5 Ways to Include the Kids in Holiday Meals

I don't want to scare you, but Thanksgiving is one week from today. Until now, I have purposely ignored all the too-early holiday decorations put out by overeager stores. I don't mean to be a Scrooge. I just don't want to get sick of the holidays because I love them so dearly. So I systematically turn my cart down another aisle anytime I catch even the tiniest glimpse of a twinkling light or bit of tinsel when I'm shopping. (Am I alone in shielding my fall from winter so vociferously?) My point is: If you do the same, this is your official alert to wake up and smell the pumpkin pie. It's officially the holiday season.

Some readers have already been asking me about family traditions: Who does the cooking? How do I include my kids? Since my head is out of the sand and I'm fully embracing the season, I thought today would be a great time to answer those questions with some tips and ideas on how to include the kiddos in the holiday cooking (and eating!). And given that I have a couple of pickier eaters in my brood, I'm throwing in some extra pointers on that front too.

Here are my top five ways to include the kids in holiday meals:

1. Create the menu with your kids. I make a master menu with all my holiday cooking listed in one place. (I keep it pretty simple, really — just a white board calendar.) After dinner one night in early November, I ask the family to brainstorm food ideas for the holidays. Of course I have to guide my kids a little bit here (they are still young), but it gets them excited about the holiday gatherings we have planned. And including your young ones in menu planning is a generally great habit, especially if you have picky eaters.

2. Think of cooking with your kids as craft time. I set up four work stations, one for each daughter, and I equip each with whatever she needs to execute her part of the recipe: a mixing bowl and a whisk, or a cutting board and a plastic knife. Some great Thanksgiving menu tasks for kids: cutting (or breaking) soft bread cubes for stuffing, mixing herbs into butter for the turkey, snapping off green bean tips, whisking together pumpkin pie ingredients in a bowl and layering apple slices on pie crust. My tip: Don't be timid about getting little ones involved in the cooking. Keep the knives and heat away from young children, of course, but even a toddler can be given a pile of precut veggies and a platter to build a crudite.

3. Include the kids' artwork as part of the centerpiece. I gather the girls' school holiday projects, add a couple of winter squash (which I’ll bake up after the holiday), and I arrange them into a simple centerpiece for the table. The kids love when I put their schoolwork on display (which is called being on the "wall of fame" in our house). Or if you are feeling extra-motivated, browse Pinterest for some easy crafts.

* Picky Eaters bonus: Seeing their work on the dining table will create a positive association with dinnertime, which will help address one of the root causes of picky eating. Check out more strategies for a Family Dinner Reboot here.

4. Serve a signature mocktail/cocktail. If you are hosting a variety of ages for your holiday dinner, keep things simple by creating one cocktail that can be made with or without alcohol. Try my recipes for Sangria or Cranberry Orange Spritzers (a great way to use up that extra cranberry sauce!), as both can be made kid-friendly. This way kids (and non-drinkers) can be included in the festive holiday toasts.

5. Make the plethora of holiday dishes work in your favor. The holiday season can wreak havoc on our figure-watching, mostly because there are so many gatherings and there's a huge variety of tempting dishes for us to try (and most of them are delicious and appealing). Of course we want to indulge in moderation, but this huge variety can have a surprising upside: Use it to expand your children's palates. This is a great time to start a Taste Test Book for your kids, especially if they are picky (I introduce this concept in Episode 3 of The Picky Eaters Project). They'll have a ball writing down all the new dishes they try (who wouldn't want to sample three different kinds of fudge at Aunt Millie's house?). While holiday time might not be the best time to get your family interested in steamed broccoli, establishing a habit of trying new foods now could pay off in January when you are diving into, say, Cauliflower Puree: 3 Ways.

What are some of your favorite ways to include your kids in holiday cooking and eating? Tell me in the comments below.

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