A few months ago, Abby and Jake Loesch's twins fell asleep on the way home from a pediatric checkup. So the Arden Hills couple decided to give themselves a rare treat: They went to the drive-through at Portillo's, then parked their minivan in a lot nearby to eat.

Their "COVID date night" was as good as it got during the height of the pandemic, when "leaving the house felt like a real feat," said Abby.

Now the Loesches and other parents of young children are finally able to go out without the kids in tow, thanks to vaccinated grandparents, babysitters and other caregivers.

Date night is back on the calendar. And for some, it's been a long time coming.

"It felt like a brand-new experience," said Brendan Kennealy of Richfield, whose vaccinated parents watched his infant and toddler so he and his wife could go out — for the first time since the baby was born. "Just not having to worry about who was looking at the kids" was a relief, he said.

During the past year, it's been tough for parents to get couple time as work, home, school and child care often collapsed into around-the-clock responsibilities with no backup.

That can put stress on a relationship, said Wayzata relational life coach Pamela Staples.

"Quality time is fuel for the relationship," said Staples. "So many couples right now have to be child-centered, and so they can't be marriage-centered."

While the pandemic has brought some couples closer together, Staples also has seen couples struggle to connect.

"I think that the pandemic has definitely taken a relational toll, especially for parents of younger kids," she said. "I think they really have been challenged."

Staples recommends having a date as a way to reconnect. It needn't be long, expensive or even at night.

"You can have a really fun date in an hour or two, if you're going for high quality," she said.

Here's how three Twin Cities couples made quality time for themselves.

Booking a date

A few days after their vaccines were effective, Kennealy's parents called and offered to spend a Saturday afternoon with the grandkids.

While Kennealy and his wife, Jocelyn, readily agreed, he admitted that they weren't sure what to do.

"We haven't left the house in forever. We need ideas," Kennealy said. In the end, they decided to spend their kid-free afternoon at their favorite bookstore, Subtext Books in St. Paul.

"We could just wander around and spend all the time we wanted," he said. "We refilled the parking meter."

On the way back home, they stopped at the Nook pub in St. Paul for a beer.

"It was a real treat," Kennealy said. "I don't know how often we're gonna, you know, make my parents be babysitters, but I will let it be printed [in the paper] that they are welcome anytime they want."

In the early months of the pandemic, Aimee Norasingh and her husband, Paul, had date nights in their Plymouth home. After the kids were asleep, they'd order in dinner or connect with other couples online for trivia. But after a while, it felt repetitive and a hassle to plan.

"We took a break from date night for a little bit," said Norasingh. "Things just got a little much with the kids at home."

Recently, though, they've been venturing out, now that they and their parents are vaccinated. Their favorite date combination is dinner out and a stop at a distillery, like Skaalvenn Distillery & Cocktail Lounge in Brooklyn Park.

They've also visited an escape room with two other couples. "It was so nice to be able to do it in person and get that face-to-face interaction with friends," Norasingh said.

Antiquing and overnights

As soon as Amanda McKnight heard that her mother-in-law had had her vaccinations, McKnight began thinking about getting some kid-free time.

"I was like, 'Oh, it's on,' " said McKnight, whose children are 3 and 8.

"We are in the process of scheduling an overnight which is extra exciting, because my son is so little that he's never had a sleepover at grandma's house before," she said.

McKnight and her husband, Lincoln, who live in Shakopee, are compiling a wish list of what they will do.

"When we do finally have our first date night, I don't think we'll be going indoors at a restaurant yet," she said. "But we are planning to go antiquing. We discovered a love for antiquing right before the pandemic started."

Someday, McKnight said, she hopes to be able to recapture some of the spontaneity they once had as a couple.

"For now, it can be a struggle to plan," she said. "There is no such thing as just being like, 'Hey, we should dump the kids at Grandma's and go to Mystic Lake or the movies.' "

Rx for date night

Relational life coach Pamela Staples often prescribes date nights. "Date night does not need to be fancy or expensive, and it doesn't always have to involve going out to dinner," Staples said. "It's where you get to be with each other in a way that you're not with each other any other parts of your week, so you're transporting yourself to another time and space with each other." Some of her suggestions:

• Decide on a schedule that works for you and stick to it — once a week at the most, twice a month at the least. And remember that mornings and afternoons work just as well as nights.

• Partners should take turns asking and do so ahead of the date night or day.

• The one who asks is also in charge of the conversation for that date. Staples recommends not talking about your kids, your jobs, your house, money "or any of the other mundane things that you can talk about at home." Instead, she urges couples to use the time to "get to know your partner more deeply and intimately, and being known by somebody is, I think, one of the deepest forms of intimacy," she said.

• Couples should feel free to "dust off their old dates from the archives" and revisit the places where they had their first date, got engaged or held their wedding reception.

• Staples recommends gazing into each other's eyes during a date, even though she admits that "people just kind of cringe when they hear this."