Judy Dodd is well aware of the temptation to feed the kids after a long day at work by swinging through the nearest drive-through.
"It's easier," she said. "But it's just as much time and, in the long run, the guilt catches up to you."
Ms. Dodd is an assistant professor of clinical dietetics and nutrition at the Oakland-based University of Pittsburgh's Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition. But what makes her more qualified to address the topic is that she was a working mother, too.
Mrs. Dodd said the time spent going to get fast food and then drive home is about the same as the time spent making dinner. "It's possible to get a meal on the table in less than half an hour," she said.
Sitting down to dinner after a day at work has more benefits than just the food. Children learn to help as part of a family when they are setting and clearing the table; they learn how to eat properly; and they learn how to be part of a conversation -- not just as the one talking, but the one listening, too.
"It really isn't just the nutrition of it all," Mrs. Dodd said.
There have been incoming freshman at the university, she said, who aren't comfortable eating off a plate and using utensils because they have grown up eating out of a bag. Employers, who know about the importance of table manners when lunching with a customer, have taken to interviewing prospective workers over a meal.
So what are strategies for getting dinner on the table without the family waiting until 8 p.m. to eat?
It comes down to planning and a decent microwave, according to Mrs. Dodd.
Making dinner starts not in the kitchen, but in the grocery store and that trip generally should be made long before supper time. "If you have to stop at the grocery story and get it, you just killed yourself," she said.
There are plenty of options, such as making a pot of chili on Sunday and freezing it, then microwaving it for a meal later. Or make hamburgers ahead of time and freeze them. Later, put them in the microwave for a few seconds to defrost, then cook them while heating corn or other vegetables.
She also tends to have homemade Russian meatballs in the freezer, so the only thing she really has to cook are the noodles when she gets home.
Laurie David, the author of "The Family Dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, one meal at a time," uses quinoa as a fall back.
"Quinoa is life changing: It's a protein, it takes 15 minutes to cook and it changes everything." Her list of ways quinoa can be used includes in salads, in quesadillas, in soup, or just with celery and carrots and a little balsamic vinaigrette.
The point that both Ms. David and Mrs. Dodd make is that a family dinner doesn't have to be a big production. The most important part of the meal is the chance to get together, to tell stories and to hear about each other's days.
And for parents who often spend hours away from their children, it's a time to pass along values while teaching the kids how to socialize.
The goal is to eat good food -- food that you know is not full of a lot of salt and sugar -- and to eat that food together, as a family.
Ann Belser: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699.