if a relationship is going to progress past the earliest stages, “It’s important for both you and your date to be comfortable in these private environments.” If you can’t handle a night in together devoid of the distractions of the outside world, you’re probably not a great match.
Forman also firmly rejects the money-saving theory. “If a man wants to do this right, he’ll buy salmon or lobster, a nice bottle of white, charcuterie,” thus “bringing the total tab to nearly the same amount as going out,” if not higher.
Regardless of the final tab, Avitable points out that preparing a meal for a date often requires significantly more effort than going out. “I don’t think that a home-cooked meal is a gateway to lazy dating,” he says. After all, when you’re going out, “someone else will do the dishes.”
Nicole agrees. “To me, having a man cook me dinner is more of a gesture than a milestone. My love languages are quality time and acts of service, so I see it as a man taking the time to make me something and get me all to himself rather than trying to save some cash.”
While fellow Dating Kinda Sucks co-host Sarah G. agrees that a home-cooked dinner isn’t really the relationship milestone Mindy Kaling would have us believe, it does provide an opportunity to learn more about a romantic partner in a more personal context. “Because you’re now out of the public space and back at their place, you get to see their living situation and get a better sense of how they act while at home.” Essentially, it’s an opportunity to grow closer as a couple, but also to suss each other out and see if this is the kind of person you could actually handle being alone with night after night.
Because, yes, inevitably every successful relationship reaches its settling-down phase. While a romantic at-home dinner date may not be the honeymoon phase death knell more cynical daters like myself may fear, it does tend to signal that a relationship is moving into potentially more serious territory, which inevitably tends to correspond with fewer nights out. “Part of dating is eventually moving from the stage of constantly going out to settling in and enjoying each other’s company in more private environments,” says Avitable.
Ultimately however, like all aspects of a relationship, “it’s all about balance,” says Nicole. “At-home dinner dates are great, unless it’s done too often. I love a good Netflix night and playing house, but if you do it too much you won’t be able to remember the last time you and your boyfriend had a real date.”