Just four things: Dinnertime tips for busy parents

Sit-down family dinners sound like a great idea. But who has the time? Here are four easy ways to make nightly meals with the kids happen -- no stress, no arguing, no kidding.

By Leslie Crawford

Live this: Break bread together

You may have heard about the studies — like this one (PDF) and this one — touting the emotional and physical benefits for children who eat dinner with their parents. (No bandwidth to read 'em? Just know that kids who dine regularly with their families tend to do better academically, have closer relationships with their parents, eat healthier food, have fewer weight problems, smoke less, and use fewer drugs and alcohol.)

Sounds fantastic until reality kicks in. Preparing a sit-down meal after a full day of work — along with wrangling homework and other after-school activities that eat into your precious few evening hours — can be impossible. Not so, says Suzie Kane, founder of familymealplanning.net and author of the Kindle book Suzie's Table: A Smorgasbord of Ideas for Less Stress and More Fun at Dinner Time.

"Start with a modest goal of just one or two nights a week," says Kane. "You don't even have to make the food. Even if it's takeout Chinese, the fact that you're sitting there together may be the only time busy parents have to connect with their kids."

If you do want to make an easy, healthy dinner, check out the recipes on eatingwell.com.

Teach this: Get them talking

"Fine." "Nothing." "I dunno." OK, so now how are you going to pry information out of your kids about their day? For years Kane has used dinner table games to turn arguing adolescents and tight-lipped teens into spirited conversationalists. One of her favorites: a game she calls "2-Up+1-Down." Each person at the table shares two good things and one disappointing thing from their day. "Celebrating our successes of the day feels good," says Kane. "And talking about the 'downs' gives family members a chance to support each other."

A variation: Give two compliments to another person at the table and then say one thing about something you did that you're proud of. "This game is great for kids who need a boost in their self-esteem," says Kane. And what kid doesn't need mom-and-pop props now and then?

In the unlikely event that these games don't loosen lips, have each family member describe what super power they'd most like to have. Before you know it, the family will be talking about how to achieve world peace. Or the pros and cons of electric blue tights.

Try this: Make cleanup a family affair

Great, now you have the meal and table talk covered. But what about the kitchen cleanup? Kane, who found herself washing dishes at 10 p.m. after getting her kids to bed, found a simple but near-miraculous (at least for one GreatSchools mom who is now a devoted convert) solution: Teach kids — even ones as young as 3 — that after-dinner tidying up is a team effort.

"I was tired of the cleanup alone," says Kane, who now enlists her entire family to clear the table, load the dishwasher, scrub pots and pans, and put away food in the fridge. "It used to take me 30 minutes to do it alone," she says. "Now within 10 minutes, it's done." Bonus: The family gets to keep the dinner conversation going during cleanup.

Get this: Make dinner in minutes

It's 6 p.m., you've just gotten home, and you have no idea what to make. With The Six O'Clock Scramble: Quick, Healthy, and Delicious Dinner Recipes for Busy Families, you can have dinner on the table at 6:30. No cream of mushroom soup and noodle casserole recipes here. The emphasis is on fast but fresh (and tasty) meals. Also includes weekly dinner menus as well as recipes for after-school snacks and lunches. Bon appétit!

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.