THE HEART WANTS
Chocolates are a time-tested gift for Valentine's Day, but also perhaps a little tired. To give a gift that's a little more unique (or cater to dietary needs) while keeping to a budget, consider these other treats.
For those who want to avoid sugar (or people with diabetes who need to), sugar-free candy is the way to go. Many brands, including Werther's, Life Savers, and Hershey's, make sugar-free varieties. (If nothing but chocolate will do, the Valentine's Day standby Russell Stover has sugar-free options available from stores such as Walmart.)
GOURMET JELLY BEANS
Jelly beans are gluten-, peanut-, and tree-nut-free, and the gourmet Jelly Belly brand comes in a huge variety of flavors that can be customized to a sweetheart's liking. If there's no bulk candy store nearby, prepackaged mixes are also widely available.
CHOCOLATE-COVERED SUNFLOWER SEEDS
With just enough chocolate and a dizzying array of bright, cheerful colors, chocolate-covered sunflower seeds are a relatively inexpensive Valentine's Day treat. Choose a loved one's favorite color; a mix of red, white, and pink for Valentine's Day; or a rainbow assortment.
Nuts are quite a bit more nutritious than chocolate but can be equally decadent and delicious. Even mainstream companies such as Planters now sell varieties such as cocoa-covered, salted caramel, or chipotle. They can be transferred to a custom container and dressed up in with a red bow to make a much-appreciated gift.
Creating a custom blend of trail mix that reflects a sweetheart's likes and dietary needs is a more personal and useful choice than buying only high-calorie, high-fat chocolate. Taking charge of the ingredients and quantities makes it easy to control spending. Shop the bulk bins for nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate pieces and present the mix in a food-safe container.
There are companies that specialize in fruit arrangements, but the Valentine's Day offerings start at $35. Instead, assemble a love's favorite fruits in an inexpensive basket to create a gorgeous -- and nutritious -- gift. Add sweetness by melting chocolate and dipping a few strawberries.
Don't spend big money on fancy cupcakes from a gourmet bakery. The blog Amanda's Cookin' has an ingeniously simple way to make heart-shaped cupcakes: Place a marble between each cupcake liner and the pan to form an indentation on one side of the pastry. A mix should be only a dollar or two at the grocery store, and same goes for frosting and edible decorations.
Don't forget about Sweethearts, the classic Valentine's Day candy emblazoned with phrases such as "love you" and "be mine." This is a simple, sweet, nostalgic gift, whether in a larger bag from a grocery store ($4 or less for a pound) or small boxes in the style of a party treat ($13 plus $7 shipping for 36 boxes, each with about 36 hearts, on sale at Oriental Trading).
Candy corn is not just for Halloween. This treat has been taken over by many other holidays, including Valentine's Day, which has a red, pink, and white variation to replace the usual fall colors. The blog Shaken Together suggests packaging the candy corn in a mason jar with a tag that reads, "It may be corny, but I love you."