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It’s September, and after a fairly lax summer, you’re probably making an effort to get into good-for-you routines, like eating dinner together.

Experts put a premium on family meals, often citing benefits to kids, like better school performance, higher self-esteem, and even a lower risk of teen pregnancy. So it’s no wonder parents strive to eat together more often, under any circumstances.The reality is that family meals can be overwhelming, and there’s no lack of guilt or aggravation about getting dinner on the table every night.

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Are family meals overrated?

Some experts and others (including comedian Ana Gasteyer) think the benefits of family meals are exaggerated. As the mother of three kids, I think that sitting down together over a meal helps kids in a number of ways, no matter how often your three year-old wanders off in search of something more interesting, or your teen turns up her nose at what’s for dinner.

Family meals help kids develop a sense of regularity and routine that could carry into later life. A recent study of college students suggests eating at the same time promotes better nutrition. Eating together allows you to teach kids good table manners and expose them to new foods. And sitting down together better helps family members focus on each other. (Or not, depending on the day!)

In a perfect world, spouses and children would be home at the same time, nobody would be cranky, tired, or hormonal, and not one person would complain about the balanced meal on the table. Oh, and everyone would talk openly about what’s going on in their lives.

But nobody’s perfect. As it turns out, it may not be necessary to create a soothing, nurturing environment around the table on a daily basis.

A large study that examined the effects of family dinners on children found that spending time with your kids and taking an interest in their daily lives matters most for their well-being, whether that happens during the evening meal or not.

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5 no-fuss dinners

If you’re interested in making dinner more often with less stress, I highly recommend lowering your standards. Keep dinner as simple as possible. Don’t worry about dining out or getting take-out every so often, but try to make healthier choices.

Here are five healthy dinners you can have on the table in 20 minutes or less:

  • Stir-fry 8 to 12 ounces of lean ground beef or 100% ground skinless, boneless turkey breast with a large chopped onion, cumin, and salt and ground black pepper. Combine with 1 cup canned, drained black beans. Spoon the cooked meat/bean mixture onto 4 whole wheat tortillas. Top with shredded cheese, chopped tomato, lettuce, and low-fat sour cream. Pair with fruit.
  • Store-bought rotisserie chicken; salad of prewashed greens, cherry tomatoes, and olives; quick-cooking grain such as whole wheat couscous, and milk.
  • Grilled cheese or tuna melt with sliced tomato; cup of lentil soup (beans are vegetables!); fruit, and a cup of yogurt.
  • Serve Brinner (breakfast for dinner): French toast made with whole grain bread, fruit, milk. Or omelet made with cheese and leftover vegetables, fruit, milk, whole grain toast or roll.
  • Pizza prepared with whole grain tortillas or whole wheat Naan bread and store-bought shredded cheddar cheese; green salad; fruit.

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Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D. is an award-winning writer, nutrition consultant, spokesperson, and the mother of three. Her most recent book is "MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better: Decoding the Dietary Guidelines for Your Real Life." Ward blogs at betteristhenewperfect.com.

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