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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.

Strategy: Everyone eats together

A traditional family dinner is served at one time.

Who it works for: If you and your spouse are both home when your baby is hungry, this option could be ideal. Peter doesn't always get home in time for dinner (and when that happens we put strategy number one into play), but when he does and on weekends, we try to eat together. Lucy gets a kick out of watching us put food in our mouths, and she always wants what's on our plates. She'll also try to feed us the food on her plate that she doesn't want (how clever!) and shows more interest in using her fork and spoon when she sees us using ours.

For many moms, the challenge of this option is getting dinner ready while keeping their tykes amused. "My three-year-old usually plays with toys while I cook, but my eight-month-old often ends up paralyzing me by pulling on the back of my jeans," says Susie Lancaster, a mom in Glendale, Arizona. "When that happens, I put him in his high chair next to me with some Cheerios, so he can watch what I'm doing." Lancaster says her husband gets home around 5:30 and takes over while she finishes dinner. "We all sit down together about fifteen minutes later, and I often breastfeed the baby while I eat." This option, of course, doesn't allow you to savor the meal you cooked as much as you would with option one  -- you're too busy running back and forth to the table with napkins, refilling sippy cups, and cutting your toddler's food into pieces. But you do get to have a family dinner together.

Strategy: The baby eats twice

Your tot eats a snack or his first course (like vegetables or pasta) at 5 p.m., and you save the rest for him to chow on when you and your spouse sit down later to eat.

Who it works for: This option may work if you have a baby who is now eating mostly table food and has a later bedtime. As Lucy gets older and her bedtime gets closer to 8 p.m., this is the strategy I'd like to work toward, since it means we could eat together when Peter gets home at 7:15 p.m. My neighbor Jennifer Polimeno, who has three kids, ages 5, 3, and 1, does this with grace. "At five o'clock, my kids are ready to eat, so I give them a snack, like cheese and crackers," she says. "That tides them over until dinner at seven-thirty, when my husband, Rob, gets home. If my youngest gets hungry again while I'm cooking, I'll put him in his booster seat next to me with some fruit and a crayon to play with." She even has a solution when dinner gets pushed back. "On nights that Rob isn't going to be home until after eight, I feed the kids earlier, and then they eat dessert with Rob and me," she says. "That way we still get family time at the table, which is important to us."

As your baby grows older and your family needs change, you may find yourself trying all three strategies. What works now may not work later. Or maybe one is best for weeknights and another for weekends. Or you may discover a fourth strategy by culling your favorite tips from the options above. Remember, there's no right way to eat dinner  -- but you do have a right to enjoy it!

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