The Swanson Family became friends of The Family Dinner Project while we were working with Beth’s group, The Moms Network of Walla Walla. Now Beth shares some of her tried-and-true strategies for making family dinners work in a large and busy household!
Beth and Aaron Swanson and their five (yes, five!) boys: Gary, 25; Josh, 16; Casey, 14; Adam, 11; and 7-year-old Gabe. The Swansons live in Walla Walla, Washington.
In a large family with many different ages and stages going on at once, Beth says that the biggest goal for their family dinners right now is just finding ways to get all seven family members to the table at the same time, as well as provide a balanced meal that meets everyone’s nutritional needs and works around individual palates.
“With feeding 7 people, if 3 people will actually eat it, we call it a meal!”
The Swansons are constantly juggling sports practices, jobs and other scheduling commitments. They also face the unique challenges of having younger kids whose dinnertime skills (like sitting for long periods of time or staying on-task with eating) may still be emerging, while older teen and adult children have preferences and schedules of their own to contend with. And of course, there are the individual preferences and appetites that come with raising five kids!
Beth has become a master at working out ways to meet the needs of every member of her family, relying mainly on organization, a sense of humor and “learning to set lower standards” for what a successful family dinner looks like in the Swanson household. One non-negotiable Swanson rule is that no family member ever eats alone; if someone is later to finish their meal than others, another person will always sit with them and make sure there’s an opportunity for conversation. Similarly, if 7-year-old Gabe is too tired or not hungry enough to be interested in dinner with his parents and siblings, he is still encouraged to join them at the table for a game (Headbanz is a favorite!) or to talk for 10 minutes to instill the importance of spending time together at the table.
Still, feeding her crowd of kids (as well as friends — Beth estimates that on some weekend afternoons, there might be 10 teenagers gathered for a meal at the Swanson house) presents practical challenges. “It’s hard when you feed a flock to get Mom to the table,” she shares. To combat the problem, Beth sets out all of the food buffet-style on the kitchen counter and allows family members to serve themselves, freeing her to focus on her own meal. She also keeps the dinner table stocked with cutting boards and dishes of ready-to-grab fruits, vegetables and nuts to help fill extra-hungry family members, as well as to offer healthy choices to more selective eaters, like her younger children.
“My youngest seems to barely eat and does not eat green food…The good news is he sees the rest of the family eat a balanced meal and I consistently serve a rainbow, so I hope one day he just grabs a piece of broccoli and eats it.”
Beth also swears by having a planned menu as well as a back-up plan to keep the family’s dinners on track. She plans on Sundays and spends a few minutes each morning during the week prepping for the evening meal, which is posted in the family’s kitchen to forestall questions. On long and especially busy days, she relies on the crockpot, but says she’s “not afraid of omelets as a substitute if the day goes off course.” To be prepared for every possibility, the Swansons always keep a minimum of 3 dozen eggs on hand so they can get a quick meal on the table whenever they need to.
Beth jokes that her favorite family dinner is “whatever they’ll all eat,” but the Swanson boys have definite preferences. Favorite staples listed by the kids are steak, barbecue pulled chicken, pot roast and turkey, with vegetables like carrots, pea pods and artichokes also ranking high on the list. To keep up with teenage appetites, the Swanson family also employs a few regular tricks. Every night, Beth prepares noodles and rolls to add to whatever the family is eating for dinner, and on Sundays she bakes double batches of cookies, scones and breads, which are displayed in large glass jars on the kitchen counter. The Swanson boys know that whatever is in the jars is available for them to take anytime they need an extra snack, and Beth keeps a stash of baked goods in the freezer as well so she can replenish the jars whenever they run low.
The Swanson family says that through their exposure to The Family Dinner Project, they’ve learned the importance of relaxing and staying positive at mealtimes, as well as remembering that their time together at the table is more important than having a perfect meal — the connection matters more than the food.
The Best Part:
11-year-old Adam says he loves to play games and laugh with his family at dinnertime (and getting a slice of Mom’s chocolate cake for dessert doesn’t hurt, either!) Little brother Gabe likes it when they eat turkey for dinner and play his favorite game, Headbanz. But for busy mom Beth, the best part of family dinner is all about love.
“I get to see their faces and time seems to slow down for about 15 minutes. Plus, my love language is baking and cooking, so I know they’re getting love during the day.”
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Tags: Tips, family stories, for a crowd, real family dinner projects