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41 Fun Thanksgiving Traditions to Start With Your Family

Make the holiday even more special with these meaningful ways to celebrate.

preview for Three Ways to Elevate Your Thanksgiving Tablescape
Three Ways to Elevate Your Thanksgiving Tablescape
by Good Housekeeping US

Just about everyone’s Turkey Day celebration features a traditional Thanksgiving dinner spread: a gleaming roast turkey with stuffing (or dressing, depending on your background and where you live), enough of your family’s favorite Thanksgiving side dishes to make the table groan under their weight and pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream for dessert. And if your family is anything like mine, you probably have at least a handful of Thanksgiving activities that really make the occasion feel uniquely yours.

For many people, Thanksgiving is one of the few chances we have all year to gather with our families or chosen families to share a delicious meal, give thanks for our blessings and soak up the joy of each other’s company. Over the years, families and groups of friends often develop their own special Thanksgiving traditions they bring out every year. They can be fun or unusual, culinary or crafty, athletic or relaxing — and most don’t require any additional materials other than everyone’s enthusiasm. I asked Good Housekeeping editors and a handful of friends to share the traditions, dishes and activities that make their holiday memorable. Add a few of them to your family celebration this year and they might just become treasured additions.

fruit tea with lemon slices on a blanket for thanksgiving ideasISTETIANA//GETTY IMAGES

Serve a Signature Cocktail

Start your festivities off with a special sip by serving a signature cocktail. Something as simple as spiked apple cider, cranberry gin and tonic or mulled wine works for larger groups, or mix up special fall cocktails if you’re more of a mixologist.

RELATED: 45 Best Fall Cocktails That’ll Keep You Cozy on an Autumn Day

a woman packing up thanksgiving leftovers in a clear containerRUSLANDASHINSKY//GETTY IMAGES

Send Guests Home with Leveled-Up Leftovers

Love ’em or hate ’em, Thanksgiving leftovers are part of the deal. Get creative with yours by sending guests home with fresh ideas. Maybe that’s something as simple as writing out your favorite Thanksgiving sandwich recipe (if you haven’t used French toast as bread, you haven’t lived) or printing out recipes for using the ingredients in new ways.

RELATED: 53 Leftover Turkey Recipes You Can Feast on After Turkey Day

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family unwrapping gifts at on christmas morningTEMPURA//GETTY IMAGES

Kick off the Holiday Season

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season, so lean into it. Exchange small Hanukkah gifts or ornaments for Christmas trees, sing a few carols or watch a holiday movie. Or go big and decorate the Christmas tree together. Many hands make light work, after all!

three thanksgiving piesDARCY G. VARNEY//GETTY IMAGES

Hold a Pie Competition

Take the pressure off the family baker by spreading it around and host a pie-baking competition. Let’s be honest, everyone wins with this one.

RELATED: 75 Best Thanksgiving Desserts That Make Turkey Day Extra Sweet

a small toddler boy playing drums indoors at christmas timeHALFPOINT IMAGES//GETTY IMAGES

Play Festive Music

Set the mood with festive tunes that will get everyone’s toes tapping as they cook and do the dishes. There are plenty of Thanksgiving songs to add to your playlist — but Thanksgiving is also the appropriate time to start playing Christmas music, too. (Please don’t @ us, early adopters).

family reunited on the table for thanksgiving at home outdoorsFG TRADE//GETTY IMAGES

Dine Al Fresco

If you live in a climate where the weather allows it, take the festivities outdoors. It will make the meal feel special, and can mean more table space if your yard is bigger than your dining room.

senior hispanic woman holding roasted turkeyJOSE LUIS PELAEZ INC//GETTY IMAGES

Let Somebody Else Host

Spread the hosting duties around, to take the burden off one person. It works especially well if most of your attendees live nearby, but switching up the city where it’s held can take the pressure off travelers, too.

a white man, black woman, white woman, and white man watching tv and eating popcorn on living room sofaCAIAIMAGE/PAUL BRADBURY//GETTY IMAGES

Watch a Seasonal Show or Movie

While everyone’s digesting their second helpings (and maybe thinking of going back for thirds), cozy up in front of the TV for some screen-based bonding. Bonus points if you choose a seasonal show. In my family, we always watch the 1987 classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles after the dishes are done.

