The Stress-Free Dinner Hour

Planning

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.

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