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A Parent's Survival Guide to Thanksgiving

Published Oct 5, 2015 | Updated Feb 19, 2020

How to keep your kids happy, and yourself sane, this Thanksgiving.

Recalling Thanksgivings as a child brings back memories of long, agonizing waits for Turkey dinner as Grandma’s cooking filled the air with savory scents. I would scavenge through the kitchen like a stray dog until caught and scolded by my mother: “Carter, stop it! You’re going to spoil your appetite.” Grandma would sneak me the odd cabbage roll or candy, but other than that, the wait was excruciating. My only recourse was to bug my family members as much as possible, trying to get somebody to play a game or take a break from adult time. At the time, I would have given my left pinky to have siblings to play with me.

Now … I have 3 kids. The problem has come full circle, and I realize that even with siblings, I would have been havoc anyways. My kids are high energy kids, and I’m not a fan of plopping them in front of a video game, just so they don’t bug us while we make dinner. As a result, I have come up with a few ways to keep the kids occupied before dinner:

1.       Start the Day off Right - When everyone arrives, I usually round up all the kids and play a game. If you play too, they will enjoy it more. Your goal here is to expel calories…. WEAR THEM OUT! Play zombie tag in the trees, or grounders at the park. Spending an hour doing something active, will spare you three hours at the end of the night. Tired kids go to bed easily. (Just make sure you have snacks, so they don’t get cranky… that goes for me as well.)

2.       Get them to help with dinner - Kids like responsibility because it makes them feel older than they are. Don’t give them busy work, like peeling potatoes for 2 hours. They will get bored and there will be an uprising of medieval proportions. Let them do a menial task for 15 minutes and then teach them how to sauté onions (supervised of course), or stuff the Turkey. Make them taste different things and understand how the food gets there.  Teaching them to cook engages them and is an invaluable skill later in life.

3.       Winding them down: - I view the day as a digression: Start with high energy, with the eventual goal of winding the kids down into that deep coma we all pray for at day’s end. This is a war of attrition, and you need to be prepared. I like to hide small treats or snacks, and have a scavenger hunt. Also…. I make my scavenger hunt difficult. I dish out one clue every 15 minutes, and the kids works as a team to find the stash of goodies. It keeps them busy, me in control, and keeps them fed just enough to not lose their minds and start wiggling on the floor in frantic fits of fury. (Note: If you really wore them out in step 1, board games will suffice)

4.       Put the kids in Charge - Coming back to this whole responsibility thing: When dinner is close to being ready, I like to let the kids set the tables, and go round up the adults for dinner. Let them feel like the bosses, tell everyone where they get to sit, and so on…. I suspect that my wife does the same thing to me, giving me the illusion that I make decisions or have a say.

5.       Make the Kids table…well, a kids table – I won’t lie here. I don’t like crafts: never have, never will. Devoting time to crafts sounds messy and unappealing to me. If you do have a “crafts expert” on hand, by all means use them. I have found a much simpler way to make the kids table fun. I bought a big roll of recycled utility paper from staples (about 4 feet wide), and a big box of crayons. Now the kids table is like a Chucky Cheese, or Red Robins (Do they still have those?). When dinner is done, we simply remove the dishes and crumple the paper up into the recycling.

6.       Down Time – If you want to enjoy the game after dinner or finally get that night cap you have been waiting for all day, this is the most crucial stage. This is not fun Dad time. It is let the Turkey knock them out time. Personally, I love watching kid’s movies, provided there is no minimal singing. Combine a good kid’s move with a sheet fort, stocked with pillows and blankets and those kids will be out before Shrek discovers the true meaning of inner beauty.


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