How to Make Thanksgiving Dinner with Older Kids a Huge Success

My favorite holiday has always been Thanksgiving. I love all things turkey, pumpkin and stuffing because I was born during the Thanksgiving parade. No, my mother was not on the Big Bird float marching down 6th avenue in Manhattan. She was in a hospital in Miami Beach, Florida watching the parade.

Thanksgiving was always MY holiday when I was a kid even when my actual birthday did not fall on the fourth Thursday. Being the middle child of three, I was always thrilled to have a time during which I was the guaranteed center of attention.

How to get your teens and young adults involved in Thanksgiving

Now that I am a mom, I relish the day as well. My kids know it is MY day and I can pretty much ask for whatever I want. One year not too long ago, I convinced them to go see the new Muppet Movie with me (and they were definitely way too old for a Muppet movie.)

It also means I get them to help prepare the Thanksgiving meal with me without (much) complaining. I give each child a choice of what dish they want to help with and that is the key to cooperation. Just like toddlers (ssshhhh, don’t let our teens know that the rules we used when they were toddlers apply again when they become teens), they need to feel they have some control. By letting them pick which dish to help prepare, they have ownership in the process and it makes it even more enjoyable.

Here are some important ideas to remember when planning a stress-free Thanksgiving meal with help from your young adult children:

1. Welcome input.

Allow your young adult children to help pick the menu. Kids follow amazing cooking blogs and food sites via social media. You will be pleasantly surprised with what they find. The more involved they are in picking what will be prepared, the more excited they will be.

2. The planning stage.

Assign everyone specific responsibilities which make use of their own skill sets.  Some people may love to have a very creative task while others are more comfortable with something very black and white such as peeling potatoes, washing the lettuce or running to the store to buy sweet potatoes.

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3. Begin the Thanksgiving Prep early.

By November 1 the shelves are completely stocked with everything one needs for Thanksgiving dinner. Aside from the fresh ingredients, many of your items can be purchased ahead of time. I like to assign a small area in my pantry for items I buy specifically for the meal.

I collect what I need little by little. It makes the week of Thanksgiving much easier when all I need to purchase are the perishables. I keep a list on my phone of what I need and what I have already purchased so I always have it with me. Staying organized is the key to turkey day success!

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4. Take a kitchen inventory.

Check your kitchen for the tools you are going to need as soon as possible.  Remember last year when the meat thermometer broke and you said you were going to buy a new one.  Make sure you did.  Pull out everything you will need way before you are actually preparing the meal.  Remember, the most important part of making this fun is keeping the stress level down.  Being organized and making sure you know where everything is by the weekend prior to the holiday will make the week go much smoother.

5. Paper plates are not the enemy.

If using disposable plates, platters, napkins or tablecloths will save you from spending the entire night cleaning while everyone else relaxes on the sofa, then go crazy with paper goods. These days you can buy fantastic disposable plates and dinnerware.

Don’t worry about Martha Stewart making a surprise appearance at your dinner. She will be celebrating Thanksgiving at her home in Westport.  Our friend, Martha, will never know you decided to forgo the fine linen for colorful turkey paper napkins you purchased at Target. You won’t remember the napkins but you will remember relaxing after the meal with your family.

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6. Preparing the actual meal.

Remember it is okay if your helpers don’t do things exactly like you would do it.  If your son cuts the cucumbers differently than you usually do for the salad, they will still be cucumbers. Giving him freedom to do it his way is more important than making sure every bit of peel is removed from the vegetable.

7. Always remember what really matters.

The goal here is to bond together and not win best dish on a cooking show.  It is okay if something doesn’t come out perfect.  In fact, a disaster could end up being your favorite holiday story for years to come.

8. Decide which items are important to you to control.

If it is hard for you to let go of control of certain parts of the meal, keep those 100% to yourself. If it is important to you that your great-great-grandmother’s sweet potato dish comes out perfect or it isn’t really Thanksgiving for you, don’t delegate that task to anyone. Maybe add another side for someone to make.

9. Reach out to others.

Ask your children if they have friends they want to invite home who don’t have a place to go (such as international students or students who live too far to travel home for the weekend).  It is amazing how much more cooperative my teens are when they have a friend over. I love having extra people in the house. It is so much fun to watch my young adult children interact with their peers.  Of course, the bonus is the friends are always so appreciative and sweet and it is another set of hands to clear the table.

10. Document the fun with pictures.

Remember to take some pictures along the way as well.  I love having photos of the behind the scenes from years ago. I enjoy the prepping shots much more than the actual posed holiday pictures. The real pictures which tell the story of the day mean so much.

11. Play a game at dinner.  

This year I am starting something new. Instead of the traditional custom of having everyone say something specific at dinner. I am going to have small papers for my guests to anonymously write down things they are thankful for when they arrive. They will then place the papers in a large bowl. When we sit down for dinner, we will pass the bowl around and read off the notes of thanks.  It will be fun to try to guess who wrote each item. The game will keep everyone involved in the conversation and of course, keep everyone at the table longer.

12. Write down the best part of holiday at the end of the night.

Purchase an inexpensive journal or pull out one of the extra notebooks in the school supply closet.   Label a page Thanksgiving 2017 and ask everyone to sign. Encourage everyone to write at least one sentence about something that stands out from the day. Next year, it will be great to reflect on who was at the meal this year and what everyone did that day.

13. Start a tradition.  

It can be anything but make it meaningful or funny or specific to your family. There are so many things you can do just a little bit different on Thanksgiving that can become your special ritual every year. Don’t think too hard on this one, let it happen naturally and remember to write it down in your new Thanksgiving journal so you remember to do it next year.

14. You do You.

Finally, if you find it too hard to let control of what goes on in your kitchen, that is okay.  My favorite new saying is “You do You.” You know what works for your family. If having help in the actual food preparations is not comfortable for you, there are other ways you can involve your young adult children. Be creative. Let them set the table the way they would like it to look or create a book for family to sign when they come over. There are so many ways to get your family involved. It doesn’t matter how you choose to include them; just include them. It will make the day so much more fun, meaningful and memorable.

As with many things in life, our children often don’t realize how special the experience is while they are taking part. All those times, I wanted them in the kitchen with me I really just wanted to spend time with them and cooking and baking were enjoyable ways for me to spend time with my children. What I never realized was how much it would help them as they got older. By occasionally forcing or encouraging my kids to cook with me throughout their childhood and into their teen years, I gained a strong bond with them and they gained confidence in the kitchen which they carry forward in life.

Wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving 2017.


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About Renee Salem

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