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Thanksgiving helpers

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Elliott Stowers

TURKEY-DAY TEAMWORK Elliott Stowers, even at 14 months old, is part of the assembly-line tradition of making Italian rice balls for Thanksgiving, along with her brothers and extended family. (Photo: Adam Nyholt) 

Buzz Baby is a column about life with babies. Writer Annie McQueen is a mother of four children under the age of 6.

The busy holidays get busier when kids help. But – let us remind ourselves – that is a good thing. Kids love to be helpers. 

I often find my mind shifting toward an “if you want the job done right” mentality, but it’s always more fun when I get my kids involved – even when a bag of flour was spilled on our kitchen floor last November (true story). I enjoy watching them learn about our family’s holidays and helping create our own versions. How else would we pass family traditions on?

For birthdays and holidays, I let my kids set the table. It makes them smile and boosts their confidence to pull out the placemats, plates and bowls and carefully work together to place everything where it belongs. The items they pick out might not be what I would choose – dinosaur placemats and plates covered in princesses – but they are so proud and excited. 

This month, we celebrate Thanksgiving. If you are thinking of starting traditions that include even your youngest kids, take some inspiration from one Buzz family – the Stowers family. 

Like many families, they rotate where they spend Thanksgiving each year – either at home in Houston at their family’s ranch in Bridgeport or with family in Beaumont.

For mom Melissa (a physician assistant), dad Jesse (an economist and owner of a compost company), sons Bennett, 9, and Campbell, 6, and daughter Elliott, 4, working together as a family on holiday prep is a big part of how they celebrate Thanksgiving.

They start out the season every year making a “grateful-for” list. On Nov. 1, Melissa tapes up a piece of paper in their kitchen, and each morning during November the kids add something they are grateful for. 

They are avid about the outdoors. The first time I met Melissa, she was talking about an upcoming trip to Colorado. And she is already planning their family trip to Montana and Wyoming next summer. “We are going to do Yellowstone,” she said, smiling. 

When they are in Bridgeport at Jesse’s family’s ranch, they bundle up if it is cool and head outdoors for a nature walk. The kids collect sticks, pinecones, leaves, acorns, nuts and anything interesting. Then they gather around with what they collected and use hot-glue guns to create centerpieces for the Thanksgiving table. “With a little metallic spray, they look pretty fancy actually,” said Melissa. 

Melissa’s family has an Italian heritage, and they like to create family dishes together when they spend Thanksgiving with extended family in Beaumont.

Melissa says the most important tradition for her family, one she has been part of her whole life, is gathering, assembly line-style, to make Italian rice balls. 

The kids help make the rice balls by taking hot sticky seasoned rice (similar to sushi rice) and smashing it into the palm of their hands. Then they add a big spoonful of a chilled meat mixture and combine it with the rice. “It then gets rolled in an egg wash, seasoned with breadcrumbs and then fried,” said Melissa. They also make a cheese-only one for those who think the meat is too spicy.

“This is a labor-of-love project and brings about 15 of our family members together the Sunday before Thanksgiving,” she said. As a small kid, Melissa made the rice balls with her mother and grandmother. “As generations have passed on, the torch has been handed off, and we continue to make these with aunts, uncles and our kids.”

There is another tradition the kids love to be a part of – and that’s football. “When we spend Thanksgiving with our extended family, there is normally banter about the University of Texas game, as my uncles bleed orange,” she said. The kids don’t watch the whole game, but they like  sitting with their great-uncles and watching them watch the game. 

Melissa says the smells that fill whichever home they spend their Thanksgiving at remind her of being a kid. “The house is dominated by the butter rolls baking and the Italian sausage warming,” she said. “It tastes like my childhood.”

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