My two little helpers ages 3 and 5. I bought these special aprons for them in anticipation of the big cooking day and they thought they were sooooo cool.
For the past 8 years, ever since my husband and I have been married, I've made Thanksgiving dinner. Usually it is an elaborate affair with various family members, neighbors and friends joining in. I would start planning at least a month ahead or more, did my shopping two weeks ahead, and had my cooking timeline written out in twenty minute increments starting two days before Thanksgiving. The day of Thanksgiving, the kids were usually shooed out of the kitchen and my husband was put in charge of entertaining them. I would spend all day amidst roasting pans, pots, casserole dishes, and chopping boards creating a gorgeous feast that would get rave reviews. Of course I was exhausted afterwards and thinking back, I really didn't get to spend that much time with my family outside of eating because I was always holed away in the kitchen.
This year, all of the various family members whom we normally would have had to our house for the big day were going to be out of town so it was just going to be the boys, my husband and me. Since it would be a small Thanksgiving for us, when my normal Thanksgiving meal planning started at the beginning of November (spurred on by Foodbuzz.com's proposal for Thanksgiving dinners), I realized that this year I wanted to spend time with my family instead of holing myself in the kitchen for two days. I wanted this year to be stress-free and FUN! This year, I wanted us to prepare our meal as a family.
My boys absolutely LOVE to help me in the kitchen, but the traditional Thanksgiving fare doesn't allow them to do that with all of the chopping (they are not knife safe yet), and opportunities to get burned from heavy roasting pans and hot pots. I knew that if I wanted the boys to help cook, I was going to have to plan the menu around their attention spans, their tastes, and their abilities. I had to think outside the "traditional" Thanksgiving box. Thus, this "Kid-Centered" Thanksgiving menu and day was born. The boys were able to help cook every dish in a stress-free day of cooking that accommodated their attention spans and nap schedules. They also helped make all of the decorations. I'll take you through our fun, family day to help give you confidence to include your kids in your next big meal.
Our cozy dinner table set for the big meal
Our Turkey Gobbler centerpiece, Turkey Table topper (doubling as a bread basket) and our Sweet T.O.M. turkey cupcakes
-Spiced Nuts made in the crockpot
Turkey Tracks idea by FamilyFun.com
My little helper with his finished turkey tracks
Whole wheat crackers
1 can of LaChoy Rice Noodles
1. Spread cream cheese or peanut butter on crackers.
2. Top each cracker with the Rice Noodles arranging noodles to resemble a 3-toed turkey footprint. Here is an example if you don't know what they look like. (I printed this picture out so my son could see what they looked like too)
Crock Pot Sugar-Roasted Nuts from Better Homes and Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes
4 cups of whole mixed nuts (I used a combination of pecans and hazelnuts)
1 egg white
1 tsp. water
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1. Place the nuts in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. Toast by baking them in a 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes.
2. Place the toasted nuts in a 3 1/2 to 4 quart slow cooker. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg white and water with a wire whisk until frothy. Stir in remaining ingredients. Pour over nuts and stir gently to coat.
3. Cover and cook on LOW setting for 4 hours, stirring once halfway through cooking. Spread on waxed paper, separating into small clusters to cool. Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for 1 week.
My hubby taking the Sugared Pecans out of the crock pot
The Main Course
-Turkey Meatballs made in the Crock Pot
-Jellied Cranberry Sauce cooked in the microwave
-Whole wheat yeast rolls with flax meal
-Sweet Potato Praline Marshmallow Casserole
-Bamboo skewers of fresh fruit and cheese from Turkey Gobbler centerpiece
I know what you're thinking already, "Turkey Meatballs? No roast turkey on Thanksgiving?" Even though it wasn't traditional Thanksgiving food, we had so much fun making dinner that we didn't even miss it. Below are the recipes.
Crock Pot Turkey Meatballs recipe from About.com
3 cups barbecue sauce (your favorite)
2 cups apple jelly
3 Tbls. tapioca (for a thicker sauce)
2 Tbls. apple cider vinegar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs, seasoned
1/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. onion powder
2 lbs. ground turkey
Squishing the ingredients together (What a face!)
1. In the crock pot insert, stir together barbecue sauce, apple jelly, tapioca, and vinegar. Cover and cook on HIGH while preparing meatballs.
2. For meatballs, in a large bowl combine egg, bread crumbs, milk, garlic powder, salt and onion powder. Add ground turkey and squish up with your hands. Shape into 3/4 inch meatballs.
3. Add a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil to pre-heated skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs and brown on all sides. Drain meatballs and add to crock pot. Stir very gently to coat with sauce.
4. Cover and cook on HIGH for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Yield: 5 dozen meatballs
Rolling the meatballs
Jellied Cranberry Sauce recipe adapted from Baking DelightsThis is a super simple, and extremely tasty recipe from a blog called Baking Delights. Marye, the author, made this with her little 4 year old helper. I adapted her recipe slightly by using frozen cranberries thus having to cook it longer.
1 pound frozen whole cranberries
grated zest from one orange
2 cups white sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 cup water
1. In a microwave safe bowl, mix together cranberries, zest, sugar, juice, and water.
2. Cover the mixture with waxed paper and microwave on high power, stirring every 2 minutes, until cranberries pop and mixture starts to bubble up (about 12 minutes). Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. It will jell slightly.
My little helper with cranberries before cooking
Whole Wheat Yeast Rolls with Flax Meal by Joie de vivre
1 cup warm water
4 Tbls. sugar
1 tsp. salt
3 Tbls. dried milk
2 tsp. yeast
1/4 cup softened butter (plus more for brushing on afterwards)
2 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup flax meal
1. Mix all ingredients except the flours and the flax meal together in a large mixing bowl. Add the flours and flax meal and knead on counter for about 10 minutes until dough forms a smooth ball.
My little baker kneading the dough
Mama did most of the kneading
2. Add dough to a generously greased (with shortening) bowl. Roll your dough in the bowl to cover it with a thin layer of shortening. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot until the dough has doubled. (Mine took about 2 hours)
3. Punch the dough down gently and roll out on a cutting board to 12 x 18 inches. (I did not need to flour my board but if you are worried about your dough sticking, flour it lightly) Using a pizza cutter, cut dough short ways into 1/2 inch strips.
4. Take your strips, make a knot, and then continue to thread the ends through the middle finally tucking them on the bottom.
5. Place your rolls on non-stick baking pans or on greased baking pans. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise again for 45 minutes.
6. Bake rolls at 375 degrees for about 18 minutes. When you remove them from the oven, brush the tops with melted butter.
My helper and I are cutting the dough into strips
The knotted rolls during the second rise
This is one of those recipes that I do by feel, but everyone does this one by feel, don't they?
Salt and Pepper to taste
Paprika, for garnish
1. Place your eggs in a pot of cold water. Bring to a boil then turn off the heat and cover for 17-18 minutes. Drain the hot water gently and add cold water to pot.
2. When eggs are cool enough to handle, peel off the shells.
3. Cut eggs in half long ways and pop out the yolks. Put aside the whites and place the yolks in a small bowl. Add a little mayonnaise, mustard, relish and salt and pepper and squish up with a fork.
4. Add the yolk mixture to the holes of the egg whites
5. Sprinkle a little paprika on top of your deviled eggs.
Peeling eggs (truthfully he liked the cracking part MUCH more than the peeling part)
Sweet Potato Praline Marshmallow Casserole adapted slightly from Emerils.com
*Aside from the yeast rolls, this was my favorite. It was sweet and creamy with a crunchy praline topping. Who needs pie when they can dive into this yumminess?
2 1/2 lbs. sweet potatoes
4 Tbls. unsalted butter, softened and divided
2 Tbls. heavy cream
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar, divided
2 Tbls. orange juice
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. salt
2/3 cup pecan pieces
2 cups mini marshmallows
1. Place the sweet potatoes in a large, heavy pot and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil.
2. Cook the potatoes at a low boil until they are fork-tender, between 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes.
3. Drain the potatoes in a colander. Set the potatoes aside and let cool for about and hour.
4. Meanwhile, place the oven rack in the center position and pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
5. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, place the potatoes on a cutting board and cut in half lengthwise. Gently but firmly squeeze each potato to remove the meat from the skin. Discard the skins and place the potatoes in a large mixing bowl.
6. Add 2 Tbls. of the butter, the heavy cream, 1/4 cup of the brown sugar, orange juice, cinnamon, allspice, and salt to the potatoes and mix well with a large wire whisk until smooth.
7. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 2 Tbls. butter, the remaining 1 cup brown sugar, and the pecan pieces. Stir with a fork to blend well.
8. Spoon the mashed sweet-potato mixture into a 12" x 8" casserole dish. Dot the top evenly with the pecan mixture, then sprinkle the marshmallows over the nuts.
9. Bake until the marshmallows are golden brown, about 30 minutes.
10. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
My helper adding the marshmallows. This was also his favorite dish of the evening.
-Sweet T.O.M. turkeys
Our table set for dessert with our turkey place mats and Turkey Table topper
Sweet T.O.M. turkeys adapted slightly from FamilyFun.com
A Sweet T.O.M. turkey
3 oval shortbread cookies (I used Keebler Sandies 100 calorie pack shortbread) per turkey
6 to 10 candy corn pieces per turkey
A chocolate sprinkle, for the eye. One per turkey
1. Frost the cupcakes, then press in a cookie head and two cookie wings.
2. Press in a row or two of candy corn tail feathers
3. To make an eye, add a small dot of white icing to the head, then add a chocolate sprinkle in the middle for the pupil.
4. For the beak, cut the white end off one candy corn. Put a little dab of white frosting in the correct spot and press the white end into it. Add a line of red icing at the base of the beak for the wattle.
