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Thanksgiving Family Traditions — from a mom who’s been doing it for almost 25 years

A great thanksgiving tip was sent to me by my mother a few years ago.  She cut it out of the newspaper, photocopied it and sent it to both  my sister and I, when she passed on the tradition of hosting the annual feast:

“Make it fun, easy, and family oriented… but don’t use the gathering of family members as a therapy session!“

My earliest memories of Thanksgiving dinner were of sitting at a very formal table, with the good china and glasses being brought out from the china cabinet. My mother would start stuffing and cooking her turkey from 5:00 a.m. onward.  There were always mashed potatoes, sage and onion bread stuffing, some type of green vegetable and my father had the tradition of making the gravy from the turkey drippings. The cranberry sauce came out of the can and a store-bought pumpkin pie with whipped cream finished off the meal.

Sometimes it was just our family of four, but more often than not,  we would include others who were on their own or didn’t have families.  My sister and I would dress up and try to act like adults.  Our tummies full, we would leave the table when our dad nodded, or winked, to give us permission to go and play. We had no idea how much work our mother put into this very Canadian tradition, one she had adopted when she moved to Canada from the West Indies and married our dad.

When my husband and I had our own children, we would always feel obligated to attend two thanksgiving meals: one with his parents and one with mine.  This was not only exhausting, but frustrating because by the time dinner was served,  our small children were now cranky, tired and really not into it.

After one too many spoiled Thanksgiving dinners, my husband and I decided to make a request of our parents: “Why can’t we have one Thanksgiving dinner at lunchtime from now on and include the entire family?”  This completely changed the dynamic and we all enjoyed each others’ company a whole lot more.   

Once we had this down pat, our next request as they got older was: “Why don’t we host it?”

You might think hosting Thanksgiving dinner yourself is difficult, but it isn’t as long as you ask for help.  These days, most of us who have children also have demanding jobs and ageing parents to look after.  Learning to ask for help, being flexible, and keeping things simple and fun allows us to continue enjoying traditions like Thanksgiving as a family.

Here are a few tips to help you make Thanksgiving more fun and flexible:

One year, we had a table of 14 of us — including our children and nieces and nephews — and to keep everyone focused on the  tradition of giving thanks, we gave out a pen and a piece of paper to everyone who could write.  The question they had to answer was “What are you thankful for?“  Everyone wrote down their answers and then the papers were mixed up and handed out for each of us to read.  Once you read it you had to guess who wrote it.  The answers were a hilarious mix of “I am thankful for skateboarding,” from my twelve year old nephew, to “I am thankful that my brother is not sitting beside me,” to “I am thankful for family, living in a democracy,” and one that said they were thankful for well-behaved grandchildren and the fact they didn’t have to cook the turkey!

Family Fun activities

Christmas crackers aren’t just for Christmas…some stores sell them with Thanksgiving themes or you can grab paper bags and fill them with fun treats to give everyone.  Give your children the job of handing these out to everyone once the meal is finished.  

Give each of your kids a small pumpkin and/or stickers and paper and let them create nametags for the table.  Then allow them to decide where everyone will sit.

Kids’ table or not?  Let them pick where they want to sit — give them some control.  Some families and children love the “kids’ table.”  in our family if you were an adult and wanted to sit there, you could! Eventually, four adults were sitting at a kids’ table and the kids were at the big table.

Ask the kids for their meal input

Why not just ask the children what their favourite food is, and make sure it’s there for them? Why can’t macaroni and cheese be added as a side dish, or slices of pizza replace bread?  This way, your picky eaters have something to eat while everyone else is digging into their turkey and gravy.

Brussels sprouts…yuck!   For those who don’t like them, the best way to prepare them is to cut them in half, put them in a baking pan, drizzle them with olive oil and Italian spices, and mix in cut up prosciutto or bacon.  Roast them at 400 degrees for 20 minutes until they’re tender.   No more mushy, boiled sprouts!

Make it fun!   My mother has always made swimming pools out of the mashed potatoes and gravy.  To this day, our grown children still love it!   Plop some mashed potatoes on the plate, take the back of a spoon, press down into a swimming pool and fill with warm gravy.  Yum!

One Thanksgiving, before we had children, we were invited to a friend’s and I watched her miraculously take a bag of fresh cranberries, combine it with a cup of water and a cup of sugar, bring to a boil, stir and cool.   I have been a fan ever since, and I double the recipe on the back of the cranberry bag so we can use it later in sandwiches, spread over chicken and baked and used as a fun surprise in muffins.  Just fill a muffin pan halfway with your favourite muffin mix and then drop a tablespoon of your fresh cranberry sauce in and cover with more muffin mix.  Delish!

Who said you have to cook?

Really. Just don’t cook. Order in the food you want to serve, take it out of the containers and put it in your own.  No one needs to know, and that way you’ll have more time to actually enjoy your family.  Some places will even let you bring in your own containers, which they will then fill for you.

So what does it look like for us now that we have grown children and aging parents?  

Flexibility is key

We are very flexible with what Thanksgiving looks like in our family.  When our children were attending university, them coming home for Thanksgiving was our opportunity to reconnect with their lives.. Now, both our grown children have significant others, so we take a good look at the three days over the long weekend and we fit our family meal in amongst the other families’ commitments.  It isn’t always perfect, but we seem to make it work.  Our Thanksgiving has taken on a brunch theme in past years, which was just a big eggs, bacon and turkey sausage breakfast.  We’ve served  salmon or pasta instead of turkey and we’ve even just met everyone  at a restaurant and had our dinner there.

This year, we’ve decided to invite our family to lunch on Thanksgiving Monday.  We’re going to serve hot turkey sandwiches with cranberry sauce, salads and sweet potato fries.  There’ll be apple crisp and ice cream for dessert.  We’ll make up a plate and go for a visit to my father in law (who is in hospital) after lunch to include him as well.  So not quite a  traditional Thanksgiving, but fun, and at the end of the day, we’re all together.  How thankful am I for that? Very!

Wishing you and yours a fun, tasty and flexible meal that gives you a moment to appreciate family and give thanks for what we have in this great country called Canada.

Want some more great tips and ideas? The Canadian Mother’s Resource has lots of great articles, tips, and more. Visit their site and read up on some of the great content their team of contributors provide on a regular basis.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Guest Contributor: Heather Storey,
Director, Sales – Heritage Lead Associate Program