Host a kiddie cocktail hour.
Offer children some water or milk while they munch on carrot sticks or broccoli florets and hummus, chunks of cheese, apple or cucumber slices, or cherry-tomato halves before dinner. As long as they're snacking on something healthy, it doesn't matter if they aren't able to clean their plate come mealtime. Plus, "it's amazing how many more veggies kids consume when they're served as a snack rather than competing with carbs on the dinner plate," says Dr. Markham.
Set the stage for calm.
Dim the lights, arrange comfy cushions, and put on relaxing music. Preselect a "library" of dinnertime CDs that kids can pick from. That gives you some control, Dr. Baicker-McKee says, while letting them play a role in the evening routine. Allow kids to get their favorite blanket or stuffed animal and encourage them to sing along to their favorite songs.
Put on your own oxygen mask first.
To grab a little downtime before meal prep, try a tag-team approach, giving each parent a moment to gather themselves, suggests Mark E. Sharp, Ph.D., a psychologist in Oak Brook, Illinois, who specializes in working with families. Once your partner has had a few minutes to relax after walking in, let him take over for a few minutes while you shower or change. Single parents may need to be more creative. Reading restored one of Dr. Sharp's solo-mom patients, so she started taking a novel with her to work. On the way to pick up her son from day care, she would stop and read for 15 minutes. "When she arrived, she was in a much better place to deal with him, and nights went more smoothly after that," says Dr. Sharp.
Occasionally, on one of those crazy-busy nights, dinner is simple: cereal and fruit, admits Jennifer Soos, a marriage and family therapist in San Antonio, Texas. Sometimes she throws in some toast with peanut butter and jelly. And why not? There's no prep, virtually no cleanup -- and no complaints from the kids. "I try to have some of the healthier cereals on hand so it's not just sugar bowls for dinner, but it's a nice break from cooking," she adds.
Create a comforting tradition.
Family rituals can help mark the transition into evening time, says Dr. Baicker-McKee. "Small children aren't able to tell time yet," she notes. "So it's helpful to have a signal that one part of the day is done and another is just beginning." Make up a silly "secret" handshake to use when you reunite with your child, she suggests. Or play a hunting or guessing game: Put a token from your day -- a feather you found, a doodle on a Post-it, a small toy -- in a pocket and let your child search for it. Not only can this keep your kid occupied while you take a few minutes to do some food prep or simply relax, but it'll also make him feel like the focus is still on him.