I’ll admit it, I’m facing down Thanksgiving this year with something between resignation and panic. We will be hosting for the first time since well before I had kids—mine are four and two—and I’ll be cooking in a relatively untested kitchen, with a lot of logistics to plan for in terms of bringing along the equipment I need, transporting the food, etc. My usual daily routine with the kids won’t be on the docket, so as I try to prepare for every contingency, I thought a few ideas for making it a true day of thanks-giving for everyone at the table might be in order.
1. Run them.
If you’re traveling and there won’t be a yard available, do some google work beforehand and map out the nearest playgrounds. Local elementary schools often let neighbors use their facilities when school isn’t in session—have a plan so that someone who isn’t cooking can get the kids outside, even if it’s just for half an hour. (Don’t forget to pack rain gear, warm coats, play shoes, or whatever else you might need.) The same applies if you’re hosting—letting the kids blow off steam for as long as possible early in the day will pay off once they’re expected to sit down at the table. Delegate to an aunt, spouse, teenaged cousin, or other responsible non-cook, and try to plan with them in advance so they don’t resent getting punted outside in the middle of a football game.
2. Involve them.
Ok, this is a pretty high-stakes meal, and harried hosts don’t really have time to enjoy a kiddie cooking class. But I still remember how special I thought it was when I got to make the place-cards for big meals when I was a kid. Elementary schoolers can also help wrangle younger kids, leading games (see #3), playing catch outside (see #1), and so forth. Even little kids can help with some kitchen tasks (arranging rolls in a basket, folding napkins, keeping the dog away from the cheese plate), and they love being helpers.
3. Invest in novelty.
If you’ll have a good-sized group of young cousins or friends gathering, consider picking up a couple new games and puzzles, and try to replenish your dress-up stash. Encourage the kids to put together a play or Thanksgiving pageant in the living room for everyone to enjoy after the meal. Martha Stewart and others have easy templates to make Pilgrim hats—a few simple and non-messy crafts are great crowd-pleasers. On a less-seasonal note, we’ve been upcycling paper shopping bags into robot costumes lately, simply by cutting a hole in the top and crosses in the sides to slip arms through. Decorate away!
4. Let the kid’s table enjoy itself.
If you’re seating the kids away from the main table, try laying down butcher paper and cups of nice, fresh colored pencils or crayons. Kids sitting with the adults (as mine will be, since they’re so small and we’ll only have six adults) shouldn’t be expected to stay at the table for hours while the adults chat. Once they’re done eating, let them be excused to read or color quietly nearby.
Sure, the big holiday events when you have little kids aren’t exactly relaxing. But more than any other time of year, the holidays force me to remember how quickly these years will pass, and how soon I’ll have hulking teenagers eating all the mashed potatoes instead of a moppet refusing to touch turkey. Big crowds, lots of semi-familiar people, extra dessert, weird meal times...the holidays are a lot of stimulation for kids (and adults; let’s be honest), so try to stay patient and cut them a little slack.
And then take them back outside, for good measure.
About Kate Flaim
Kate is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Cambridge, Mass, though she’s never quite stopped missing her native Oregon. When she’s not caring for her preschoolers or figuring out what to cook for dinner, she’s usually thinking about food, books, or renovations. She blogs (very sporadically) at http://kateflaim.com/blog.