Thanksgiving meal prep presents a variety of learning opportunities for kids

November 9, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Thanksgiving Day meal preparation is a crash course in academics, problem solving and social skills and one that children at any age can be involved in, even during the toddler years.

From meal planning to grocery shopping to food preparation, each step of the Thanksgiving Day meal involves skills related to the core curriculum classes of English, math, science and social studies.

“The great thing about cooking with your child is it does cross all these various elements of instruction,” said Robert Mark, director of elementary education for the Greater Amsterdam Central School District in Montgomery County.

There are many ways children can help prepare and cook the Thanksgiving meal, as well as navigate the logistics of the day. Planning out a meal provides a great opportunity for parents and children to spend time together reading and choosing recipes, reviewing recipe directions and ingredients, crafting a shopping list and then spending time together at the grocery store selecting ingredients.

“These things all take time and patience, but it’s really an investment,” said Robin Brenner, a family and consumer science teacher at the Fayetteville-Manlius Central School District in Onondaga County. “There really is something about a child having a voice. The buy-in is really important at all ages.”

Even preschoolers can be part of the process, Mrs. Brenner said, offering suggestions such as allowing them to use a table knife to cut soft fruit, such as bananas, and assemble fruit kabobs.

“A child can put fruit pieces on a skewer,” she said.

They can help make a vegetable tray, breaking broccoli into florets using their hands rather than a knife.

“If they help make it, they are more likely to eat it,” she said.

Following a recipe allows children to practice reading and math skills. As they review the directions, they will need to determine which ingredients are needed and how much. They may face math challenges, such as, what if the number of guests requires that the recipe be doubled? They may have to figure out how to convert fractions and determine how that will change the measurements. They also have to figure out how much of a particular ingredient should be purchased at the grocery store to complete the recipe.

And they may make a mistake.

“When making something as complicated as a big family meal, someone is going to likely make a mistake,” Mr. Mark said.

That’s OK. The experience will teach kids how to handle a mistake, problem solve a solution and move on, which are valuable life skills, Mr. Mark said.

In addition to the English, math and science components of meal preparation, the Thanksgiving holiday comes with a built in social studies component.

“In this country, we all celebrate this one holiday,” Mrs. Brenner said.

Parents can discuss with their children why we celebrate Thanksgiving and what Thanksgiving means to their families. There are opportunities to talk about family traditions and for family members to share for what they are thankful.

“Every child will come back (to school) with a story,” Mr. Mark said.

That story could be about the turkey sliding off the platter onto the floor and how their family handled it (problem-solving skills), or it could be about how they helped grocery shop and compared prices on various ingredients (math skills).

There are also ways in which a child can help outside of the kitchen, Mrs. Brenner said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to talk about manners,” she said.

Children can be assigned the role of host or hostess and serve as the official greeter, welcoming people when they arrive. That includes helping guests hang up their coats and offering them drinks.

Giving children tasks that include them in the days’ festivities, rather than relegating them to a TV room away from the activity, sends a message to children. It also teaches them important social skills that they will need to develop.

“It’s not about being perfect,” Mrs. Brenner said.

It’s about being included and valued.

Let them help

Looking for ways in which your child can help prepare your Thanksgiving meal? Try some of these suggestions:

18 Months to 3 Years

  • Somewhere around 18 months (but possibly even closer to two years) kids are ready to start helping out with a few simple tasks, like:
  • Pour dry and liquid ingredients into a bowl.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables.
  • Scrub potatoes.
  • Pick herbs off the stem.
  • Tear greens into pieces.
  • Brush oil or butter with a pastry brush.
  • Stir batter in a bowl.
  • Mash vegetables.
  • Sprinkle salt or herbs.
  • Hold the dustpan.
  • Put silverware in the dishwasher.

4 to 5 Years Old

  • Preschoolers are hard at work on their fine motor skills, so this is a good time to give them slightly more detailed work, although they’ll still need lots of help and supervision! You can have them:
  • Cut soft foods with a plastic knife.
  • Roll out and knead pizza or bread dough.
  • Juice lemons and limes.
  • Crack an egg.
  • Measure and level dry ingredients with a straight edge.
  • Spread butter and jam.
  • Set the timer.
  • Whisk a vinaigrette.
  • Peel a cooled hard-boiled egg.
  • Set the table.
  • Rinse dishes that aren’t too heavy.
  • Spray the countertop with an all-purpose cleaner, then wipe it clean.
  • Fill the dishwasher soap compartment, and press the “Start” button.

6 to 9 Years Old

  • Use a small paring knife.
  • Cook with you at the stove.
  • Use a can opener, garlic press, or Microplane.
  • Peel fruits and vegetables.
  • Grate cheese with a box grater.
  • Drain and slice tofu.
  • Form patties.
  • Whip cream with a hand mixer.
  • Grease a baking pan.
  • Scoop batter into muffin cups.
  • Scrape down the mixer bowl.
  • Slice bread.
  • Thread food onto skewers.
  • Help put groceries away
  • Load and unload the dishwasher.


Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons, both of whom love to help cook, as long as they get to sample the recipes throughout the process.

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