Thursday, April 30, 2009

The 4 P's of Successful Family Meals

I originally wrote this for Rockland Parent magazine. Thought I'd share the ideas with a wider community of parents trying to figure it out...
What works for you? Any tips you'd like to share for how you pull meals together?

It’s 4:30p.m. 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.” So you decide to just pick up some take out. 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? It seems like the family meal has become a relic of the past. Many of today’s families struggle with the challenge of getting everyone together for a meal and with the challenge of finding the time to actually cook the meal.

Before you throw in the kitchen towel and head for the drive-thru, there are a few things you should know about family meals.

Importance of family meals

Research has shown, however, that it’s worth the effort. Studies have shown family meal times to be 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 4 “P’s” in pulling it all together.


If you can look ahead at your schedule a week in advance, you can get a jump on planning meals. When you know ahead of time that 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 meals, 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.


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 like 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 and make priorities 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, you can 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. You might not have time to cook right before dinner time, but you might have 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 some vegetables or preparing a casserole. Slow-cooker crock-pots also provide many opportunities for home-cooked meals without actually cooking at dinner time.

What to do when the family is at the table

In the ideal world, you’ve done all your planning, prioritizing, and preparing, and the whole family is sitting down 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.


  1. I agree that planning is crucial. It is so much easier to make something healthy for the family if the ingredients are already in your refrigerator! Also, it helps to get the kids on board when they help plan the meals with you. I have recently written a lot about this on my blog, too!

  2. I agree with planning and prep. One thing that I do is either buy/prepare extra on any given week when a little extra time presents itself. Then when I'm confronted with a very busy week, I (or my husband) can grab something from the freezer to cook easily and quickly.


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