Coral Von Zumwalt

Just three years ago, family dinners were nearly nonexistent at the Chiles home. “The nanny fed the kids early, and we ate popcorn at the kitchen counter―late, after the kids were in bed,” Denene recalls with a shudder. The couple lived in the hectic Northeast Corridor and commuted between their home in New Jersey and jobs in New York. “We never sat down to eat together except for Sunday dinners,” she says. “This was not the family life we had envisioned when we were married.” So the two writers moved their family to a quiet town outside Atlanta and close to relatives.

Now Denene works from home, and Nick’s office is just a few blocks away. Denene shuts down her computer at 2:30 p.m. every day and spends 30 to 45 minutes prepping dinner. “That way, all I have to do is throw it in a pot after we finish after-school activities,” she says. She maps out her menu for the week over the weekend. Not only does this make life easier, she says, but “it also helps me save money at the grocery store, since I know exactly what to buy.” Denene cooks many one-pot meals, such as chili and beef-and-oxtail stew, that can be left to simmer all afternoon. Another time-saver is the grill, which she uses at least twice a week.

On Wednesday afternoons, Denene shares meal-making duties with her sister-in-law Angelou, who lives 10 minutes away. The children in the two families spend an hour learning Mandarin Chinese with a tutor at Angelou’s house. Then, at around 5:30, the two families sit down together and have a meal of fish, tacos, or a pasta dish such as pesto pasta with shrimp.

Whether they’re at a relative’s house or at home, Nick and Denene want their children to think of dinner as a time for conversation, laughter, and checking in. “Years from now, my kids can look back on our family dinners fondly, as the time they had great food and Mommy and Daddy’s full attention,” she says. “Just what we always wanted for them.