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The Stress-Free Dinner Hour

Young family eating dinner together

Chances are, one of your least favorite times of the day is the evening rush hour -- and we know it has nothing to do with traffic. The minute you get home from work or carpool duty, your hungry kids start begging for your attention. Meanwhile, you're exhausted and wondering if you can get away with ordering pizza (again). No wonder research shows that working mothers tend to experience spikes in heart rate and stress during workday evenings. Stay-at-home moms feel slammed by this second shift too.

But with a little planning and streamlining, you can cut out the chaos and focus on what really matters -- reconnecting with your husband and kids. After all, eating together can strengthen family bonds and help your kids develop healthy eating habits. Use these tips to create a routine you'll love.

First on Your To-Do List? Play

Go ahead, get silly: It sets the tone for the whole evening. "When you drop everything and play with your kids, you give them the love and attention they crave when they haven't seen you for a few hours," says Parents advisor and psychologist Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare, in Waltham, Massachusetts. "They'll feel calmer and will be less resentful when you have to make dinner." Go for a 10-minute walk, toss a ball outside, or put on music and dance around the house. "Focus on what they want to talk about so they feel like they're your top priority," Dr. Domar says. You'll feel better too -- you need a transition between the afternoon's responsibilities and dinner prep.

Stress-Free Family Meals With Laurie David
Stress-Free Family Meals With Laurie David
Smart Menu Management

Cut down on shopping trips. No one feels like trekking to the supermarket at the end of a long day. Instead, go to allrecipes.com, click on "Ingredient Search," and type in the foods you have in your kitchen. The site will generate recipe suggestions from a database of 40,000 dishes created and tested by real people.

Check out a dinner-prep store. They're popping up all over the country. Here's the deal: The store provides the ingredients and recipes, and you cook up to 12 entrees in about two hours. You freeze them, then put them in the fridge when you're ready to eat them. You get the benefits of home-cooked meals but without the shopping, chopping, and cleanup. For a list of locations, visit easymealprep.com.

Have your groceries delivered. If you're super-organized, get a jump on tomorrow's dinner. While your kids are watching TV, sneak off to the computer and order what you'll need from a delivery service like Peapod or Safeway.

Entertain the Kids
Mother and son washing lettuce at the kitchen sink

Meal prep goes much faster when you use these tricks.

Pretend you're on the Food Network. If you have a baby or toddler, let her watch you make dinner -- narrate as you go! She may not understand the finer points of your Chicken Parmesan recipe, but the sound of your voice is entertaining.

Let your kids decorate. Kim Amsbaugh's three children make place mats and tablecloths by drawing on construction paper or butcher paper with their markers, crayons, and colored pencils. "Sometimes they come up with a theme like sports or flowers," says the Palo Alto, California, mom.

Offer an appetizer tray. Serve cut-up fruits or veggies on a platter with dips (try flavored yogurt for the fruit and low-fat ranch dressing or guacamole for the veggies), and let your kids nibble and play a quiet game at the table. They'll think it's fancy, and you'll sneak in some nutrients. "If you give kids fruit and vegetables when they're really hungry, they're more likely to eat them," says Roberta Anding, RD, of Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston.

Let your child be your assistant. Preschoolers can tear lettuce leaves and stir batter; school-age kids can scrub potatoes and toss a salad. "My 3-year-old often sits on the counter and helps me measure out ingredients while I'm cooking," says Joelle Mertzel, a mother of two in Tarzana, California. "He's really proud that he's contributing."

The #1 Way to Get Out of the Kitchen

Stop catering to your child's food whims, says Elizabeth M. Ward, RD, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. You'll get dinner on the table faster and help him develop better eating habits if you serve one meal for the family. Forget chicken nuggets and other kids' foods -- just cut up meat and veggies into bite-size pieces or fun shapes. To make veggies more appealing, let your child choose which kind you make. Tired of food fights? Always cook up at least one dish that you know your picky eater likes.

Little girl eating dinner

  1. Turn off the TV. Put on music instead -- it sets a cozier mood. No one will talk to each other if everybody's glued to the tube. Also, watching TV during dinner encourages kids to overeat because they ignore their body's natural fullness cues.
  2. Ditch the piles. Staring at stacks of mail, newspapers, and other random stuff is stressful -- it's a reminder of everything you need to do. If you have time to put everything away before dinner, great; if not, move the stacks out of sight temporarily.
  3. Turn down the lights. If you don't have a dimmer switch, switch off the brightest lamps to lower the level of visual stimulation during the meal. "It give your senses a break after the bright lights of school and work and helps everyone feel calm and focused on each other," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out.
  4. Share the day's highlights. Domar's family shares "News and Goods" every night: each person talks about something new and something good that happened to them that day. They feel closer -- and happier -- hearing about each other's best moments. When conversation dries up, try the family version of TableTopics (tabletopics.com), a cube containing 135 fun and thought-provoking questions --- ranging from "Which TV show would you pick to live inside for a week?" to "What's your favorite family tradition?" -- that will get the whole family gabbing.

Get the Kids to Pitch In

Why tackle setup and cleanup by yourself? There are plenty of safe ways kids of all ages can help, says child psychologist Lawrence Balter, PhD, of New York University.

Little girl picking up dinner plates

  • Toddlers can carry forks and spoons to the table and pass nonbreakable items during dinner.
  • Preschoolers can fold napkins and set the table (handle sharp knives yourself, of course). Afterward, they can put dirty napkins in the trash.
  • School-age kids can pour drinks and bring butter, salad dressing, and other condiments to the table. After the meal, they can help clear the table and rinse items for the dishwasher.