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?


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 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.)

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.

At this age, kids are ready to start tackling simple recipes, like those included here, as well as straightforward things like mashed potatoes, pumpkin bread, muffins and salads before moving on to more complicated soups, stews and pasta dishes.

Once they’re comfortable, encourage them to get creative. Any mistakes will make them better cooks, and every success will give them the pride and confidence they need to be true partners in the kitchen. Soon, they’ll be cooking dishes or even meals, for the family if they’re excited about the process.

And getting them excited about cooking is a lifelong gift that will repay everyone — sage parents and empowered kids — for years to come.

Recipes: Sweet Potatoes With Sour Cream and Pecans | Scallion-Cheddar Cornbread Stuffing | Pumpkin Fudge Torte

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