Despite the fact that Christmas keeps trying to creep backward and take over Thanksgiving, it’s still my favorite holiday and it still deserves so much time and attention in the holiday lineup.
Some of my best memories as a kid were from Thanksgiving, and part of that was because we always knew what to expect. We knew what smell was going to wake us up on Thanksgiving morning (celery and onions cooking for the stuffing), we knew we’d get dressed up, and we knew we’d watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while making place cards for all the guests.
And I have my parents to thank for those little Thanksgiving traditions that made the holiday so special. It wasn’t over the top, and by noon it was chaos, but we were kept busy with little activities we could expect, and we loved — and still love — the holiday.
So if you’re wondering how to give your kids the best Thanksgiving ever, it doesn’t have to be complicated or over the top. But making simple traditions your kids enjoy and can expect, and instilling in them that the day is about family and gratitude, is all you need to do to make Thanksgiving special.
Here are a few tips that will help you make Thanksgiving special for your kids this year.
1. Get them excited about the holiday in advance
One thing you can do to get your kids ready for Thanksgiving is to start prepping them in advance. We have a list of great Thanksgiving activities that will get them thinking about the reason for the holiday — while doing some really fun craft projects. These activities will also help them help you. You can use some of what the create to decorate your home if you’re hosting, or bring a garland or painted pumpkin with you to your host wherever you’re headed for Thanksgiving dinner.
This pumpkin pie clay from Fun at Home with Kids would keep your little ones busy at the kitchen table for a while.
2. Start a parade-watching tradition
Who doesn’t love watching the Macy’s Day Parade? We used to love watching it on a very tiny television, but now most people have much larger televisions that make the floats even more life-like. You can get kids involved by asking them to choose their favorites, and talk with them about all of the people who make the Macy’s Day Parade happen.
If you've ever considered going to watch the Macy's Day Parade in person, Luxe Adventure Traveler has some great tips.
3. Serve a simple breakfast
Simple but special breakfast on Thanksgiving morning would be a pretty easy holiday tradition to start with your kids. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner (this step-by-step from WikiHow is surprisingly helpful if you're a novice!) and have too much in the oven, you could even make it as simple as getting Pop Tarts if you’d normally serve Cheerios. Or if your oven isn’t occupied, get a pack of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and let your kids be in charge of the icing. They'll love that!
If you do feel like warming up your oven before the big event, having your kids help make these cream cheese pumpkin muffins from The Spruce Eats would be a good option. Everyone loves a cream cheese surprise!
4. Make fresh air part of your traditions
My family wasn't big into the Thanksgiving turkey trot runs when I was younger, but I want to make sure that's part of our Thanksgiving tradition with my own family. Especially with young kids, fresh air can help wear them out so they're a little more likely to sit down at the Thanksgiving table later in the day. You can find a turkey trot in your area online and most of them are quite short, so even small kids could probably participate.
Or you could just make a new tradition to bundle up and go to the park on Thanksgiving morning — maybe you could bring bagels and save yourself the breakfast clean-up before you have quite a few more dishes to do later in the day.
5. Get your kids involved in the preparations
I loved being part of the Thanksgiving set-up. If your kids aren't old enough to help with the food preparations, you can task them with setting the table or making place cards for all of the guests who will be arriving. Even kids who aren't old enough to write can decorate place cards and you can do the writing for them.
Getting your kids involved in Thanksgiving prep has the added benefit of keeping them occupied, which means you should have a little more time to get ready for the day without kids underfoot. These placecards activity from Just Measuring Up would be a good option for any age little ones.
6. Let them help with the cooking
Letting your kids might sound like a terrible idea, but it can really help your kids enjoy the holiday. When I was small, I got to help squish the stuffing and knead the dough for the rolls, and to this day, I love to make those two recipes when I'm hosting my own Thanksgiving. But whether you let the kids put out crackers and roll up salami for a cheese board, or just sprinkle the canned onions on the green bean casserole, letting them be a part of the food prep is something that will help bond them to your family Thanksgiving traditions.
If you aren't sure where to start involving your kids, this list of 15 ways kids can help with Thanksgiving from Scratch Pad is a good place to start.
7. Start a gratitude tradition
Even little kids can start to learn about gratitude and appreciation, and a gratitude tradition can help them get a better grasp on the concept. It doesn't get simpler than a thankful turkey, like this one from Busy Toddler. She explains how to teach gratitude to toddlers, and when you start that early, it's easy to get older children in the gratitude mode.
You'll only need colored construction paper, a little glue, and a permanent marker in order to get these up on the wall pretty quick.
8. Make mealtime fun for the kids as well
We used to love sitting at the kids table when we were kids, in part because it was always set just as nicely as the grown-up table. If you have toddlers, you might not want them to be using nice china, but you can definitely set the table in a way that's fancy for them and a little out of the ordinary.
You can cover the kids table with kraft paper and draw leaf shapes that they can color while they're waiting for the grown-ups to sit and chat. Having the kids help to set their own table can help them get involved in the process as well. Don't forget to use some of the Thanksgiving crafts they made to decorate their table as well. Painted pumpkins would be perfect for a kids table centerpiece.
These Thanksgiving kids table activities from Happiness is Homemade would be handy to have ready in case you need a little backup and kids start getting restless.
9. Lead by example
Getting stressed by the holiday or focusing only on the football game instead of a sense of appreciation and gratitude for those you get to celebrate with isn't the goal here. Motherly has a good list of tips for the grown-ups to stay chill while hosting Thanksgiving.
One way to keep the holiday feeling in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving is to focus on gratitude in the smallest of ways. For me, I really try not to get bogged down by life's little inconveniences, and instead think of the daily things I can be grateful for - hot coffee, hot showers, my cute children in cosy sweaters. It's a good habit to build, no matter the season (and if you need a little boost in this direction, Forbes has a list of 8 ways to have more gratitude in your daily life).
10. Keep your expectations reasonable
There's no way to make Thanksgiving perfect (although watching Bon Apetit chefs try is enjoyable!). Your kid might have a meltdown right when you're carving the turkey. Your pie might burn or you might totally forget to buy the peas. Try to remember that Thanksgiving isn't about perfection for anyone, it's about being together as a family and starting some fun, simple family traditions together.
Keep your expectations low, and try to spread out a few Thanksgiving activities so you're not trying to squeeze thankful turkeys and placecards and pie-making into an already hectic Thanksgiving morning.