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The Four Ps of Successful Family Meals

It’s 4:30pm.  You stand in front of the refrigerator scanning its contents to see what you can throw together for dinner.  You look at the clock.  You have half an hour before you have to run out to pick up your daughter from dance class.  There’s not enough time to make a decent meal.  “Besides,” you think, “the kids probably won’t eat what I make anyway.”  
   You decide to pick up some takeout.  You daughter is famished after class and eats her meal in the car.  When you get home, you make yourself a salad and eat it standing at the counter.  Your husband heats something up for himself when he comes home later.
   Sound familiar?  Has the family meal has become a relic of the past?  
   Before you throw in the kitchen towel and head for the drive-thru, here are a few things you should know about family meals.

The importance of family meals
   Research has shown that it’s worth the effort.  Family mealtimes are an important element in cohesive, well-functioning family life and in healthy child development.  Children who frequently eat meals with their families have been found to have better eating habits, better academic success, better mental health, and less risk for both obesity and substance abuse.

How to do it

   Making healthy family meals can be a challenge, but it can be done.  Consider the Four Ps in pulling it all together.

Planning: If you can look ahead at your schedule a week in advance, you can get a jump on planning meals.  If you’ll be too busy in the pre-dinner hour to cook that night, you can plan for a slow-cooker meal.  Another possibility is to have a supply of previously frozen meals that you can defrost on those days with no time to cook.  If you get in the habit of doubling recipes and then freezing leftovers, you’ll have meals on hand for those nights when things get too crazy.  Planning in advance also saves you unnecessary trips to the grocery store.  When you plan your meals and shopping lists in advance, you can save time with just one or two grocery shopping trips per week.

Prioritizing: Sometimes it can be difficult to take a step back and examine your schedule.  Many activities that keep our families away from the table are necessary (like work) and many are important (like lessons and sports for our kids).  Only you can decide the priorities for your family.  If you feel that your family’s schedule is out of control and creating unnecessary stress, maybe it’s time to make changes.  As a parent, you have the authority and responsibility to set limits when considering the family schedule.

Putting together a support system: You don’t have to do this completely on your own.  If your kids are older, enlist their help in meal preparation.  If your kids are younger, find ways for them to help.  Young children can’t really save you time, but today’s helper can be tomorrow’s cook.  Outside your immediate family, you can seek assistance from local extended family members, friends, and neighbors.  Some families have successfully coordinated meal sharing in a variety of ways.  Consider arranging to double a recipe and cook for both your own and a friend’s family one night each week while your friend does the same for you on another night.  Or, organize a group of mothers from your child’s preschool and assign each a meal to prepare for everyone.  You can then gather together and exchange prepared meals to bring home to your own freezers.   Be creative: think of people with whom you can form support systems.

Preparation techniques: You’ll be able to make more effective meal plans if you have a variety of preparation techniques at your fingertips.  Many meals can be assembled quickly and some can be prepared in advance, at least partially.  Maybe you don’t have time to cook right before dinner, but you might have some time at other points in your day.  Early morning, your child’s naptime, later in the evening, and weekends are all possible times to do some meal preparation, whether it’s chopping vegetables or preparing a casserole.  Slow-cooker pots also provide opportunities for home-cooked meals without actually cooking at dinnertime.

What to do when the family is at the table

   In an ideal world, you’ve done all your planning, prioritizing, and preparing, and the whole family is sitting together for a family meal.  Everything should go smoothly from there, right?  Maybe not.  Often, picky eaters, unruly behavior, and lack of conversation can seem to ruin all your good efforts in getting everyone there in the first place.  Changing the behavior of picky eaters is a complex topic beyond the scope of this article, but in general, the quality of the time spent together at the table is something that can be improved with some creativity and planning.  Games and activities that incorporate teaching manners and promoting positive conversations are available.

   Taking charge of your family meals can be exciting and rewarding, but a few caveats are important.  First, don’t expect perfection.  Having everyone in the family present for every evening meal is not realistic for most families.  If you currently eat together once a week, any increase should be considered a valuable improvement.  Be flexible in considering which meals your family eats together.  Maybe breakfast is a more realistic option than dinner for your family.  There may not be any simple formula, but you have the power to make healthy, enjoyable meals for your family.

KATHLEEN CUNEO, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Nanuet, specializing in work with children and families.  She is the founder and director of Dinner Together, LLC, which provides in-home consultations with families on meal-related issues.  For more information, visit


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