How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner with Kids Around

I cook a Thanksgiving dinner with kids underfoot every year– I just happen to serve it in December instead of November.

We always do Thanksgiving with extended family, so I get out of cooking much then (woohoo!). However, my husband is used to a complete Thanksgiving dinner (turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc.) on Christmas Eve, which we do at our home. 

Planning and cooking an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner with young kids in the house, especially with all the other chaos of the holidays, requires a lot of prep work, discipline, and planning.

If you’re looking for tips, advice, a schedule, or a menu to use when cooking your Thanksgiving dinner with kids, including free printable checklists, I’m here to help!

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Prepare as much as you can ahead of time

Cooking a Thanksgiving dinner is a lot of work for anyone. Trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner with kids around (especially young ones)? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame. 

The best way to tackle Thanksgiving dinner successfully is to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. 

Clean (or not) well in advance

If having a clean house for company is important to you (it is to me) start cleaning way ahead of time. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, give everything a deep clean. This gives you time to complete all of your cleaning tasks without exhausting yourself scrubbing away on the day before Thanksgiving. 

three kids cleaning before cooking thanksgiving dinner
My boys riding the vaccuum while “cleaning” — so helpful!

Of course, everything won’t stay clean (my kids are 2, 5, and 7–nothing stays clean for very long), but at least you won’t be starting from Square 1 when Thanksgiving rolls around. 

On the day before or on Thanksgiving Day, when you’re finalizing your clean-up, give the kids a lot of tasks to complete. 

Kid-cleaning is mediocre at best (terrible at worst), but at least if they’re occupied “cleaning” (the quotation marks are necessary here), they won’t be actively, deliberately wrecking all you’ve already done.

Buy most of your groceries needed to cook Thanksgiving dinner in advance

Some things will need to be purchased very close to Thanksgiving Day– fruits, salad ingredients, etc. Other traditional Thanksgiving Dinner dishes can be stocked ahead of time.

I prefer to purchase my onions, carrots, potatoes, rolls (frozen Sister Schubert’s yeast rolls or refrigerated crescent rolls), spices, butter, broth, gravy mix, and the turkey itself (sell-by date permitting) all at least a week in advance. This prevents me from having to do a massive grocery shop closer to the main event. 

Then, the day or two before, I can send hubby to the store for some salad ingredients and any other last-minute items.

Set a realistic menu for Thanksgiving Dinner

You can’t do it all (or cook it all)– especially when trying to cook a Thanksgiving dinner with kids underfoot–so don’t try to!

Decide what your non-negotiable dishes will be. What items just scream Thanksgiving Dinner to you? Those items have to go on your menu. 

Of course, just because it’s on your menu, doesn’t mean it has to be made from scratch or made by you (more on that in the next section).

For our family, our menu for Thanksgiving dinner (or in our case, Thanksgiving Dinner on Christmas Eve) always includes:

A whole, roasted turkey

A cooked vegetable (typically roasted carrots, because they’re relatively hands-off and can cook at a variety of temperatures)




Cranberry sauce


Dessert (Pies– I usually order these through a school fundraiser. Saves time and effort and helps school. Win-win!)

full thanksgiving menu to cook thanksgiving dinner with kids

Include a few dishes that can be prepped ahead of time. For example, I always make the salad the night before or early on the morning of Thanksgiving. I also cut up a fruit tray and/or prepare a shrimp cocktail appetizer the night before, to leave out for guests while dinner is cooking.

The less food you have to prepare on Thanksgiving itself, the better off you’ll be (see the previous section).

{In our password-protected resource library, there’s a high-resolution printable of the Thanksgiving menu, along with the preparation and oven schedule. If you don’t already have access to the resource library, you can get access by clicking here.}

You don’t have to cook everything from scratch (or even cook it at all).

As I said in the previous section, you don’t have to cook everything. If there’s an item you don’t like, hate cooking, or just don’t have the bandwith for, leave it off your menu. 

For our family, that’s Green Bean Casserole. My husband, kids, parents, and I don’t like it. That right there makes it not worth the hassle for the one or two others who might (or might not) miss it. It’s your menu — so feel free to cut out what you wish.

If there’s something you really like, but don’t know how to cook yourself, you have two options:

First, you can ask someone else to make that dish (if you’re comfortable with that). I have a great relationship with my mom and would have zero problem admitting that I was over my head with something and asking for her help. If you have a friend or relative who fits this description, recruit their help if you need it.

Second, you can have it made or half-made elsewhere. A lot of stores like Wegman’s (this is a link to their full catering menu; check out pages 21-22) or the Honey-Baked Ham Store (or whatever is available in your area) sell Thanksgiving dishes made to order.