RELATED30 Best Thanksgiving Movies to Watch After Your Big Meal

hand serving a slice of pumpkin pie with coffee cupsANJELIKA GRETSKAIA//GETTY IMAGES

Eat Pie for Breakfast

It’s a holiday: treat yourself. Start the day off on a sweet note by serving your traditional Thanksgiving pies for breakfast with coffee instead of after the big meal. That way, you won’t be too full to indulge in dessert.

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Watch ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’

Chance are a lot of adults in your house viewed this 1973 classic every Turkey Day. Now, get the next generation involved by streaming it on Thanksgiving.

RELATED: How to Watch and Stream ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ for Free This November

friends toasting with wine and beer at rustic dinner partyANCHIY//GETTY IMAGES

Throw a Friendsgiving

Thanksgiving is a time for celebrating those we love, and that includes people not related by love. Gather with your chosen family for a “friendsgiving” to give thanks for your entire circle — and chow down on another table full of seasonal favorites.

above view of extended family talking at thanksgiving dinnerSKYNESHER//GETTY IMAGES

Try a New Dish or Cuisine

We all have our favorite Thanksgiving standards, but after a number of years, the spread can start to feel a little stale. Mix it up by adding a dish from another culture or just a new twist on an old favorite. You may discover a new tradition!

man taking family portrait in restaurantTHOMAS BARWICK//GETTY IMAGES

Go Ahead, Dine Out

Consider this your stamp of approval: You don’t have to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Make things easier on everyone by dining out or having it catered. Just don’t forget to make reservations, especially if you’ve got a big group.

RELATED: 29 Restaurants Open on Thanksgiving Day 2022

thanksgiving traditions   a black girl in a plaid shirt helping to set tableJGI/JAMIE GRILL//GETTY IMAGES

Ask the Kids to Set the Table

Get the littlest guests involved in the preparations by having them set the Thanksgiving table for dinner while the adults put the finishing touches on the food. Giving them a task is a triple whammy: They’ll be proud that they could contribute to the festivities, learn the importance of pitching in and stay out of trouble (and away from the hot stove).

a white woman in black holding a cake with fruit on top and a candle surrounded by friends holding wine glassesDEIMAGINE//GETTY IMAGES

Celebrate Everyone’s Birthdays

Families and friend groups that only see each other once a year, this one’s for you. Emma Seymour of the Good Housekeeping Institute Textiles Lab says her family sings “Happy Birthday” when they gather for Thanksgiving — cake with candles included! That way, everyone gets to celebrate their special day with those they love, even if they can’t travel all gather together on the actual date.

thanksgiving traditions   people serving food at a soup kitchen over a line of aluminum warming traysHERO IMAGES//GETTY IMAGES

Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen

On Thanksgiving, pay your blessings forward by volunteering at a local soup kitchen, food pantry or at any organization serving a hot meal or gathering supplies for those who may otherwise go without. Charity organizations generally appreciate a few extra hands, especially on a holiday. Call ahead to make sure they can accommodate your group, and get any special instructions.

RELATED: How Volunteering Can Improve Your Own Health and Happiness

cardboard box filled with nonperishable foods on wooden tableFCAFOTODIGITAL//GETTY IMAGES

Collect Non-Perishable Foods to Donate

Food banks and soup kitchens often get inundated with volunteers at the holidays and then experience a steep drop-off afterward. Help them weather the dip by asking your guests to bring a non-perishable food item to donate later. Keep in mind that people experiencing food insecurity want to eat the same delicious things anyone else does, so only donate unexpired, usable food.

children drawing at thanksgiving tableALEXANDRA GRABLEWSKI//GETTY IMAGES

Make a Craft

Creating a Thanksgiving craft is just as much fun for the kids as the kids-at-heart. Making a seasonal activity will keep the little ones busy while the cooks finish the meal or during clean-up. It’s also a great unplugged bonding activity.

RELATED: Thanksgiving Crafts That Will Teach Them What the Holiday Is Really All About

multigenerational family gathered together in living room before thanksgivingTHOMAS BARWICK//GETTY IMAGES

Quiz Everyone on Thanksgiving Trivia

Foster a little friendly competition with a round of Thanksgiving-themed trivia. Whoever has the best score at the end wins a small prize!

a white man running in a turkey trot wearing an orange tshirt and a turkey hat giving a double thumbs upMEDIANEWS GROUP/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER VIA GETTY IMAGES

Run a Turkey Trot

Sign up for a Turkey Trot to get some exercise before digging into the big meal. The first known Turkey Trot footrace took place in Buffalo, NY in 1896, and it’s still one of the largest in the country. My dad and I do it every year I’m in town, and it always starts the day off on a good foot (pun very much intended). For an even more festive run, dress up in silly costumes and laugh all the way to the finish line.

