On Thanksgiving Day how do you get the turkey into the oven and the kids out of your hair?
It's not as hard as you think, say family dinner experts. A number of strategies -- crafts tables, light snacks, and yes, even inviting the kids into the kitchen -- will ensure that all is well when you finally sit down to give thanks.
Though it seems counterintuitive to bring the kids into the kitchen while you're negotiating stuffing, squash and your mother-in-law's running commentary, giving eager children a job lets them feel like they're part of the action. Hand little ones a potato masher or an eggbeater, older ones an immersion blender, basting brush or rolling pin.
"If you can give them a dish to be in charge of, maybe you have two kids, and you say, 'Guys, can I leave the salad to you?'" says Katie Workman, blogger and author of "The Mom 100 Cookbook" (Workman Publishing, 2012). "There's always enormous value in giving kids that sense of ownership."
If you just can't bear to have them in the kitchen -- or when they've exhausted all their skills -- send them to something else they might find attractive. Before everyone arrives, set up a craft table full of crayons, markers (you might want to stay away from paints), jewelry making kits or anything that's engrossing but not messy. Game tables stocked with board games appropriate for the age of the attending kids can keep a group quiet. You also can send them outside to collect sticks and leaves for a centerpiece, or have them create crafts for the celebration.
"It's a great opportunity to get kids decorating or setting the table," says Aviva Goldfarb, founder of the family dinner planning service The Six O'Clock Scramble. "They can make fall oriented place cards, or even a giant table cloth. Get some big fabric and have kids decorate it with fabric markers. Or send them outside for acorns and leaves and pine cones to scatter around the table."
Keeping hunger at bay also will be a critical part of avoiding meltdowns. No one wants the kids (or the adults!) running into the kitchen a half hour before dinner whining about hunger pangs. To keep everyone sane, but not full, Workman suggests creating a beautiful basket of crudite -- bell peppers, carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes with store-bought dip -- that people can nibble on throughout the afternoon. Goldfarb packs a cooler of sandwiches and drinks for her crowd so they can help themselves.
But when it comes to cutting down on stress, the experts say cutting back on the work -- and your expectations -- may be the most important element.
"The key is streamlining," says Kelsey Banfield, author of "The Naptime Chef" (Running Press, 2011). "A successful and enticing Thanksgiving meal does not have to include 20 dishes. I've never heard anyone say there wasn't enough on the table."
And Thanksgiving is one meal where even the pickiest child is likely to find something he or she likes, without any special effort on the part of the host. "Why wouldn't a kid enjoy roast turkey and sweet potatoes and stuffing?" Goldfarb says.
That said, Workman suggests putting bells and whistles -- streusel for the sweet potatoes, chives for the mashed potatoes -- on the side so people can take what they like and leave what they don't.
And finally, as with so much about parenting, embrace imperfection. Every dish does not have to be a culinary wonder, these experts say, and does not have to arrive piping hot. And every child does not have to be a perfect angel.
"The younger the kids are, the more you have to build in flexibility so you don't get disappointed," says Banfield. "You just have to be flexible and go with the flow. The more you can do that, the happier everyone is."