If you’re in a bind in terms of time or oven space, you may want to check out that option. If you go this route, make sure you order way ahead of time –some of these places book up quickly.

For me, stuffing fits in this category. I don’t know how to make it myself and I don’t really care to. Many of the highly-rated recipes out there have sausage in the stuffing, which is another thing I don’t like, so I take the easy way out here. I make it “myself” by using Stovetop’s turkey-flavored stuffing (yes, the one that comes in the box).

In a full, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal with family, no one is going to resent one pre-made dish. If they do, kindly remind them that you have kids and they need to adjust their expectations — and probably their attitudes as well.

Set a preparation and cooking schedule for your Thanksgiving dinner and stick to it

This is the most important part of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner with kids around! 

Some of these dishes (namely, the turkey) take a *very* long time to cook. If you don’t get that turkey in the oven four (or however many) hours in advance, everything else is in bad shape. 

Leave your turkey plenty of time to cook. If it sits on the countertop for an entire hour, it will still be delicious. If everything else has to wait another 30 to 60 minutes for the turkey to finish, that’s a much bigger problem. Plus, trying to slice a turkey piping hot from the oven is painful and causes all the juices to run out. 

Another reason the schedule is so important is that Thanksgiving dinner has a lot of parts, many of them cooked. Most people only have one oven (maybe a double-oven if you’re lucky). With different dishes and temperatures, you need to plan your schedule properly to make sure everything has space to cook at an appropriate temperature.

Finally, some of these dishes require hands-on attention from the cook. You need to make sure these dishes are somewhat staggered, or recruit extra hands, to make sure everything can be completed when necessary. 

Trying to simultaneously to check the temperature of the turkey, whisk gravy, slice cranberry sauce, and keep rolls from burning is just too much to do all at once.

thanksgiving dinner menu and thanksgiving dinner preparation schedule printable

This is a low-resolution image (for website speed) of the complete preparation and oven timing schedule I use, step-by-step. You can access a printable, high-resolution file, in our password-protected resource library by clicking here (if you already have our password).

If you want to sign up for access to the (free) resource library, you can do so by clicking here.

Let people help you cook (as long as the help is actually helpful)

We’ve all had times where someone’s offers of assistance is actually more stressful than being left to do it alone. 

If you have a relative that gets on your last nerve, having their help in the kitchen is just going to stress you out. If you have a relative who needs your instructions for every little step, that’s actually more work than doing it all yourself. 

What you need is someone you like who will take initiative and not get in your way. If they don’t meet that criteria, don’t let them help you cook Thanksgiving dinner.

Sometimes, the most helpful thing someone can do when you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner is watch your kids. Everything becomes ten times easier when you’re not entertaining kids or refereeing their fights!

Entertaining your kids while you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner

If you don’t have someone available to watch the kids while you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner, which is obviously Plan A, there’s still plenty you can do to keep then busy.

Plan B is to find novel activities for the kids to do — things that are out of the ordinary for your typical day at home. Special board games or puzzles, if your kids are old enough, or new coloring books and stickers are all pretty solid entertainers.

Another option is to turn on Thanksgiving cartoons. It’s a special occasion after all, so cue up the holiday favorites — yours or theirs. In our house, we do Charlie Brown (obviously!), Garfield, and whatever other cartoons are necessary to put together the peace and quiet needed for me to cook.

Don’t let the stress of preparing and cooking Thanksgiving dinner steal your joy

Holidays are a lot of work. Add in the stress of cooking, cleaning, high-maintenance relatives, kids, etc. and it can all be overwhelming.

Don’t let the little things crowd out the big picture: this is a celebration of thanks and gratitude. Focus on what you’re thankful for (and who you’re thankful for) and try not to let the details overwhelm you.

Of course, if you’re having trouble tapping into your sense of humor amidst the holiday chaos, you can check out my Ingratitude Challenge — a hilarious alternative to 30 Days of Thankfulness meant just for parents. I hope it gives you the laugh you need!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some additional delicious resources for cooking Thanksgiving dinner

I’m not a food blogger — so if you’re looking for some delicious Thanksgiving recipes, here are some of my tried-and-true favorites:

For brining the turkey –this is completely optional, but I’ve done it several years in a row and it’s been delicious. Some of the ingredients are a tad obscure, so I do the best I can.

For mashed potatoes – I do warm cream instead of cream cheese, but you do you boo-boo.

For the carrots – I loosely follow this recipe. I use baby carrots (because there’s no chopping) and they cook much more slowly because they’re usually in a lower-temperature oven with my turkey. As such, I cook them in their own pan *or* I add them to the bottom of the turkey pan when there’s about 90 minutes remaining (my family likes the carrots pretty mushy).