Kelly Donlea bumped into a wee little problem not long after she had a baby and discovered the "meltdown hour."
Soon as that babe was too big for Pablum in jars, Donlea realized that come 4 in the afternoon, she needed to figure out how to get dinner on the table. She did what any smart mama might do: She pummeled with questions anyone she ever bumped into.
"OK, you've had to feed your children," she would begin. "How do you do it?"
The answers were, um, hardly encouraging.
"No one had a good answer," said Donlea, who grew up with a mom who put fresh-from-the-garden food on the table, night after night. "The whole meal-in-a-box. No, that's not gonna work for me. Nothing added up."
So Donlea, once a financial writer and now the mother of three in Barrington, Ill., went on to solve the dinnertime problem. In fact, she wrote a book about it, "70 Meals, One Trip to the Store," self-publishing the skinny spiral-bound volume ($16, on her Web site, organizingdinner.com).
She insists that with one stock grocery list, spelled out in the book, anyone can get dinner on the table, 365 nights a year, with any one of the book's 70 recipes. No last-minute dashing out the door for one odd ingredient. And thus no need for dinnertime meltdowns -- from the cook.
These days Donlea makes the rounds -- at house parties, libraries, schools -- letting the hungry in on her time-tested secrets. She is, basically, the Dinnertime Lady.
Donlea isn't the only one ringing the dinner bell. Janet Spiech is another avid home cook who wasn't going to wave a white flag on sit-down family dinners. She too wrote a spiral-bound book, "A Little Book to Ease Meal-Time Madness!" ($12, on her Web site, alittlebook.net), and developed a nifty pack of meal-planning tools, fromnotepads to a monthly organizer. Each Sunday, she e-mails a mealtime tip of the week, always infused with much heart and practical wisdom (you can find the latest on her Web site).
"It's not like Ozzie and Harriet anymore," said Spiech, the mother of four in west suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill. "You have to be flexible. You have to work at it. But the rewards are well worth it."
For the last few years, Donlea says, her phone rings nearly every night at dinnertime. Someone frantic is often on the other end of the line. "I don't have Worcestershire sauce; what can I substitute?" "What can I make with what's in my pantry?" Or, the No. 1 yelp: "I just don't have time to go to the store."
Donlea fields the questions like some sort of cook stove commando.
All the dinner-hour hysteria finally boiled over to the point that Donlea has launched a "Dinner 911" forum, right there on her Web site. While it's barely simmering yet, Donlea has hopes that it's a way for fellow foodies to come to each other's dinnertime rescue.
Until then, she continues to preach the gospel of the well-stocked pantry. She swears you'll never panic again if you stick to her supermarket prescriptions: Shop twice a year for a core list of staples, and then once a week, make a quick dash to the grocery for a mere 14 perishables.
"The whole goal," she sighs, "is when 4 o'clock rolls around, you have everything you need right at your fingertips." And no more dinnertime tears.