The Real Aphrodisiacs for Valentine’s Day

Dear Helena,
I'm making dinner for my girlfriend this Valentine's Day. I want to make something that will be delicious, but will also create the right romantic atmosphere. What do you suggest?
—Master Chef & Seducer

Dear Master Chef,
Festive meals usually include rich, extravagant foods that we don't eat every day, like fine cuts of meat, butter, cheese, and chocolate, not to mention plenty of alcohol. That's fine if it's Thanksgiving or Christmas and you can undo the top button on your pants and veg out afterward. But on Valentine's Day, after-dinner activities are more, er, athletically demanding. So you need to plan a menu that will leave your girlfriend feeling energized. This isn't manipulation; it's simple good manners.

In order to figure out what to serve, we need to first understand what is wrong with the traditional meal. The dinner on offer at the Addison at the Grand Del Mar in San Diego may be more elaborate than most, but the ingredients—meat, cheese, chocolate—are typical Valentine's Day fare. The menu weaves its way through smoked pork agnolotti, squab rôti, and a cheese course before ending in a chocolate tart with homemade marshmallows. Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist, is unimpressed: "Heavy foods that are more slowly digested, like meat, are going to impair your friskiness. ... A large meal that is high in carbs will put you to sleep, instead of putting you in the mood."

So what should you serve? Jessica Crandall, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends combining "good" carbs and proteins "for better endurance later on." If you want to avoid feeling bloated and tired, then the protein serving size should be "no bigger than your cell phone." "Good carbs," she explains, comprise fruits, vegetables, and, of course, whole grains.

This probably all sounds a bit too healthful. A carefully measured portion of poached chicken breast will make your girlfriend feel like she's at a weight-loss spa. You want to cook a meal that will make her feel like you really made an effort.

So what can you serve that is celebratory but won't weigh you down? Fish is ideal. Ronna Welsh, owner of Purple Kale Kitchenworks, a cooking school in Brooklyn, suggests skate wings. She recommends that instead of serving depressing brown rice you choose a whole grain like polenta, finished with a really good extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter. (Fish with polenta is a traditional Venetian dish.) On the side? A watercress salad, says Welsh.

As for dessert, Crandall suggests chocolate-dipped strawberries, which are easy to make yourself. "Chocolate has caffeine and chemicals that will make you a little bit more alert," explains Dr. Jampolis, and will "offset the more sedating effects of alcohol." (Apparently, all dietitians love chocolate-covered strawberries.) And the meal must of course include alcohol, though in moderation. If you want to maintain energy levels, "no more than a glass for women, two for men," says Jampolis.

If this menu still seems too punitive, then do as Crandall suggests and "engage in activity beforehand." Then you can eat and drink as much as you want.

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.