friends serving each other during holiday meal togetherTHOMAS BARWICK//GETTY IMAGES

Host a Potluck Dinner

Especially if you invite friends from far and wide or your family comes from a variety of backgrounds, asking everyone to bring a dish to pass can create a more diverse, exciting spread. It also lessens the load on the host. Just make sure to coordinate who’s bringing what ahead of time, so you’ve got all the bases covered and don’t end up with duplicates.

thanksgiving traditions   easy cole slaw cabbage salad on kitchen table with ingredientsVICUSCHKA//GETTY IMAGES

Make a Special Dish

Prevention digital director Allie Early’s family serves up fond memories alongside their turkey. “We make a coleslaw recipe that my grandmother always made for my mom and her siblings, and we serve it in a special bowl that she passed down to my mom,” Early says. “It’s a special way to remember my grandma when we’re all together.”

a woman's hand serving fruit tart over a white tablecloth with marker drawn colorful symbols on itLUCY LAMBRIEX//GETTY IMAGES

Turn the Tablecloth Into a Keepsake

Draw your thanks on the tablecloth for a keepsake that doubles as a fun activity. Cover the table with a white fabric tablecloth and scatter cloth markers along the table. Ask your guests to draw what they’re thankful for, scribble down their favorite Thanksgiving memory or even craft a quirky self-portrait. By the time the meal ends, you’ll have a reusable memento to dress up the Thanksgiving table for years to come.

woman holding star and bell shaped ornamentsISABEL PAVIA//GETTY IMAGES

Exchange Christmas Ornaments

Ask each guest to bring an ornament to exchange. Some families even ask that the ornaments are homemade or have a special meaning to the giver, so you can hang a little memento of everyone you love on your tree.

a white, multi generational family talking over a butcher block kitchen island with bread and a fruit bowlHERO IMAGES//GETTY IMAGES

Start With a Big Breakfast

If your family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner a little on the later side, starting the day with a big breakfast can help keep the hangries at bay. Some families serve mimosas or Bloody Mary fixins to get the day off to a festive start, others set out bagels and pastries to nosh on while they prep. Or maybe you’re more of a quiche and egg casserole group. Whatever your breakfast personality, there’s a reason it’s the most important meal of the day.

hands toasting champagne flutes over a dinner tableKNAPE//GETTY IMAGES

Pop Some Bubbly

Only drinking champagne on New Year’s Eve? You’re missing out! Champagne and sparkling wine pair wonderfully with Thanksgiving dinner’s rich, indulgent flavors and will make the day feel even more celebratory.

a white girl writing a thank you card with colored markers nearbyPETER DAZELEY//GETTY IMAGES

Write Out Your Thanks

After dinner or while waiting for the bird to rest, pass out thank you cards and pre-stamped envelopes and ask your guests to write a note to someone who made a difference in their lives over the last year. Collect them on the way out the door to send on Black Friday. It’s a lovely opportunity to reflect on what really matters, and will serve as a touching reminder for the recipients too.

RELATED25+ Corny Thanksgiving Jokes Kids Will Love To Hear

three people gathered around a table with food on a sunny cruise shipAJA KOSKA//GETTY IMAGES

Take a Thanksgiving Trip

If you tend to fly solo on Thanksgiving or mark the occasion with a smaller group, try taking a Thanksgiving family vacation instead of cooking dinner at home. You’ll encounter fewer crowds and might even start a fun new tradition. Book a big family dinner at your destination – and let someone else clear the table.

a white bowl of pickled cucumbers on a wooden tabletopMARIHA-KITCHEN//GETTY IMAGES

Serve Pickles (Yes, Pickles!)

