Mama Loves Family Time ... In the Kitchen

Invite the kids into the kitchen this Thanksgiving for some fun and family bonding time.

Story and Photography by Kerry Guice

Mac n cheese
 

I have a hashtag that I use when I post photos of my family doing something fun together: #Mamalovesfamilytime. I look forward to family time because we are always so busy and moving in different directions, and for this reason, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. The other reason it’s my favorite is because of the food. #Mamaalsolovesfood.

It seems like sometimes the youngest generation gets the short end of the stick on Thanksgiving, because there are already too many cooks in the kitchen, preparing for the feast. Usually, the kids don’t seem bothered by this and enjoy the time to play with their cousins and have less watchful eyes on everything they do. But sometimes, kids just want to help! Setting aside just one side dish that is easily prepared by a few kids with little oversight is a great way to make kids feel involved, and feel like big kids. It’s also a great incentive to try foods they might not otherwise put on their plate!

Last fall, my then-6-year-old daughter, Violet, entered a recipe contest sponsored by a rice company. She chose to make a rice salad, and with just a little help, she created a really wonderful brown rice salad that pairs so well with everything that goes on a Thanksgiving spread, and it’s one of the most kid-friendly recipes you’ll find! It is a new tradition to have her and her little brother recreate this recipe for our family meal. You only use a knife once to chop the pear (pick the oldest cousin), and if you cook the rice the day before, it’s simply a matter of pouring ingredients, shaking the jar of dressing, tearing greens, picking pomegranate seeds out, crushing walnuts, and crumbling feta cheese. It combines sensory play, feeling a sense of responsibility and ownership over a task, and a feeling like they belong in the kitchen. I’d be surprised to hear if after all that, any kid still refuses to try at least one bite!

Another recipe that’s equally qualified to squeeze a spot into your Thanksgiving menu is my Butternut Squash Mac’n Cheese. It’s the perfect way to sneak a veggie onto your kids’ plates. Still cheesy, still creamy, my version is topped with crushed potato chips and sage rather than breadcrumbs. It tastes like fall, and the butternut squash lends a sweet and nutty flavor to the creamy sauce that will have the oldest and youngest family members fighting over seconds. As a bonus, both of these recipes are vegetarian!

As we get older, our gratitude for our families grows and strengthens. With each passing year, time speeds up, and we can rely on Thanksgiving to slow us all down and invite us to sit around one big table, laughing and bonding and enjoying the truly fortunate gift that is a Thanksgiving feast. It’s so much more than good food. It might be the last time you see your toddler sitting with his great-grandmother while she plays piano. You may share a laugh-until-you-cry conversation with your brother that you’ll never forget. You might high five yourself for remembering to take the rolls out of the oven on time when you know everyone is expecting you to forget. It’s about all those moments that stay with us forever. 

 
Butternut Squash Mac n Cheese
 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH MAC N CHEESE

2 cups peeled and diced butternut squash
1 bag elbow pasta (or your favorite spiral noodles, I used Cavatappi)
½ cup diced onion
3 cloves minced garlic
4 teaspoons chopped sage
½ teaspoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
½ cup Parmesan cheese
½ cup cheddar cheese, plus cup for topping
2 cups warm milk
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup potato chips
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Drizzle diced butternut squash with 2 teaspoons olive oil, then sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Roast at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Raise oven temp to 400 degrees.

While squash is roasting, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter over medium low heat, then saute onion, garlic, half of the chopped sage (2 teaspoons), dry mustard, ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper until soft and fragrant. Add the flour and coat until flour is incorporated. Slowly add the chicken stock, and then the warm milk, whisking to combine. Raise heat to medium, and when it comes to a simmer, remove from heat and stir in Parmesan and cheddar cheeses. Stir until thoroughly combined.

In a food processor or blender, combine the roasted squash with the cheese sauce and carefully blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Boil pasta al dente (cooked but still firm), and combine pasta with sauce. Pour into casserole dish. Top with cup shredded cheddar cheese. In plastic zip bag, crush 1 cup of potato chips with the remaining 2 teaspoons of chopped sage. Sprinkle on top of cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, or until topping is bubbling and golden brown. Serve hot.

 

Brown Rice Salad

VIOLET'S BROWN RICE SALAD

2 cups cooked and cooled brown rice
1 packed cup roughly chopped baby greens (like spinach and kale)
¼ cup roughly chopped walnuts
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup pomegranate seeds
1 pear, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Dressing:
2 tablespoons good apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons roasted walnut oil (found at Kroger by the olive oils)
1 tablespoon maple syrup (get the real stuff!)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 teaspoon grated ginger
Salt and pepper to taste

Pour dressing ingredients into a mason jar and secure the lid. Let the kids shake the jar 30 seconds to combine. Set aside. In large bowl, combine cooked rice and greens. Add dressing, and toss to coat. Pour into serving platter, then top with remaining ingredients. Serve at room temperature.

TIP: DON’T COOK BROWN RICE ACCORDING TO THE PACKAGE! RINSE FIRST, THEN ADD TO A LARGE POT OF SALTED BOILING WATER FOR 25 MINUTES. DRAIN WELL, THEN ADD BACK TO THE POT (TURN OFF HEAT!) WITH A TIGHT FITTING LID. LET STEAM 10 ADDITIONAL MINUTES IN ITS OWN HEAT TO ABSORB ANY LEFTOVER MOISTURE. NEVER AGAIN WILL YOU HAVE STICKY OR GUMMY RICE! WORKS EVERY TIME.