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The Family Dinner

For most moms, getting the clan to the table (and keeping them there) takes some wrangling. Chances are, once the kids are belted into their high chair or booster seat, food flies, the baby cries, and the dinnertime din sends stress levels soaring. We asked moms for their secrets -- the little tricks they use to get their tykes to stay put, eat something other than chicken fingers and mac 'n' cheese, and begin to grasp the value of sharing meals together. Here's how moms serve up some sanity at dinnertime.

Everyone Has a Role

"We assign jobs to make it a group effort. My husband gets the main dish together while I do the sides. My oldest daughter sets out the dishes while my youngest, who is still in a high chair, supervises it all!"
Stephanie, Suffield, Connecticut, mother to Mary, 33 months, and Samantha, 6 months

Add an Element of Fun

"Sometimes we would let the kids play diner: we made up a simple menu with a couple of choices, and they took our orders and prepared the meal. The kids would put a towel across their forearm and act like our waiters/waitresses. It was so much fun! We would add special touches like sparkling cider with fancy glasses. It made being together for a meal fun instead of a chore."
Anne, Defiance, Ohio, whose kids are now 22, 21, 18, and 15

Two Dinners

"My son, Alex, has eaten 'two dinners' since he was very young. The first meal (a substantial snack, like mac 'n' cheese or chicken nuggets) takes the edge off his hunger and lets him have his favorite kid foods. The second meal encourages him to try new foods. He can be picky, but he'll usually eat part of the adults' dinner along with other healthy options such as a banana or yogurt. Our baby, Delphine, tends to have a snack with her brother, and she also eats with us. We all have dessert together -- it's the payoff for good eating!"
Dina, West Sand Lake, New York, mother of Alex, 5, and Delphine, 10 months

Make a Statement

"I let my son set his place at the table any way he wants (forks upside down, for example)."
Shantrell, Suisun City, California, whose son is 3

Encourage Table Talk

"We try to eat together as a family as much as possible. However, if my husband gets home late, my 17-month-old daughter, Emma, and I eat together. Then, when Daddy gets home and has his dinner, Emma colors at the table and we engage her in conversation about what went on in our day. We want to try to emphasize being together during mealtime, even if we're not all eating at the same time."
Lauri, Marlton, New Jersey

It's All in the Prep Work

"I cook two to three meals on Sunday, so everything is ready when I get home from work around 6 p.m."
Mardi, Weston, Massachusetts, mom to a 4-year-old son

Dish Over Breakfast

"Dinners with the kids are always hard to pull off because they eat so much earlier than we do. To get them used to eating together, we focus on breakfast during the week and breakfast and lunch on the weekends."
Eva, Reno, Nevada, mother to 2-year-old twin boys

Serve Up Some "Appetizers"

"Our 10-month-old son, Michael, likes to have 'appetizers' such as Cheerios or crackers before his main meal. We usually eat our food while he feeds himself his appetizer, and then we spoon-feed him some vegetables from a jar."
Nicole, Parkville, Maryland

Baby Duty

"I share the task of feeding the baby with my 11-year-old daughter, who is eager to do anything to help. Surprisingly, no one's food gets cold, and everyone is happy!"
Tara, Hartford, Connecticut, whose kids are 8 months and 11 years old

It's More Fun as a Group

"We eat dinner together almost every night. My older son knows that a small dessert follows if he has eaten a good meal. Our struggle is getting him to try new foods. Making it a game or asking him to give it one 'no, thank you' bite helps. Dinner is somewhat more fun for him now that the baby is joining us at the table."
Gail, Mission Viejo, California, mom to Chad, 4, and Wes, 9 months

Keep the Baby Busy

"I frequently have guests over for dinner. I try to handle prep while my daughter plays in the kitchen. When dinner's ready, I plop her in the high chair and give her Cheerios or cheese and serve everyone else. Then I sit down and feed her while I eat. She likes being a part of the event."
Lesley, Milwaukee, single mom to Rowan, 1

Melora Hardin: My Family's Food Traditions
Melora Hardin: My Family's Food Traditions

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2007.