The men mixing up the chocolate cupcakes
The dog, hoping that a cupcake will fall, as the boys frost them
-Edible Turkey Gobbler Centerpiece
-Turkey Bread Basket
-Thumb print turkey placemats
From Left to Right: Edible Turkey Gobbler Centerpiece, Sweet T.O.M. turkeys, Turkey bread basket
Edible Turkey Gobbler Centerpiece adapted slightly from FamilyFun.com
Making the fruit and cheese skewers for the Edible Turkey Gobbler
1 Spagetti Squash (body)
1 Bosc pear (head)
Cheese cubes (beak and tail feathers)
Red pepper (snood, feet, and side feathers)
Grapes (tail feathers)
Mandarin oranges (tail feathers)
Pineapple chunks (tail feathers)
1. Stabilize the squash body by cutting a slice off of one side so that the squash will have a flat base. Using a section of bamboo skewer, attach a Bosc pear head to the melon as shown. (Close up photo at the very top of this post)
2. Cut a cheese triangle beak and a red pepper snood. Attach both, along with the raisin eyes, to the head with sections of toothpick.
3. Cut red pepper feet and set them in place. For the tail feathers, skewer cheese cubes, mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and grapes, then insert the skewers as shown.
4. Attach red pepper side wings to the sides with toothpicks.
Turkey Bread Basket adapted from FamilyFun.com
Painting the paper plates that make up the feathers, wings and head of the Turkey Bread Basket
Cheap white paper plates
Washable acrylic paints and paint brushes
Hot glue gun
Two google eyes
Large brown paper bag
Piece of corrugated cardboard
1. The day before assembly, paint a bunch of paper plates and let dry. These you will cut into feather shapes. Also, paint one paper plate red on both sides, and three others red on one side only.
2. When the plates are dry, cut them into large feather shapes. Save your red plates, as well as two other plates that will form the side wings. Hot glue the feathers onto clothes pins.
3. For the turkey's body, trim the brown paper bag so that it measures about 8 inches tall. Then, fold down the sides so that they are half the height and double the thickness. Hot glue these sides together. Cut the cardboard to fit in the bottom of the bag and hot glue in place.
4. Take one of your red paper plates and place on the inside back of the bag, glue in place. Take another red plate and place on the outside of the bag to reinforce the first paper plate. Glue together. Another red paper plate will be folded in half and attached to the inside plate halfway down so that two rows of tail feathers can be attached. Glue to the first plate.
5. For the side wings, take two paper plates and fold in half, glue one to each side of the bag.
6. For the head, using the red paper plate that was painted on both sides, fold in the sides to make a point. Fold down the point to make the head. Glue onto the front of the bag.
7. Attach google eyes with glue and attach feathers with clothes pins to the paper plates in the back in a fanned out position.
8. Place a napkin in the middle of the bag and add your dinner rolls!
9. If you are confused, just click on the FamilyFun.com link. I adapted their directions slightly, but they have better diagrams.
Thumb Print Turkey Place Mats idea adapted from Thrifty Fun
The boys, holding their freshly laminated Thumb print turkey placemats
One place mat sized poster board per person
Washable acrylic paint in brown, red, orange and yellow
A white acrylic paint pen
A permanent black marker
1. Using a paper plate as your paint pallet, put a small amount of each color of paint onto the plate.
2. Dip your thumb in brown paint and make one print for the turkey's body. Wash your thumb and then dip in Red. Stamp a ring of red around the brown for the turkey's tail feathers. Repeat for orange and yellow.
3. Set aside to dry.
4. When dry, use the white acrylic paint pen to make the whites of the turkey's eyes. Let dry.
5. When dry, use the black permanent marker to make the turkey's pupils, draw legs and three toes on turkey, and write "Happy Thanksgiving" around the turkey.
6. Laminate your finished place mats (I took mine to Kinkos) to make wiping up Thanksgiving spills easy.
The little Picasso's working on their Thumb print turkeys
The End Result:
Thanksgiving was so much fun this year. No one was stressed, we had a great dinner, and there were lots of fun memories and funny conversations. This was definitely trial by fire in terms of initiation into letting the kids help in the kitchen, but the result and process was so positive, I will not hesitate to let them help in the kitchen again. (Unless they have snotty and drippy noses, but that is for a different reason!) Just look at the smiles!
How to cook with your children:
1. Keep it simple.
2. Keep them on their schedules.
3. Take breaks.
4. Have FUN!
Although the cooking was done in a day, the crafts were started 4 days beforehand. This allowed us to enjoy each activity and not get overwhelmed with things that needed to be done. The cooking started around 9:00 a.m. for a 5:00 p.m. supper, so the pace was slow. Also, utilizing the crock pots helped immensely as it allowed us to put things on early and move onto other things. When the boys needed a break, they took it, and spent the better part of an hour in the morning playing cops and robbers. They were always excited to come back and help cook when they were done playing. We also kept them on their schedules, ate lunch (the turkey tracks with some fruit and ham slices) when they normally did and put the little one down for his nap at the right time.
When doing this on your own, think of what your children can do and be successful at in the kitchen, adding ingredients, stirring, kneading, etc. and keep it simple. But most importantly, have fun! Enjoy your time together because they won't be little forever!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!