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Mealtime Mayhem

The first few months of my daughter's life, when my husband, Peter, and I were ready to eat dinner, we would place her in the swing next to the table, sit down, and proceed to eat and chat. "Mmm, this chicken is good," Peter would say to Lucy as she drifted off to sleep in her swing. "Lucy, someday you'll eat yummy chicken," I'd add. And we would laugh at the thought of this, of the fun we would have in the future.

Well, that time is finally here. At 17 months, Lucy eats chicken and broccoli just like we do. The three of us can eat dinner together and often do  -- it's just that our wonderful family meal lasts about eight minutes. Peter and I have this brief window to gulp down our dinner while coaxing Lucy to eat before we begin the next event  -- bathtime  -- in our nightly triathlon.

The final hours before bedtime can be an endurance test of mental and physical stamina. When I sought advice from other moms, everyone seemed to be faced with the same questions: Do you feed the baby early and eat later with your husband after the baby is in bed? Do you give your toddler a snack to tide him over until a later dinner?

I turned to both experts and moms for help and came up with three strategies for surviving  -- and possibly even enjoying  -- dinnertime. The only ground rule: At 5 p.m. every day, take a deep breath and give yourself a break. "The best thing parents can do to make this time a success is to lower their expectations," says Jeanne Besser, coauthor of the cookbook The 5:30 Challenge. You're doing the best you can, and quite frankly, you deserve a medal just for trying.

Strategy: Feed the baby first

You serve dinner to your baby early. After she's in bed, you sit down and eat dinner with your partner.

Who it works for: If either you or your husband gets home from work closer to your baby's bedtime than her dinnertime, this could be a good fit. It allows the late-home spouse to spend what time he or she has completely focused on playing with the baby instead of trying to factor eating into the equation. That's why this option works for Diane Burdick of Pensacola, Florida. "I feed my three children, Benjamin, three, Danielle, two, and Seth, eight months, at five o'clock. My husband usually comes home around six, and we'll all play together in the playroom. Then he bathes the kids and we begin the evening routine. Most nights the kids are in bed by seven, and then I reheat whatever dinner I made  -- spaghetti, quesadillas  -- for my husband and me to enjoy together."

The feed-the-baby-first strategy is also a smart choice if your tot is too young for "real" food. "When our first child was still a baby, my husband and I often ate at nine, after he was in bed," says Ann Sargent, mom to Braden, 3, and Bricen, 4 months, in Edwards, llinois. "After he turned one and starting eating table food, we wanted to eat as a family, so now we eat between five and six o'clock." This strategy can even double as a kind of date night. "Instead of getting a babysitter and going out to dinner on a Saturday night, my husband and I will put our kids to bed at eight o'clock and then cook dinner together," says Shaun Dreisbach, mom of 3-year-old Jackson and 7-month-old Campbell in Essex, Vermont. "It gives us time to sit and chat over a bottle of wine without having to pick food up off the floor every five seconds."

Mindy Berry is a writer and mom in Dobbs Ferry, New York.