When I talk to other parents about their kids, meal time trouble is a recurring topic. “What can I do to get my kid to eat?” or “With so many kids and such a busy schedule, how do you do a family dinner every night?” It’s not that I’m so awesome, or maybe I am a little awesome, it’s just that I have experienced some level of success managing life with half a dozen kids. Yes, I’ve had many failures (force-feeding is out) but have learned from my mistakes, I hope.

I’d like to share a few useful tips to help at meal time, but before I do, let me just say my way is not always best, is not the only way, and my advice is only meant to help you think of different ways to approach an old problem. Here goes.

Get the schedule straight first. If you expect to be able to pull off a family dinner, make sure everyone will be there or plan for earlier or later meal times depending on your crazy schedule. Some caregivers or nannies may even be available to start something for you.

Plan ahead for weeknight meals. This might mean taking out meat in advance so it can thaw in the fridge or tossing together a crock pot meal in the morning to save time in the evening. You know time is tight, so unless you plan to eat around 8pm, plan to start early.

Don’t make them wait too long. My kids need an after-school snack but my husband comes home starving for dinner by 4:30pm. What do I do? I give the kids a VERY light snack and have dinner early. This leaves plenty of time for homework and even a snack/dessert around seven, leaving clear sailing to their eight o’clock bedtime.

Serve foods that everyone likes or make side dishes to accommodate picky eaters. My ten year old son won’t eat tacos, no matter what, so if I plan a taco night, he can have plain ground meat with a salad with all the fixins’. It’s essentially the same food except the taco seasoning, so not much extra prep work. Think like this when you’ve got one picky kid (or husband) – what can I make with the same ingredients that he or she does like?

Get them involved. If possible, enlist the children to help prepare the meal. Kids can do lots to help, like wash fruits or veggies, measure, mix, pour, and more. When they help, they are much more likely to eat at least some of it. If you’re adventurous and try the international aisle at the market, kids can also discover new flavors and foods they do like, expanding their palate and mind.

Talk while you eat, or at least between bites. Babies and toddlers love to eat with the family; it is a time of conversation, sharing and learning. Teens might be less excited about the family dinner. Engage everyone in table conversation by asking open-ended questions or sharing your day and your thoughts. Questions like ,”What was the best (or worst) part of your day today?” get way more info than, “What did you learn at school today?” or “Tell me about your day.”

Family dinners don’t always have to be home-made. Take out pizza or grinders/subs make quick and easy sit-down meals too. Frozen foods aren’t my favorite, but can also be a healthy time-saver in a pinch.

Make clean-up easy. Use paper or plastic plates when you have less time or plans after dinner. Kids can still help clear the table, but there will be extra time to get where you’re going, chat, whip up a quick dessert or just finish that pesky homework.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make family dinners work. Your family may pull it off only a few times a week. Whatever you do, do it together and have fun. Kids will remember the good, the bad and the ugly. When you make meal-time enjoyable, life is smoother for everyone. We are not all Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart, but we can bring joy and happy times to our kitchens in real life. It is my hope that you can implement these simple concepts to simplify your meal time troubles. If you have a kid who won’t sit, he might sit longer if he helped make the potatoes or to tell about his no-good, horrible day. Good luck and bon appetite!