When you have eight children and a desire to make sure the family regularly shares home-cooked dinners together, the recipe definitely calls for good organization skills and a plan.

SzewsDinner09After saying grace, the Szews family and a guest sit down to dinner in their home on Monday, March 19. From left are Tommy, 17, Sam, 12, Jimmy, 10, family friend Evan Richarz, 18 (a senior at Pius XI High School), Paul Szews, Peter, 14, and Jennifer Szews. Not present for the dinner were the four other Szews children Joe, 16, J.P, 22, Christy, 21, and Molly, 20.A mother of six boys and two girls, ranging in age from 10 to 22, Jennifer Szews of Wauwatosa has been scanning grocery store sales flyers and planning meals for 20-plus years.

Eating dinners together as a family has been a priority for her and husband Paul.

“It keeps everyone grounded,” she said, “and it’s healthier and cheaper.”

Over the years, the kids’ school friends have joined the family at the dining table “and they’d be so surprised that we ate together every night. Talking to other moms, I have realized that there’s not a lot of home cooking going on, and families aren’t sitting down for dinner together,” Szews said.

With an idea to help families change that practice, Szews tapped her two decades of family meal-planning experience to start an online business, SimplifyDinnertime.com, in November 2010. For a monthly fee, she researches the advertising flyers for the client’s preferred food store, plans nightly dinner menus for each week based on the store’s sale items, and provides all the recipes.

She has found that planning meals for the week is an excellent way for a grocery shopper to stay on budget.

“I’ve always bought the sale items and looked for good prices. This is what has saved me tons of money – especially with six boys in the house,” Szews said.

The SimplifyDinnertime.com meal plans cost $10 to $20 a month. Szews has about 40 clients, including subscribers living in different states and in Canada.

Although she offers a regular dinner-planning option not tied to stores in the Milwaukee area, most of the out-of-town clients sign up to receive her weight-loss plans. Each week, Szews prepares a plan with daily breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.

“These plans are in sync with the Points Plus program – I figure out the points, which saves people time,” she said.

Deanna Giles, who lives in Georgia, subscribes to the weight-loss plan and cooks regularly for her husband and four children.

“Now we’re eating healthier, thanks to Jennifer,” Giles said. “I also love the messages she emails to motivate and inspire me, and I have been losing weight.”

Szews also puts together a weekly “recession-buster” plan that gives one dinner idea for each night, based on the sale items at a local grocery chain. Recipes are chosen so that preparing the dinners will cost less than $60 for the week. Her other plans give two options per dinner based on the weekly specials at the client’s grocery store.

Emily Vebber of Milwaukee has been using the service for about nine months and regularly follows the recipe suggestions from Szews.

“Before, I was bad at planning for grocery shopping and we’d pick up food from places like Noodles or Panera, or fast food chains,” she said. “Now I buy the food for all the week’s meals, and we’re saving money.”

Volunteers as school meal planner

Szews, who has an engineering degree from Marquette University, works about 30 hours a week on the business, and about 10 to 15 hours a week doing volunteer activities for St. Jude the Apostle Parish School in Wauwatosa. Her three youngest children attend the school; a few years ago, the family had seven children in the school at the same time.SzewsDinner07Jennifer Szews prepares two meatloaves and a mushroom dish for a family dinner at her Wauwatosa home on Monday, March 19. (Catholic Herald photos by Ernie Mastroianni)

Szews volunteers as an organizer for the school’s lunch program that started eight years ago as a way to raise funds for St. Jude. She plans and orders the meals, which range from pizza and subs from local restaurants to macaroni and cheese prepared by volunteers.

When a volunteer is needed for a church or school activity, “I’m one of the go-to moms,” Szews said. Helping out and being active in the parish has been a rewarding way to enhance her faith life, and she especially enjoys being involved in activities that help parish members get to know each other better.

Working on her business at night enables her to continue volunteering, and she makes it a priority to be home when the kids are done with their school day.

When her children were too young to stay home alone, most afternoons involved grabbing the car keys and taking the whole clan to sports practices and other after-school activities. On those days, the crock pot or a quick recipe proved an essential ally to prepare the family dinner.

One thing she has learned from talking with her clients is “people can be intimidated by cooking, so they think they don’t have time to cook,” she said. “But I learned that with the right recipes, a dinner can take just 10 to 30 minutes of prep, even without using processed foods.”

Sharing a love of cooking

As her three oldest children enter adulthood, Szews has noticed how her dedication to home cooking has influenced them. Her son, J.P., 22, is a cook at a local restaurant “and would love to open a restaurant some day,” Szews said. “Christy, 21, is an engineering student and now that she has an apartment, has become an avid cook. Molly, 20, is a business student and has always loved to cook.”

Sharing meals together is an important family tradition that Szews believes helped form the strong bonds between her eight children. “It’s so important to sit down together as a family,” she noted. “Our kids are close, and eating together every night is a big part of that.”