For Good Housekeeping Institute deputy editor Jessica Teich, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same without one dish. “My partner’s family always puts out a giant plate of pickles with dinner. They swear it helps with digestion,” she says. “I used to think it was the weirdest thing and now I think Thanksgiving dinner is incomplete without it!” FYI: There’s some evidence that pickles really do help gut health, plus they’re just delicious.

a woman in a black suit leading a yellow corgi at the national dog show in 2018NBC//GETTY IMAGES

Tune in to the Dog Show

Lots of people kick off their Thanksgiving by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and often flip the channel to a football game when Santa Claus rolls across the finish line. But if you prefer your athletes on the furry side, there’s always the National Dog Show. It airs after the parade on NBC and will probably result in less yelling than the big game. That is, unless your family has strong opinions on the merits of Corgis vs. Golden Retrievers.

a white mom in a blue shirt offering her daughter in a red shirt a plate of chocolate chip cookiesJOSE LUIS PELAEZ INC//GETTY IMAGES

Ask the Kids to Serve Dessert

To help them feel integral to the festivities, ask the younger guests to serve dessert. Kids sometimes feel left out of the big day, especially if your family sets up a kids’ table away from the adults. Older children can help slice and plate pies or cakes for the younger ones to serve. Bonus: the grown-ups get to relax around the table a bit longer!

a closeup of thanksgiving fake cornucopia decoration filled with leaves and fruit and bread on a wooden table with a red tableclothKRBLOKHIN//GETTY IMAGES

Craft a Cornucopia

Traditionally, a cornucopia was usually filled with the autumn harvest, plants and flowers, to show off that season’s autumnal bounty. Make it your own by asking guests to bring objects that are meaningful to them, suggests Donelle Crigger of Gluesticks and Gumdrops. Place them in a cornucopia, a basket or other decorative container and use it as a meaningful centerpiece for your table.

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a white baking dish with stuffing on a blue table with silverware and salt and pepper nearbyVESELOVAELENA//GETTY IMAGES

Go Ahead, Enjoy the Store-Bought Stuff

Is there a more divisive dish on the table than stuffing? Many families swear by grandma’s stuffing recipe, others gobble up the just-add-broth kind. Good Housekeeping senior parenting and relationships editor Marisa LaScala has found a great middle ground. “A couple days before Thanksgiving, we go to the deli and get sliced turkey and make Stove-Top-and-turkey sandwiches to indulge our guilty pleasure,” she says.

close up of two hands snapping a wishboneDONALD IAIN SMITH//GETTY IMAGES

Break the Wishbone – With a Twist!

When you first carve the turkey, set aside the wishbone to dry while everyone eats. After you finish the dishes, draw names to determine who gets to break it. Make a wish — legend has it the winner will see theirs come true in the upcoming year. For a fun twist, let the winner serve themselves dessert first!

a black family with one child riding a red tricycle and a man and woman and little girl walking together on a sunny suburban streetARIEL SKELLEY//GETTY IMAGES

Take a Walk After Dinner

For a tradition that’s both fun and good for you, get your blood pumping after eating. Bundle up if you live in a cold climate and bring some flashlights if it’s after dusk and go for a lap or two around the block. Taking a stroll gives everyone more time to connect with each other, especially those who might not have been seated nearby during dinner.

a senior woman in a wheelchair reading a newspaper in a sunny room with a wooden table and plantsWESTEND61//GETTY IMAGES

Enjoy Some Down Time

In the whirlwind of cleaning the house, preparing and cooking the meal, cleaning it all up and spending time with your guests in between, even the most extroverted among us may feel exhausted after it’s all over. Start the day on solid footing by taking just a few moments of alone time before it all begins. You’ll be able to enjoy the excitement that much more.

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Get Everyone on the Phone

Thanks to the wonders of technology, even the most faraway loved ones can participate in the festivities. Take some time out the IRL celebrations to video call those who can’t make it to the table. And while you’ve got the whole fam gathered ’round, take a group photo to commemorate the occasion.

two clear plastic containers on an empty refrigerator shelf with the top one labeled leftoversSTEVEN PUETZER//GETTY IMAGES

Bring Your Own Leftovers Container

We’ve all faced the frustration of running out of to-go containers when packing up the leftovers. Get in front of that problem by asking each guest to bring their own container for leftovers. You won’t have to spend the rest of the year chasing down yours, and everyone goes home happy.

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Learn About Native American Heritage Month

Every November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, also known as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. Thanksgiving is a great time to pause and celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, histories and important contributions of Native American people.

RELATED: 16 Facts to Learn for Native American Heritage Month

thanksgiving traditionsJOSE LUIS PELAEZ INC//GETTY IMAGES

Plan a Thanksgiving Prayer

After you go around and say what you’re thankful for and right before you dig in, have someone in your family say a prayer that also acknowledges how grateful you are this year. If your family follows a faith tradition, it’s a great way to center yourselves before digging in.

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Host a Family Coat Drive

Tell each family member to bring an old coat or sweater that can be donated to those in need during the winter months, to clean out your closets for a good cause.