Thanksgiving can be a hard sell to kids. There are no presents to open, eggs to hunt, costumes to wear or fireworks to watch.
The holiday that loosely replicates the feast held by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians four centuries ago calls for family and friends to gather at the table.
“Thanksgiving is all about the big meal. For many kids, there’s very little appealing about the holiday,” says Jennifer Russo, a mom, chef and owner of the Market by Jennifer in Phoenix.
There is a way, however, to combat blasé kids: Anoint them as junior sous chefs. Studies consistently show that children who help cook meals are more likely to eat what they’ve created. This goes for regular weekday meals as well as the Thanksgiving feast.
“Simply put, if they help with the meal, they will be more engaged. They will take pride in what they helped prepare,” says Russo, who often cooks with her son Cooper, 8. “They will enjoy the time at the table, and so will the adults.”
The internet is filled with crafty food projects for Thanksgiving, but Russo recommends involving kids in cooking what will be served at the table. Although fun to make, chocolate Pilgrim hats do little to entice children to enjoy the actual meal.
The key to including kids in Thanksgiving prep is blending traditional dishes with enticing ingredients, such as bacon, honey, carrots and cinnamon.
Russo also recommends dishes that are relatively simple to prepare and can be prepped in about an hour. Kids are likely to balk at cooking complex dishes.
Her choices are three family favorites: a bacon-stuffed twice-baked sweet potato topped with mini marshmallows; honey-glazed carrots; and stuffing baked in muffin tins.
Beyond the kid-friendly recipes, here are five ways to get kids more engaged in the holiday meal:
1. Let them help plan. Include the kids in deciding what dishes to cook and serve or even what pies to bake from scratch. After finalizing a menu, ask the kids to design individual menus for guests or one to post on the wall. The more invested they are in the meal, the more they will enjoy the food and the experience.
2. Encourage creativity. Recruit volunteers to set the table with a touch of kid artistry. Dress the table in butcher paper and have the kids paint a Thanksgiving scene or to decorate the paper with all the things for which they’re thankful.
3. Consider their safety. The kitchen, loaded with hot pots and sharp knives, can be dangerous. Keep hot foods away from small children and keep pot handles turned away from the edge of the stove and counters to prevent kids from accidentally tipping them over.
4. Match tasks to a child’s age. Children 5 and younger can fill the bread basket, wash vegetables, mash potatoes and stir cold or room-temperature ingredients. Ages 5 to 8 can cut with a small knife. (But, first, teach them how to form their hand into a claw to keep fingertips out of danger.) They also can grate, measure, beat and fold. With supervision, kids 8 and older can manage most kitchen tasks.
5. Start early. It’s best to include kids earlier in the day, or even the day before. Asking them to help during the frantic minutes before the big meal may invite disaster.
3 Thanksgiving recipes for kid chefs
From Jennifer Russo
Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes with Bacon, Brown Sugar and Marshmallows
8 medium sweet potatoes, about 3½-4 pounds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 slices bacon, about 8 ounces
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons light-brown sugar
1 cup mini marshmallows
Chopped parsley garnish
Cinnamon, for dusting
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick sweet potatoes all over with a fork and rub with vegetable oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake directly on oven rack until tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, cook bacon until crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to let cool, then crumble 2 slices. Reserve 2 tablespoons bacon fat. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, make a slit in the top and carefully scoop out flesh into a medium bowl. Transfer potato skins to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Mash potato flesh until mostly smooth. Add crumbled bacon, reserved bacon fat, ¼ cup brown sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt and stir. Increase heat to 425 degrees. Carefully divide sweet-potato mixture among skins and top with marshmallows and remaining 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. Tuck remaining bacon into sweet potatoes, breaking into pieces to evenly distribute. Bake until marshmallows are golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Dust with cinnamon before serving. Serves 8.
Roasted Tri-Color Carrots with Herbed Butter and Arizona Honey
1 pound of organic tri-colored carrots, scrubbed, sliced lengthwise (Slice larger ones 3 or more times.)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Arizona honey
1 teaspoon zest of orange
1 teaspoon zest of lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)
Small handful of fresh herbs, such as Italian parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon and dill
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place carrots on baking sheet, drizzle with oil, honey and season with salt and pepper, being sure to coat evenly. Roast until desired tenderness, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let rest for a couple of minutes. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter until foaming, add carrots and mix well until coated. Remove from heat, add herbs and zests and turn in serving bowl.
Thanksgiving Stuffing Muffins
1 onion, finely chopped
1½ cups chopped celery
3 carrots, finely chopped
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 cup chicken stock
¼ cup melted butter
9 cups soft bread cubes
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
12 ounces raisins
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Saute onions and celery in skillet until tender. Mix all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Coat muffin tins with vegetable spray. Fill muffin tins with stuffing mix until just overflowing. The muffins will not rise in oven. Bake for 25 minute or until crisp on top. Makes 36 muffins.