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14 Small Family Thanksgiving Traditions (Make this Year Unforgettable)

How to make Thanksgiving special for a small family? These memorable small family Thanksgiving traditions will help.

Ever noticed that most Thanksgiving family tradition articles are geared toward people having large family gatherings?

small family of 5 with Mom holding up turkey at dinner table, text overlay "small family Thanksgiving traditions"

Not anymore.

I’m dishing on some memorable small family Thanksgiving traditions you can snag for your own get-together this year, next year, and beyond.

Heck, your kids might end up using these decades from now with their own children!

Small Family Thanksgiving Traditions

What do small families do for Thanksgiving?

Turns out, quite a lot.

Below, you’ll find small family traditions for:

  • Thanksgiving Week
  • Thanksgiving Eve
  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Thanksgiving Night (after the Thanksgiving Meal)

1. Name the Honorary Turkey Guest

young girl getting chosen as Honorary Thanksgiving guest, boy putting turkey decoration on her head

The first year you do this, put every family member’s name in a mason jar. Pull one name out of the jar, and don’t return it there until everyone has had the chance over the next several years.

This is your Turkey Guest for Thanksgiving Day, and you’re going to give them some special privileges.

Things like:

  • Pick where they sit at the Thanksgiving Meal
  • They get to go turkey shopping with Mom or Dad
  • They get the wishbone and can choose who they split it with

Hint: have young kids? This is a great way to teach them how to treat guests in general – with a little specialness and more consideration!

2. Take a Walk Together to Collect Your Table Décor

family of five walking through forest in fall, collecting table decor for thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Eve, or the morning of, take everyone on a walk with a mission: to collect things from nature that will decorate the table for the big meal.

You and your kids can collect things like:

  • Autumn-colored leaves
  • Rocks
  • Acorns
  • Twigs and branches (I did this one year, and thumbtacked those cheap votive candles onto it to make a beautiful centerpiece)
  • Pine cones

3. Create Thank You Fish Bowls

Everyone knows everyone at a small family Thanksgiving. And really well.

Use this to your advantage by having each person go around and write a note of thanks to each “guest” at your dinner.

Add them to a small fish bowl or mason jar at the head of each person’s plate.

When you guys sit down to dinner, everyone can go through their fish bowl and smile while reading how much the people in their daily lives appreciate them.

Hint: use a different color pen or colored pencil for each family member! That will make their notes more recognizable.

4. Pair Clean-Up with a Disco Ball (No, really!)

Cleaning up after stuffing your stomach with food is about as much fun as going to the dentist.

Get everyone at least a bit more motivated (plus create a fun tradition) by turning down the kitchen lights, breaking out a disco ball in the kitchen, and turning on Thanksgiving-themed music.

5. Include One Historical Thanksgiving Dish

You may or may not know that most of the Thanksgiving dishes on our tables actually were never at the original Thanksgiving meal.

Teach your kids, partner, and whoever else about this by choosing one new dish each year that would’ve been included in that first Thanksgiving.

Things like:

  • Goose
  • Duck
  • Venison
  • Lobster
  • Clams
  • Cornbread/porridge
  • Beans
  • Squash

6. Do a Thanksgiving Show Marathon

Choose one of you + your partner’s favorite shows that you watch together, and stream just their Thanksgiving episodes.

Some shows with multiple Thanksgiving episodes include:

  • This is Us
  • Friends
  • South Park (okayyyy…this one’s for my husband)
  • Modern Family

This is great for Thanksgiving Eve – setting up anticipation for the big day – or after your big meal, when everyone needs to sleep it off digest.

Psst: here's more November activities for adults, and Thanksgiving activities for adults.

7. Make the Table Writable

black chalkboard placemat with fork and knife, with doodles on it

One of the biggest childhood memories I have is around two different restaurants we got to eat at where you could write on the walls and the table.

Why not recreate this for your small family Thanksgiving by making your table completely writable?

Ideas to do this:

Psst: squeamish about doing this? Just create the writable table at the kid’s table, then.

8. Do a Library Fact-Finding Mission to Share

Take everyone to the library during Thanksgiving week, and give them a mission: find one fact about Thanksgiving (either historical ones or modern-day ones) to share at Thanksgiving meal.

This can make great conversation! And over the years, your family will all learn tons of things about the holiday.

9. Preview a Christmas Movie After Dinner

Here’s our small family Thanksgiving tradition: after clean-up is finished, we light a fire in the fireplace, and we collapse on the couch to our first run of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Ahhhh. Memories.

10. Do a Gratefulness Swap

Thanksgiving is all about being thankful AND giving to others.

Have each family member come to the table with one thing they are very grateful for in their life.

Then, ask them to give this item to another family member to borrow, just for the week.

What a great way to teach these (sometimes difficult) concepts!

It could be a favorite:

  • Book
  • Toy
  • Pillow
  • DVD/Video game
  • Shirt
  • Etc.

Psst: here are some kindness challenges for adults.

11. Pop the Bubbly in Grown-Up Glasses

Get some sparkling apple cider (kid-friendly), or sparkling grape juice, and serve it in your most grown-up glasses. Kids really like this sort of thing.

12. Do a Family Purge over Thanksgiving Week

Thanksgiving is a great time of year to focus your family on giving to others.

Leading up to the big meal, have your family do a big purge – go through specific parts of the home, and decide on what to donate.

Then, as a family, make the donation.

What a great example you’ll be setting, and a time that you guys can use to bond.

13. Introduce Conversation Starter Cards

I’ve got a whole article on the best family conversation starter PDFs to choose from. Pick a set, download them, and let everyone participate in some lively conversation.

14. Order Out and Play Games in the Morning

Ashley Smith from Navigating Homeschool says,

“For Thanksgiving, it's just the four of us celebrating (mom, dad, and two kids). We plan for our Thanksgiving dinner weeks ahead of schedule. We eat plant-based so we don't have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Every year we order over $100 worth of plant-based dishes from Whole Foods. The day before Thanksgiving, the kids and I take our trip to Whole Foods to pick up the order.”

This really takes the pressure off of them – so much so, that they can relax the whole morning long (instead of prepping/stuffing/cutting).

“On Thanksgiving day, we relax in the morning since no early cooking needs to be done. We play games and just enjoy each other's company. Sometimes go for a walk since we have nice weather. Around 12-1pm we begin to cook. We eat our meal around 4-5pm and then we store the leftovers for a week of meals.”

Which of these small family Thanksgiving traditions are you going to give a go? What do you hope your own children will do one day with their kids? I'd love to hear your own family traditions around this holiday, too!

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Amanda L Grossman

Personal Finance Writer and CEO at Frugal Confessions, LLC
Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here or on LinkedIn.