Thanksgiving is famous for the meal. But when I was a kid, Thanksgiving was infamous for the long wait before the meal.
It seemed like the grownups fussed over the food and table setting forever before we could dig into the stuffing. Sure, you can distract your kids with a few Thanksgiving coloring sheets and a box of crayons, but there’s a bigger opportunity here.
Involve your kids in the work of Thanksgiving.
When you give kids real, meaningful jobs to do, they become more invested in the celebration — and the joy — of Thanksgiving. This is true for any special occasion, and, indeed, at home day-to-day.
Not only will you educate your kids about real-world stuff (how to set a table, how to make Dad’s famous sweet potatoes), you’ll help them build confidence in their own growing abilities. My daughter feels pretty proud when she sets a beautiful table, knowing she earned the family’s admiration and gratitude.
It’s okay if they’re not enthusiastic about helping. Involve them anyway.
I’m not saying kids necessarily like doing the work. Few kids do, and that’s okay. The payoff is the shared goal, the working together, and (yes) having more hands on the big job of pulling off the Thanksgiving meal. Chances are the cooking, setup and cleanup happen over several days, so they’ll have plenty of open time to play with cousins, watch movies, and sneak spoonfuls of Cool Whip.
In the meantime, give them a job. When dinner is finally served, everyone will feel the pride of having pitched in.
6 ways to involve your kids in Thanksgiving prep
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Planning the Thanksgiving meal
Learning to break down a large project into doable chunks is a skill that will serve kids well (think: Science fair, term paper and, oh, life). Sit down with your kid and plan out the menu. Then take it a few steps further:
- Schedule the grocery shopping trips
- Talk about which stores you’ll visit for which items
- Think about the serving pieces you’ll need on hand (or gather up some creative substitutions)
- Talk about who’s invited to dinner
- Borrow folding chairs or card tables if you need extra seating
2. Shopping for supplies
You’ll probably go on more than one shopping run for Thanksgiving supplies — bring your kid along. He’ll learn about comparison shopping, ingredients, and he’ll start getting excited about the festivities.
Oh, the cooking. There are a million small and big ways kids can help. Thanksgiving is a great holiday for getting kids cooking as so many traditional recipes are simple. Cranberry sauce, for example, or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie (especially if you use a ready-made crust).
Parent Hacks readers Brystal and Daria told me that they volunteer to make the pies every year…specifically because the kids can practically make pies by themselves.
4. Decorating and setting the table
For many kids, decorating doesn’t feel like a job. If you’ve got crafty or aesthetically-minded kids, put them to work making the table look pretty. Decoration can be as simple as construction paper placemats in Fall colors, colorful leaves/twigs/seeds from the yard, and a few tea light candles.
Let the kids do the actual table setting, too. If the job is too big, just have them fold the napkins or set out the silverware…anything to get them involved.
5. Hosting guests
Being a gracious host (even to your extended family) is a skill kids need to learn. Give them an informal script to follow if necessary.
- Show your kids how to answer the door and welcome people to their home.
- Teach them to warmly greet family members they may not have seen in a long time, or to reacquaint themselves with family friends and their kids.
- Have them take and store guests’ coats and umbrellas.
- Let them announce the meal and lead guests to the table.
6. Cleaning up
What goes down (the hatch) must be cleaned up. I’m not suggesting hard labor in the kitchen, but I do think kids need to be responsible for clearing their dishes and helping with the cleanup. (Motivation spin: the sooner the table is clean, the quicker the dessert comes out.)
Older kids, especially, can be expected to take a shift in the kitchen, especially when it’s framed as respectfully giving older family members a break.
This post was inspired by Minimalist Parenting, the book I co-wrote with Christine Koh. Every week, Christine and I talk about how to enjoy life more by doing less on our podcast, Edit Your Life. Check out these related episodes: Less Is More Thanksgiving and Non-Judgy Food Tips for Families.