5 Thanksgiving traditions that bring families together

happy day

What if you could worry a little less about the menu and still wind up with a Thanksgiving everybody loves? You can. Just laser in on the thing kids care most about: doing stuff.

Fancy recipes and Pinterest-level table settings have nothing on these true crowd-pleasers that make people their centerpiece:

Start a Thankful Tree

Here’s a twist on the old go-around-the-table-and-say-what-you’re-thankful-for routine.

Gather a few bare branches and set them in a vase. Looks pretty artful and seasonal just like that! Now have your kids cut out a bunch of leaf shapes from construction paper or wrapping paper. Or, if your backyard or local park still has them, collect the best specimens of fallen leaves you can find—a few dozen.

On Thanksgiving, invite everyone to write down (or dictate) something pretty great that happened during the year: your 8-month-old started sleeping through the night, grandma got a new boyfriend (who, um, drives a really cool Mini Cooper), Alice got an A in pre-calc, Alan finally got a boss who doesn’t yell. If you’re using real leaves, a fine-point Sharpie with a gentle hand usually does the job.

Attach the leaves of gratitude to the branches with ornament hangers or paper clips. Gorgeous!

Make it a something-from-everybody feast

kids in kitchen

The typical Thanksgiving mega-meal features enough dishes so that everybody in the family can take ownership of a different one. Kids love feeling involved in the process. And playing some great tunes—and adding a little sparkling juice or champagne for the parental chefs—while you work makes it all more fun.

Even if your child is too young to manage an entire recipe, he or she can still pitch in. A toddler can tear lettuce for the salad or shake together the vinegar and oil, while someone else assembles it all. Older kids might…

  • Snap the beans for green bean casserole
  • Peel the potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • Slice the bread and put it in a basket
  • Mix the stuffing
  • Prepare the cranberry sauce
  • Make the pumpkin pie (that recipe on the can is not only delicious but easy and foolproof!)

After just a year or two, you’ll find that your kids get into planning “their” dishes days in advance.

Lace up together for a turkey trot

colorful turkey trot

On this food-centric holiday, balance all those calories-in with some calories-out: a family fun run or walk or even a neighborhood flag football game. Many local running clubs, sporting-good stores, and civic groups hold Turkey Trots, Gobble-Gobbles, or Turkey Chases either on Thanksgiving morning or during the holiday weekend. And they’re usually set up for all ages. That means there’s more camaraderie than competition in the air.

Find a race near you. Or make it your clan’s tradition to walk over to the nearest playground before or after the feast. Bonus: Happy, tired kids.

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Play 20 questions (and preserve a little family history)

You know how they say to replace your smoke detector batteries when the time changes in the spring and fall, or schedule your mammogram around your birthday? Same idea here. Except you use each Thanksgiving to pause and organize a few memories of the passing year.

How? By interviewing one another.

School-age kids especially love doing this, but anyone who can talk can join in.

You can even try recording it all. Smartphones make it easier than ever, especially if you use the new StoryCorps app, which includes lots of sample questions. Story Corps is also sponsoring the first annual Great Thanksgiving Listen—an effort to get students ages 13 and up to interview older relatives. (All you need is a smartphone and the StoryCorps app.)

It doesn’t have to be the full 20 questions—even a few will make for clips you’ll want to save in the family vault. Prep a few questions ahead of time, like these:

  • What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
  • What’s the awesomest thing you did on vacation last summer?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do after school (or after work)?
  • Who’s your best friend?
  • What are you most grateful for?

Enlarge your table


This tradition may hold extra appeal for those of us who don’t have extended family living nearby. Invite an older neighbor, your daughter’s college roommate, your son’s violin teacher—anyone who might otherwise be alone during the holiday. It’s not just a nice thing to do; it gets everyone thinking outward and adds a fresh point of view.

Plan on a before- or after-dinner activity or two to encourage your gang to interact with the guest: Classic card or board games (Go Fish, Scrabble) or piecing a puzzle are great ways to get everyone talking.

Traditions like these take the heat off kitchen perfection and shift the focus away from Black Friday—back on what our kids will actually look back on fondly: goofing around together with us.

Photos from top: Oh Happy Day!/Flickrslicing/Flickr, turkey trot elmhurst/FlickrHappy Thanksgiving everyone!/Flickr

By | 2017-06-30T08:40:05+00:00 November 20th, 2015|Grade-schooler, Preschooler, Teen, Tween|

About the Author:

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Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the StartThe Happiest Toddler on the BlockLike Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.

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