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Teaching Children to Help Prepare Thanksgiving Dinner

Local chefs share tips and culinary traditions.

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Local chefs say giving children age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen is a way to create lasting memories of Thanksgiving meal preparation.

Susan Limb recalls spending the Thanksgiving days of her childhood in the kitchen with her grandmother, mother and two sisters. The family’s holiday ritual and the smell of a thyme- and butter-dressed turkey roasting in the oven are ingrained in her memory.

“We always had two huge turkeys because my mom always had a lot of people over for dinner,” said the Potomac, Md., area mother and co-owner of Praline Bakery and Bistro in Bethesda, Md. “I am Korean-American, but we didn’t have Korean food. We always had traditional green beans, turkey, ham and mashed potatoes. My sisters and I always helped in the kitchen, and as our skill level increased, we prepared more advanced dishes.”

“Kids can do more peeling that you can imagine depending on their age.”

—Holly Utt, Tiny Chefs

Limb, a former White House pastry chef, now includes her toddler Abigail in the Turkey Day meal prep. “She cracks eggs and they’re not always perfect, but I don’t criticize. Kids enjoy helping in the kitchen [and] want to feel like they’ve contributed,” she said

WHILE THANKSGIVING is often steeped in family culinary customs, preparing the meal can be a source of stress. Add eager children into the mix and the tension is likely to rattle even the steadiest of cooks. Local culinary experts, who are also parents, say that by deploying a few strategies, putting little ones to work in the kitchen on Thanksgiving can be fun, safe and stress-free for all.

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Susan Limb has fond memories of cooking on Thanksgiving Day. She now shares those traditions with her daughter.

Christine Wisnewski begins several days before the holiday. Her secret is planning. “Every year we sit down as a family and review the menu together,” the Vienna-based mother and culinary instructor said. “Our menu never changes, but this simple little tradition builds anticipation.”

Experts encourage parents to give children age-appropriate tasks. “Preschool kids can pick fresh herbs, such as mint, sage, thyme, and parsley,” emailed Randy Johnston, a chef instructor at the International Culinary Schools at The Art Institute of Washington in Arlington. “Elementary kids can … help tear the lettuce for the salad, toss the salad with the dressing, and also help decorate … platters with vegetable garnishes and chopped herbs. Also, give the little chefs their own aprons and possibly little chefs’ hats to make them feel engaged.”

Holly Utt, a mother of two college-age sons and director of operations for Tiny Chefs cooking school, which offers classes in Arlington, Alexandria, McLean, Oakton and Springfield, and Potomac, Md., adds: “Kids can do more peeling than you can imagine, depending on their age, with supervision. Setting the table is always a great thing. Decorating the table is always fun.”

Andie Nelson, an Arlington-based mother of two and culinary instructor who operates Creative Kids cooking school, says, “If you’re making green beans, you can have the kids snap the ends off the beans or even wash the vegetables. Crumbling up bread for the stuffing is something that little kids can do … or even just helping to read the recipes. Those are all safe, fun activities for kids, and good for manual dexterity for little ones.”

“Preschool, elementary school children usually like to get their hands dirty,” said Kristen Elizabeth Robinson, another culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Washington. “If you are brining your turkey, your child could help add the spices to the pot. After you pour your brine over ice, your child can now help you submerge the sacred Thanksgiving turkey in the brine.”

THE THANKSGIVING TRADITIONS that Potomac resident Cary Prokos, chef and proprietor of Normandie Farm restaurant in Potomac, shares with his three children are different than his childhood rituals, which involved a turkey that went in the oven at 3 a.m. and emerged 8 hours later. “Nowadays for Thanksgiving, my children help at the restaurant [in advance], whether it is peeling yams or making popover batter,” he said. “But on Thanksgiving Day, the kids can’t come anywhere near the restaurant because it’s so crazy. We serve 1,600 people.” He celebrates Thanksgiving with his family a few days later.

Limb believes that meal preparation can give children a sense of accomplishment. She said, “I think it is important to get children involved with cooking. It’s just a great memory.”