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Here’s What I do With my Kids While I’m Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

Today’s post: Thanksgiving dinner prep for the busy mom with kids: here’s a practical solution… and little grace for the holiday.

I used to have amazing ideas about what kind of Mom I would be.

You know, the one whose house is always organized, whose meals are always picture-perfect, and whose kids always cooperate.

And then-

I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner. 

With children under foot.

In a real kitchen, with real messes, and very real feelings of impatience.

So… I’m not THAT Mom after all. 

Actually, I’m the Mom who sometimes wonders how in the world I’m going to pull off the holidays without turning into the Grinch!

Please say that you relate.

Honestly, sometimes the long “to do” list can sort of squeeze the mirth right out of the season.

Especially when all the extra cooking translates into more work, and more messes to clean up.

(In case you haven’t caught on yet, I’m a very task-oriented Mom.)

And then there’s the really big question… 

What about Thanksgiving dinner prep… and cooking… with kids under foot?!

If running by McD’s for supper the night before Thanksgiving doesn’t seem like the option you’d prefer, let me share a few practical solutions that have kept me (mostly) sane over the years.

And please keep reading! 

And the end of this post I have two FREE printable lists for you: 

  • Thanksgiving grocery list 
  • Thanksgiving dinner menu template
What I Do With My Kids While I Cook Thanksgiving Dinner | Kristy's Cottage blog

Let me add… Jeremy and I have always lived far away from our family, so dropping the kids off at Grandma’s for a few days (or even a few hours) isn’t really an option.

We’ve always had to sort of be our own support system as parents.

This is a run down of what the holiday celebration typically looks like for us, and how we navigate the hustle as a busy ministry family with young kids: 

Thanksgiving Dinner Prep #1: Plan Ahead as Much as Possible

I’m a grand list-maker, so this is definitely my thing! 

Having a master list for my Thanksgiving menu (we’ll get to that in a minute) saves a lot of time, since I don’t usually have to run to the grocery store for a missing ingredient at the last minute.

Another way to plan ahead is to prep whatever you can: 

  • bake and freeze an extra batch of cornbread for dressing 
  • thaw your turkey or ham ahead of time
  • shop for groceries ahead of time and double check that you have paper goods, ice, and other basics

I also try to keep healthy-ish snacks on hand for the meals leading up to our Thanksgiving dinner. 

If it were my choice, no would would eat, wear clean clothes, or make messes in the house at least twenty-four hours prior to the big day. 🙂

Unfortunately, my husband and kids think they need to eat supper and breakfast before Thanksgiving dinner rolls around! 

Come to think of it, all those delicious smells provoke my appetite too!

I try to keep sliced cheese, lunch meat, crackers, dips, veggie sticks, and other “easy” food on hand to keep everyone’s tummies satisfied while I’m busy prepping and cooking.

Thanksgiving Dinner Prep #2: Simplify as Much as Possible

I especially did this when our kids were younger. 

Trying to pull off a Pinterest-worthy Thanksgiving dinner when you’re pregnant, or have a baby, is for the birds!  Trust me on this one.

If you’re a mama with littles, do yourself a favor and simplify: 

  • use pre-made pie crusts or mixes
  • opt for healthy varieties of canned or frozen products to cut a few corners
  • stick with a few basic dishes: dressing, cranberry sauce, and a favorite side dish or dessert
  • a ham, or even a routissouri chicken, are simple but yummy meat options if roasting a turkey feels too complicated or expensive
  • use festive paper plates for your Thanksgiving meal… make clean up super easy
Free Printable Menu & Grocery List for Thanksgiving | Kristy's Cottage blog
My festive paper goods, menu, and grocery list… I feel more focused and prepared when I know I’ve simplified and prepped for the big day.

Another really important part of simplifying for a homeschool family is to give yourself a break at the holidays.

Our family takes about six weeks off from school at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but you can decide what works best for your family.

But do take a break!

Some years, and some seasons, feel especially challenging. 

Moving, new babies, sickness, commitments from ministry, jobs, or family life…

All these things can pile in on us during such a busy time of year!

If you’re in one of those hard seasons, give yourself some grace and simplify.

Thanksgiving Dinner Prep #3: Plan to Keep Your Kids Busy While You Cook

This is really the main point of this post, right? 

And right here, I’m tempted to be all fancy pretend that I merrily work in the kitchen while my five adoring children assist me with aprons, wooden spoons, and willing smiles.

That isn’t quite the case at our house. 

The truth is, only one of my daughters really likes to do much in the kitchen.

Two of my little boys love to get in the middle of anything I do in the kitchen, and the other slightly older boy prefers to snitch “tastes” every few minutes.

As for me?  I have the patience of a marine.

So yeah.  There you go!

This is how Thanksgiving dinner Actually goes in our house:

I shop and prep about a week before our Thanksgiving meal, including making a menu: 

This is pretty much the same menu we enjoy for our family Christmas dinner too. 

What I Do With My Kids While I Cook Thanksgiving Dinner | Kristy's Cottage blog

Ham or Turkey  (and sometimes a roasted chicken)

Cornbread Dressing 

Homemade Cranberry Sauce 

Broccoli or Pea Salad 

Cheeseball with gluten-free crackers 

Pecan Pie or Pumpkin Pie 

Coffee and iced tea 

The day before Thanksgiving,

  • I thaw the turkey (or ham, depending on which meat we’re eating).
  • Bake any pies or desserts that are on the menu (my sister, Julie, is an amazing pie-maker and my daughter, Emily, loves to help me bake). 
  • Make the homemade cranberry sauce!  This is one fun cooking activity that all five of my kids enjoy. 
  • Make broccoli or pea salad (so it can chill in the fridge over night). 

On the big day, I wake up around six o’clock to start the turkey.  If it’s ham, I sleep in!  😉

While the turkey bakes, I make the cornbread dressing.  (This step is pretty easy, since I’ve already made and crumbled the cornbread.)

By the time my boys start wandering downstairs for breakfast, the delicious aromas in the kitchen are pretty amazing!

We have a super simple breakfast (cereal, yogurt, or Cliff bars) while I finish up lunch details. 

I try to keep the younger kids busy so I can focus on my cooking. (I’m a very focused person, so interruptions are a huge irritation when I’m working!)

We might turn on a holiday movie on Netflix, or pull out coloring pages.

Around noon, my girls set the table for our special dinner… typically with our Pioneer Woman dishes, or at least festive paper plates, a pretty autumn centerpiece, and candles.

We like to share things we’re thankful for, maybe grab a conversation starter or take turns sharing something God has done for us during the year.

The holidays are a fun, busy, and sometimes challenging time of togetherness as a family.

Planning ahead, anticipating needs, and making an effort to be as patient as possible with imperfections all go a really long way in making a full day enjoyable for everyone.

Including Mom. 

Let me help you simplify!

Please take a sec and download my menu template and grocery list:

Your Turn.

What is your biggest challenge as a mom at the holidays? Do you have a tip to share with another mom?

Drop a comment below.

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