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 children.
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 children 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.
To get all ages, from curious toddlers to eye-rolling tweens and TikTok-ing teens, started, I've included three Thanksgiving dishes — cornbread stuffing 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 cleanup. 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?
Young Kids (ages 3 to 5)
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 (ages 6 to 9)
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.)
Tweens and Teens (ages 10 and Up)
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, youngsters 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 children — for years to come.
Sweet Potatoes With Sour Cream and Pecans
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons coconut oil or olive oil
2 pounds sweet potatoes (4 to 5 medium potatoes), scrubbed but not peeled
1 teaspoon garam masala (or curry powder)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
Large pinch of black pepper
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice, plus more for serving
1 to 3 tablespoons whole milk, for thinning the sauce
1 tablespoon lime zest
1/3 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped (see note)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. If your coconut oil is solid, place it in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it melt, stirring with a wooden spoon. (No need to heat liquid coconut oil or olive oil.)
Cut each sweet potato in half lengthwise, then slice each half lengthwise into 3 or 4 wedges, about 3/4-inch thick.
Put the sweet potato wedges in a large bowl, and add the coconut oil, garam masala, 3/4 teaspoon salt and the pinch of pepper, tossing everything so the potatoes are well coated.
Spread the potatoes in an even layer on a large baking sheet. (Lining the pan with parchment paper will make cleanup easier, but it's not necessary.) Roast, using tongs to carefully turn the potatoes after 30 minutes, until soft and caramelized, about 1 hour.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, make the lime sour cream: In a small bowl, whisk together sour cream, lime juice and a pinch of salt. Whisk in enough milk (by the teaspoon) to make a pourable sauce. It should be a bit thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more salt and lime juice as needed. Set aside.
Once the sweet potatoes are done but still hot on the baking sheet, sprinkle lime zest all over them. (Adding the zest to the hot potatoes brings out the lime flavor.)
Using tongs or a large serving spoon, arrange sweet potatoes on serving platter. Drizzle the sour cream mixture all over the potatoes, and sprinkle toasted pecans on top. Squeeze more lime juice on top if you like. Serve hot or warm.
* Note: To toast pecans, spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees until they smell nutty, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool.
Scallion-Cheddar Cornbread Stuffing
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1 bunch scallions
1 celery rib, including leaves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 large eggs
6 cups stale cornbread, crumbled into large chunks
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or rosemary
Pinch of ground cayenne (optional)
1 1/2 cups turkey or chicken stock, plus more as needed
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Heat oven to 400 degrees if you are planning to bake the stuffing right away (otherwise don't heat it yet). Butter a shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish or an 8-inch pan (square or round will work).
Thinly slice the scallions, separating the white and light green parts from the dark green parts. Save the dark green parts for later.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons butter (save the remaining 2 tablespoons butter for the topping). When the white butter foam has mostly disappeared, add white and light-green scallion slices, celery and the pinch of salt. Cook vegetables, stirring them often, until tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the pepper. (If you're grinding it from a pepper mill, you don't have to measure it. Just turn the mill 10 times over the pan.) Move the skillet to an unlit burner on your stove, and let the mixture cool.
Crack the eggs into a large bowl, and whisk them together until well mixed. Add cooled celery mixture, dark green scallion parts, cornbread, sage or rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon salt and cayenne, if using. Stir in the 1 1/2 cups stock, adding more as needed to moisten all the cornbread. You want it moist but not mushy. (Stop before it looks like oatmeal.) Fold in 1/2 cup cheddar, the Parmesan and parsley.
Spoon the stuffing into the prepared baking pan. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/2 cup cheddar. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, and scatter those over the top of the stuffing. (At this point, you can wrap the cornbread with plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight.)
When ready to bake, if you haven't heated the oven, do so now. Bake stuffing until crisp and browned on top, 25 to 35 minutes. (It will take longer if you're baking it straight from the fridge.) Serve hot or warm.
Pumpkin Fudge Torte
Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
For the torte:
3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), plus more for greasing the pan
1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-process
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
For the pumpkin cream:
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/3 cup pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter an 8-inch springform pan.
Place a small saucepan over medium-low heat, then add butter. Let heat, stirring with a spoon once or twice, until butter melts. Turn off the heat.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, cocoa and salt. Pour melted butter into the cocoa mixture, and whisk until smooth. Let mixture cool until lukewarm, 5 to 10 minutes.
Whisk pumpkin purée into the cooled cocoa mixture, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Whisk in flour until smooth and silky looking.
Pour the batter into prepared pan, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Bake until the top of the cake is firm and doesn't wiggle if you shake the pan, 30 to 40 minutes. Using oven mitts, transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely, at least 2 hours.
Make the cream: In a large mixing bowl using electric beaters or an electric mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the cream and 1 tablespoon powdered sugar until thick and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Store whipped cream in the fridge for up to 6 hours if not using immediately.
Just before serving, in a small bowl, vigorously whisk the remaining 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, pumpkin and vanilla until the mixture is smooth and no white lumps of sugar remain, about 1 minute. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the pumpkin mixture into the whipped cream until very streaky.
Run a small offset metal spatula or butter knife around the inner edges of the cake pan, then release the sides of the cake pan and remove them. Place the torte, still on the bottom of the pan, onto a platter. Dollop the pumpkin-streaked whipped cream on top, and sprinkle lightly with pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon.