Close your eyes and picture your family around the Thanksgiving table. Got it? Good. Now — this will be hard, but stay with us — imagine what it would feel like to have an adult conversation, enjoy a slice of pie, and take a few long, well-deserved sips of wine, all without your kids flinging mashed potatoes at each other in a battle for the iPad. Sound too good to be true? Heed the advice of our hero experts, and your next holiday meal has the potential to be all that and more — without (and here’s the kicker) even a lick of mom guilt. Here, everything you need to know about creating the perfect kids table, no matter the age of your guests.
For the Littles
This one’s so easy, says Katie Jayne Sprenkle, founder of Jayne Weddings, with offices in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California: “Simply tie a brightly hued helium balloon to the back of each chair with colorful ribbon. Don’t tie it too tightly, though — they’ll each want to bring one home.”
“Cover your table with butcher block paper, then attach a row of small galvanized buckets down the center, runner-style, with strong double-stick tape,” says Katherine Healy Brown, owner of Clover Events in Chicago. “Fill the buckets with crayons, stickers, Play-Doh, and little cookie cutters, and voilà — a table that doubles as an art center.”
Ice-Breaker: Musical Chairs
Sprenkle suggests this twist on the classic preschool game: “Before everyone sits down, play a fun song — anything from “Trolls” or “Moana” will be a hit with this crowd — and stop the music at a random spot,” she says. The first one in his or her seat gets a prize: a special crown to wear for the remainder of the meal.
Better Than a Shirley Temple
Courtesy of Belinda Chang, Chicago’s only James Beard Award-winning wine director
- 2 cups POM juice
- 1 1/3 cups agave nectar
- 2 ounces pomegranate molasses
- Citrus soda or sparkling water
Heat POM, agave syrup, and pomegranate molasses in a saucepan over low heat. Stir to dissolve all and reduce to a syrup-like texture. Add a splash to anything carbonated: citrus soda, club soda, their favorite flavor of La Croix — the sky’s the limit. Garnish with Swedish Fish skewers or Haribo cola gummies, or freeze gummy bears into ice cubes.
For the Middles
Décor: Pattern Play
At this age, more is more, says Sprenkle. Choose a simple color palette that includes a few different shades (the bolder the better — think orange, hot pink, and chartreuse), then pick a few patterns that work those hues. “Layer a zig-zag tablecloth with polka-dot napkins, or pair a bright floral print with stripes — you can’t mess it up,” she says.
Activity: Picture Frame Decorating
“Kids this age love taking their work home, so an easy art project is a great idea,” says Kertzner. Enter the wooden picture frame, available at craft stores for less than a couple bucks a pop. Simply set a frame at each place setting, then put out markers, glitter glue, and a bowl of jewels and sequins. At the end of the night, they can take their (now dry) frame home and put their favorite photo inside.
Ice-Breaker: Heads Up!
“Kids in this age group can really get their sillies out with this game — it’s the best for parties,” says Seri Kertzner, co-founder of Little Miss Party Planner in New York. Here’s how it works: Download the app at the iTunes or Google Play store (Heads Up! is for readers, while Heads Up! Kids replaces the words with pictures), then split the crowd into teams of two (give the oldest the responsibility of manning the phone). The game is simple: One player on each team tries to guess the word on the screen while their teammates provide clues, and every time a word is guessed correctly, that team scores a point. As for what the winners take home? That’s up to you.
Courtesy of Annabelle W., Chicago kid and crowd-pleasing mocktail master at large
- 1/4 cup mashed blueberries
- 2 ounces pineapple juice
- 2 ounces passion fruit juice
- 6 ounces strawberry lemonade
- 4 ounces lemon La Croix
Fill tumblers halfway with ice and put a spoonful of mashed berries on top. Mix the juices and lemonade and pour over the berries. Top with La Croix. Garnish with an orange slice and two maraschino cherries on a cocktail toothpick, and add a mini drink umbrella because obviously!
For the Bigs
Décor: All Grown Up
Kertzner suggests paying attention to every detail when setting the big kids’ table for family events. “They are always pretty taken by it,” she says. “I love when they take photos of a family meal and post on their social accounts.” Sprenkle added that it’s better to decorate the tweens’ and teens’ table the same as the adults’ table — sure, they’re sitting at the kids’ table, but the last thing a tween or teen wants is to feel babied.
Activity: Casino Night
After the initial Instagram photos have been shot and friends have been tagged, collect everyone’s phones and encourage them to kick it old school with a game of cards. UNO, Gin Rummy, or even Go Fish are crowd pleasers, says Sprenkle, especially if you pair them with a bowl of pennies or tokens that can be exchanged for prizes like movie tickets and iTunes gift cards. Phone? What phone?
The key with this group: Get them talking right off the bat. Sprenkle suggests making a list of fun questions that they can pass around the table and take turns answering. “It can be anything from their favorite emoji, food, or movie to the best trip they’ve ever taken,” she says. To take it to the next level, devise a game of “Would You Rather,” too: coffee or tea, beach or mountains, band or gym — you get the idea.
Small-Batch Basil Smash
Courtesy of Sunnie Schwartz, assistant manager at 7 Monks Taproom in Boyne City, Michigan
- 2 basil leaves
- 2 blood orange slices
- 2 lime slices
- 1 1/2 ounces brown sugar simple syrup (boil equal parts brown sugar and water)
- 1 ounce Jack Rudy small-batch tonic
Muddle the leaves and slices, add the rest, shake with ice, and pour in a glass. Top off with lime seltzer or Sprite, and garnish with basil leaf and lime slice.
More from Make It Better:
- The Benefits of Family Dinner (and 5 Easy Ways to Make It a Priority)
- 10 Fun Ways to Put Gratitude on Your Family’s Thanksgiving Menu This Year
- 17 Podcasts and Audiobooks That Will Make Family Road Trips Fly By
Living in and loving the Chicagoland area for over 20 years, Hope Nichols is a busy mom with a writer she keeps mostly trapped inside her head. Since shuttering her marketing services firm Left the Porch to raise her family, Hope has continued to indulge her inner voice with freelance writing.
“Where do I focus my philanthropy? I have an adult nephew who has autism. In his community, he has limited opportunity for the socialization he needs and the independence he craves. I feel that it’s important to provide adults with developmental needs the opportunity they so deserve, which is to live their lives as independently as they are able. For that reason, I support Park Lawn, a nonprofit organization here in Illinois focused on helping this deserving part of our population thrive independently and live full, normal lives,” Hope says.