Even the Littlest Helping Hands Can Make Thanksgiving

For many families, this year’s Thanksgiving is going to feel topsy-turvy, and, as challenging as it might be for grown-ups, it may also be strange for kids.

For my 12-year-old daughter, there’ll be no big, festive dinner at grandma’s house, no running around the backyard with cousins, no sneaking crispy bits of skin off the resting turkey or mini marshmallows from the bag. (Yes, we see you!)

But pausing some traditions creates opportunities for new ones. A smaller, podded celebration is an excellent time to lure your children into the kitchen and cook Thanksgiving dinner as a family.

More important, though, helping with the meal gives kids a chance to become deeply invested, allowing them to experience the joys of the process along with the flavors. Some of my earliest and best Thanksgiving memories involve helping my parents at a young age: peeling roasted chestnuts for the stuffing with my dad around age 6, and whipping cream for the pies and cakes with my mom just a year or so later. Having a say in planning the menu and preparing it by your side gives kids skills that can enable future cooking — into this holiday season and beyond. And it’s never too early to plunge in. Even the littlest kids can lend a hand with simple tasks like crumbling cornbread for stuffing.

[Thanksgiving will be different this year. Here are hundreds of our best Thanksgiving recipes from NYT Cooking to help.]

To get all ages, from curious toddlers to eye-rolling tweens and TikTok-ing teens, started, I’ve included three Thanksgiving dishes — cornmeal stuff with Cheddar and scallions, roasted sweet potatoes with lime sour cream and pecans, and a fluffy-topped pumpkin fudge torte — that they’ll be proud of making before they devour them.

Lastly, let’s talk about clean up. Cleaning as you go is as vital a kitchen technique as correctly holding a knife. My advice? Take a deep breath and let them make a mess, because that’s what cooking’s all about, and then instruct them how to help clean it up. Two useful tips: Have a damp cloth at the ready for wiping up splatters and spills, and use trash bowls that are easy to reach.

Yes, cooking a meal with your kids could take longer than if you did it yourself. But if you can give them the confidence and skills to do it again, won’t it have all been worth it?

Young Kids (Ages 3 to 5)

Keep the littlest chefs by your side, letting them climb onto a step stool, so they can reach the counter and be part of the action. Since these young ones are still developing their fine motor skills, show them tasks that let them use their hands whenever safely possible.

Picking herbs off stems, tearing lettuce for salad, and squeezing lemons or other citrus (that you’ve already cut) into bowls for dressings are all good candidates. If you’re baking sweet potatoes, let your younger chefs wrap them in foil. And they’ll love smashing graham crackers for pie crusts. (Just put the graham crackers in a heavy-duty plastic bag first.)

Grade School (Ages 6 to 9)

Grade-school kids are ready for a lot more responsibility in the kitchen, and they’re at a great age to absorb whatever you teach them.

They can help prep ingredients: measuring out flour, sugar, spices and condiments; cracking eggs; grating cheese, ginger and citrus zest; and grating or pressing garlic. And they can be excellent whiskers, mashers and sandwich makers. (For these recipes, school-age kids can whisk together the torte ingredients, and perhaps even melt the butter, and they can learn how to use an electric mixer for whipping the topping.)

This is also the time to introduce them to the world of knives and other sharp kitchen equipment like skewers and graters. Butter knives and rigid plastic knives marketed for kids are wonderful options for slicing fruit, cheese and soft vegetables. Depending on your kid, you might even be able to give them a real knife to use. (Be sure to supervise them closely.)

Make sure that whatever knife you give them is small enough to fit comfortably in their hand: Paring and small, 6- to 7-inch knives can work well. Then, go online together, and watch a few instructional videos on how to safely use them. (Your knife skills might benefit, too.)

Tweens and Teens (Ages 10 and Up)

These older kids are ready for any task you feel good about giving them, including those at the stove. Go over basic stove safety (especially oven mitt use) and don’t stray far from the kitchen until you’re sure they’ve got it.

Thanksgiving ›

Grocery Checklist

Some items on the Thanksgiving shopping list are obvious, but there are several other ingredients that will prove invaluable to have on hand. See our full guide on How To Cook and Plan Thanksgiving and our list of staples below.

    • Butter, lots of it. Choose European-style high-fat butter for pie crusts, and regular unsalted butter for everything else.
    • Stock. If you haven’t made your own, look for homemade stock at the same butcher shop where you buy your turkey, or in the freezer section of your supermarket. The canned and boxed stuff should be a last resort.
    • Fresh herbs. Not only do they add freshness and flavor across your Thanksgiving table, but they’re also pretty, lending a touch of green to a meal heavy on earth tones.
    • Garlic, onions, leeks, fresh ginger, shallots. An assortment of aromatics keeps your cooking lively and interesting. You’ll need them for the stuffing, for stock and gravy, and for many side dishes.
    • Fresh citrus. Lemon, lime and orange juice and zest contribute brightness to countless Thanksgiving dishes, from the turkey to the gravy to the cranberry sauce to the whipped cream for pie.
    • Nuts. These go a long way to give crunch to otherwise texturally boring dishes. (Ahem, sweet potato casserole.)
    • White wine/vermouth/beer. Even if you’re not drinking any of these spirits before or during the meal, they can be splashed into gravy or vegetable dishes, or used to deglaze the turkey roasting pan. (Bourbon and brandy work well as deglazers, too.)
    • Fresh spices. If you can’t remember when you bought your spices, now is a good time to replace them.
    • Light brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup. These sweeteners are more profoundly flavored than white sugar, and they have an autumnal richness.
    • Heavy cream, sour cream, crème fraîche, ice cream. You’ll need these for topping pies and cakes.
    • Please, wear a mask. It protects both yourself and others from coronavirus, and aim to maintain several feet of distance from other shoppers in stores whenever possible. If you opt for grocery delivery, tip as generously as you can.
    • See all of our Thanksgiving recipes.

    Source: Cooking With Kids