Cooking Up Family Traditions

Some of our most cherished holiday memories are associated with food. It’s the favorite dishes from the past that simmer in our memories. For me, it’s my mom’s cranberry sauce, the huge box of German cookies that would arrive every Christmas from my Grandma, and the sweet potato, apple and carrot dish I make with my mother-in-law for Thanksgiving.

The holidays are a perfect time to celebrate your heritage by sharing culinary traditions with your children. There’re so many delicious rewards.

Kids gain confidence and feel creative when helping prepare the food everyone is going to enjoy. They learn about nutrition first-hand and what it takes to prepare a healthy meal.

Chances are you’ll also pave the way to a more adventurous eater. Children learn about unfamiliar foods by touching, smelling, and tasting when helping prep. The fears of different tastes and smells can be minimized through the positive associations they’ll have with you in the kitchen exploring new foods. And as children taste test, they’re developing their future palates.

Prep time is a great opportunity to share stories about your family and pass down recipes from one generation to the next. Sharing the significance of your family’s holiday dishes helps children feel connected and have a sense of belonging. Research shows that traditions are part of healthy families and important in building strong family relationships between generations.

When I was growing up, we often visited my mom’s German-American family for Thanksgiving at my aunt’s farm in Missouri. All my aunts would gather in the kitchen for the annual pie-making marathon. My cousins and I helped by kneading, rolling dough, and measuring ingredients. My aunts regaled childhood stories — often disputing each other’s versions of what “really happened.”

I’m sure some of the conversations were the same every year — but it didn’t matter because, through the ancient form of oral storytelling, they were reliving their younger years, bringing to life our ancestors, and passing along family history and folklore to my cousins and me. And, at the end of the pie-a-thon, my aunts would proclaim to the rest of the house how many pies were made that year! As I recall, it was often a whopping 25–30.

Developing new traditions and creating memories through food can be a part of your family culture throughout the year. You can start by sharing the foods from your childhood that you loved. I mentioned my mom’s cranberry sauce. I make this every year, but I’ve altered the recipe to fit our lifestyle. You can still celebrate and honor your heritage by fashioning recipes and foods to match your culinary tastes.

It can be fun to develop new dishes to accompany the traditional foods during the holidays. Combine cultural foods from your past with your family’s favorite flavors and ingredients to make something unique that everyone will love. Involve your children in the creative process of developing new dishes. They’ll be more enthusiastic about trying suspicious foods and cooking if they’re participating.

Culinary traditions bring families together, provide a sense of continuity, and offer a scrumptious way to share your family’s history and values.


I asked museum staff to dish about their favorite holiday food traditions.

Here’s a few to chew on.


Debbie McKenzie, our development manager says that grilled turkey sandwiches are her favorite for several days after Thanksgiving and Christmas. She follows her mother’s recipe of turkey, gravy, dressing or mashed potatoes on whole grain bread grilled to perfection. Her mom had a sandwich maker that grilled four at a time — and Debbie said, “These sandwiches made from left-overs were the main reason her mother cooked turkey.”

Krista Warner, our program specialist supervisor endorses the Spicy Italian Meatball cookie. Krista says, “These cookies ARE Christmas to me.” The cookies shaped like little meatballs, which Krista thinks is so fun and reminds her of her heritage, are flavored with two types of chili powder and PLENTY of chocolate (Krista’s favorite). Bite-sized morsels are embellished with red twinkling sugar sprinkles to indicate there’s a spice inside.

The recipe started with Krista’s Nana (great-grandmother’s) who made hundreds of cookies every Christmas, filling popcorn tins full for family and friends. The recipe was passed along to Krista’s mother, scratched out on a piece of paper forcing Krista’s mom to improvise a bit.

She carries on Nana’s tradition, making dozens of cookies every year starting the second week of November through the middle of December. “The Spicy Italian Meatball cookies are just one of the many specialty cookies that I get the honor of enjoying this time of year, but they are by far my favorite. No Christmas would be the same without them,” said Krista.

Jessica Torres, our associate director of education, loves the red chile pork tamales she made with her grandma, aunts, siblings, and cousins each December.

They’d spend an entire day cooking and assembling the tasty tradition in between the laughter and fun.

The crew would make nearly 400 tamales for family and friends, and to share on Christmas day. Jessica’s grandma spent years in southern New Mexico, so it’s still critical that the homemade red chile HAS to include New Mexican chile — and have a black olive inside. Turns out that the olive isn’t as common as Jessica and her family thought. But it’s their tradition!

What’s your favorite food tradition?