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A Family Thanksgiving

A Family Thanksgiving
Defined by cherished rituals and familiar foods, Thanksgiving has been an American family tradition since our country's first harvest celebration in 1621. In colonial times, children played an important role in the festivities by helping to prepare and serve the feast and clean up afterwards. Today, kids can carry on this tradition by lending a hand in the kitchen and dining room. Involving the entire family in planning and preparing the Thanksgiving meal is a wonderful way to pass on customs and recipes from one generation to the next.

Planning the Thanksgiving Menu

Share family recipes and discuss their origins. Children love to hear about where their favorite Thanksgiving dishes came from, be it Grandma's famous stuffing or Uncle Don's pumpkin pie. Knowing the family history of different recipes makes the meal all the more meaningful (and might even inspire kids to try the green vegetables prepared by a favorite aunt).

Learn about the first Thanksgiving feasts. Take the kids on a trip back in time, exploring the foods served at the earliest harvest celebrations in our country. Many colonial favorites can be found in contemporary holiday menus, including cranberries, corn, pumpkins and turkey.

Investigate regional American holiday favorites. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to discover the bounty of regional flavors in America. Invite children to peruse cookbooks describing local cuisines from different parts of the country, then choose an enticing new dish or two to prepare, along with your own family favorites.

Solicit special requests. Ask children to help personalize the menu by choosing their favorite side dishes or desserts. Many kids also have preferences about the ingredients that go into a particular dish. For example, youngsters might request that mashed potatoes be prepared without garlic, or will agree to eat salad if it includes bacon.

Helping in the Kitchen

Teach children about kitchen safety. Before young chefs embark on any kitchen adventures, be sure they are well acquainted with basic safety guidelines, especially regarding heat and knives.

Introduce the concept of mise en place. A lavish meal like Thanksgiving dinner provides a great opportunity to teach young cooks the importance of staying organized. From the French for "to set in place," mise en place means having all ingredients prepped and ready to use as the recipe directs.

Choose age-appropriate prep and cooking tasks. Be sure that the assigned tasks are suited to the age and skill level of each child. Preschoolers and kindergarteners can tear up bread for stuffing, mash potatoes with a handheld masher, stir batters, wash vegetables and arrange crudités on a tray. More experienced young cooks can wash and peel potatoes, slice vegetables, make salads, roll out pastry dough and prepare simple desserts. With some adult supervision, older children can prepare entire recipes on their own, such as cranberry sauce, biscuits, pies and cakes.

Ask children to help serve and clean up. As their 17th-century predecessors did, children can help serve the meal, clear the table, wash dishes and put away tableware.

Setting and Decorating the Table

Teach kids the art of table-setting. Since a beautifully set table is an integral part of Thanksgiving dinner, you will have a built-in opportunity to teach children how to arrange the dishes, glassware and flatware for each place setting. You can also have fun with creative napkin-folding.

Set the perfect kids' table. If your celebration will include a group of children, consider seating them at their very own table. Set it with kid-friendly tableware and decorations (for safety's sake, skip the candles). For very young diners, use unbreakable dishes, glassware and utensils. If children will be dining at the main table, seat them between adults who can assist with food service.

Make seasonal decorations. Invite kids to create their own place mats, centerpieces and other fun decorations. Essential materials include construction paper, crayons and autumn botanicals, such as colorful leaves, miniature pumpkins and gourds, dried Indian corn and unshelled nuts. To mark place settings, have children make harvest-themed place cards personalized with the name of each diner.

Orchestrating Holiday Activities

Celebrate with indoor and outdoor fun. Keep the gang happy before and after the feast by planning a few creative activities. Kids can work up an appetite (or burn off excess energy) with a game of tag, flag football, hide-and-seek or leapfrog (a favorite among colonial children). Or host a pumpkin-rolling race, where participants roll small pumpkins to the finish line using long sticks or branches. For indoor pastimes, try board games, Thanksgiving trivia contests and holiday-themed charades.

Commemorate your family Thanksgiving with a Gratitude Tree. Using colored construction paper and crayons, have children make a tree whose branches will be decorated with cutout handprint "leaves." On each of the paper leaves, ask a family member or holiday guest to write one thing they are thankful for. Your tree will serve as a keepsake that provides fond memories of your celebration long after the holiday is over.