How to Create an Easy, Beautiful Thanksgiving Table — With Help From the Kids!

updated Nov 21, 2023
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Thanksgiving always brings chaos (the good kind!) to our small kitchen, and though I want so badly to involve our daughter in the cooking process (like for these amazing Thanksgiving rolls), I just don’t have the patience when the day comes. She loves helping, so even though we’ve made the decision to wait to have her join us in the kitchen until she’s older, we’ve tasked her with the job of designing and setting the Thanksgiving table.

(Total transparency: we don’t hand over complete artistic direction to our daughter quite yet.LOL dolls on the Thanksgiving table wouldn’t quite bring the “fall vibes” we’re looking for, so we help her prepare by talking about how this time of year makes us feel: cozy, happy, warm, snuggly, thankful; and from there she comes up with ideas for how to make the table feel that way.)

For inspiration, we read (and re-read) our favorite book for the season: Thanksgiving In The Woods. It’s a beautifully illustrated book about a real family in upstate New York who holds a Thanksgiving feast in the woods and invites everyone they know. It’s the most heartwarming story about family and friends, and the spirit of being thankful. 

After we read the book, we head out on nature walks to gather leaves, twigs, rocks, and other found items to be used for decor, inspired by the book. Everything comes together in the end (with a few practical edits from us), resulting in a table your child is so proud of, and one less job you have to tackle on the holiday!

Here’s how you can get an easy, budget-friendly, festive fall Thanksgiving table, too:

1. Go on a nature walk to gather decor for the table.

We bring along a few sacks to hold the treasures we find, and some pruning shears just in case there are sticks or grasses we need to trim down. This part is so much fun because your child can pick up anything they see and think they can use on the table. We usually try to grab as many acorns as we can find (they can get heavy, so be sure you’ve got a sturdy bag!), lots of pretty leaves, and an assortment of willowy branches in varying sizes that can be used as a centerpiece or a “thankful tree.” 

For a table arrangement you’ll want something substantial — but not too thick, since your guests need to be able to still see one another across the table! Hot tip: save the branch-gathering for the end of your walk so you aren’t stuck carrying them for the duration of your walk!

Credit: From Left to Right: Williams Sonoma, Walmart

Here are a few of our favorite things to look for in nature for our table decor:

  • Acorns and walnuts
  • Small sticks and twigs
  • Beautiful wispy, small branches with leaves still attached (Aspen if you can find them!)
  • Pretty fall leaves 
  • Pampas and other dried grasses
  • Bittersweet
  • Pinecones
  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Crabapples
  • Viburnum
  • Hedge apples
  • Cattails
  • Corn tassel 
  • Tree bark 
  • Wheat
  • Stones
  • Grapevine

2. Gather a few household items.

After your walk, take a look around the house and gather decor items you can use to accent the nature you found on the walk. Look for vessels of varying heights and sizes your child can use to cluster together on the table. I find it’s helpful to talk with them first about how decor goes mainly down the center of the table, and how the trivets can be set around as placeholders for the food that will be brought to the table. Let them fold the napkins into any shape they like, then top with a leaf, pinecones, or berries.

Here are a few things I gathered from around the house:

Mason jars are some of our favorites. We fill them with pretty rocks and use them to display the soft willowy branches. 

Glass vases or pitchers are beautiful when filled with acorns or other nuts

Stoneware fits in perfectly with the natural decor and is great to use for serving. You can usually find this pretty easily second hand, too!

Cloth napkins folded and set on plates with a tiny little piece of nature are the perfect, subtle accent for a place setting.

Taper beeswax candles help to add the most beautiful lighting to the table decor and really give the “cozy” vibe!

Fall blankets tossed on the backs of chairs help make long dinners on hard dining room chairs a bit more comfortable

Plaid scarves make beautiful table runners and can be combined with other patterns to add visual interest to the tabletop

Paint pens or markers for personalized name cards

4 Easy, Budget-Friendly Thanksgiving DIYs

After that, try out one or more of these easy Thanksgiving DIYs.

1. Simple wood stick trivet

Trim 6 twigs (approximately 1/2″ thick) into 5”-6” lengths, then lay them out on the table next to each other to create something that looks like a tiny raft. Use twine to twist and tie the sticks together. This simple craft can be made in advance, in multiples, and is great to set around the table to be used as trivets for hot dishes. 

2. Willowy branch “thankful tree”

If you’re looking for an activity to do around the table as you sit down to dinner, pass out leaves to each person, along with a paint pen or marker, and ask them to write one thing they’re thankful for on a leaf, then add the leaves to the branch arrangement centerpiece on your table. The tree display can be as simple as a branch in a jar filled with rocks, or you can add other fall foliage like pampas grasses and cattails. It’s a simple, pretty project that leads to meaningful conversation, and will last for months if you decide to display it in your home.

Use the end of a twig to help poke a hole into the leaf (parents might want to assist for this part!), then slide the leaf onto the twig. It should stay in place on its own as long as the branch doesn’t get moved around too much. If you were unable to find a wispy, small branch on your nature walk, pass a bowl around the table instead. Ask each person to talk about the word they wrote on their leaf and place it in the bowl as it’s passed around the table. 

3. Walnut jars

Fill jars to overflowing with collections of acorns, walnuts, and pinecones. Placing all of the same element in one jar is a quick and easy way to add texture, and looks intentional. Scattering a few acorns around the base of the jar looks really pretty and natural as well — almost as if a little squirrel friend was visiting your table for Thanksgiving.

Be sure to treat your acorns for pests once you bring them indoors. We do this by soaking nuts in a bowl of water for about an hour, then letting them air dry on a towel. The next step is to arrange them on a baking sheet and place in the oven on the lowest setting for 1.5–2 hours. Leave the oven door open just a crack, and be sure to shake the tray every half hour or so to prevent burning. 

To clean pinecones: soak them in a bowl of water and vinegar (2:1 ratio), let them air dry, then place on a baking sheet in the oven at the lowest temperature setting and leave for about a half hour. We have definitely found bugs in pine cones, so don’t skip this step. It’s very important to prevent unwelcome guests (pests) at the dinner table! 

4. Leaf and twig personalized name card

Use a paint pen or marker to print the name of each guest on a fall leaf. Bundle the leaf with some twigs and an acorn, and tie with twine. Place on top of a napkin at each place setting.

How It All Comes Together

We set out chargers and plates for the place settings first thing, and let our daughter work around them, adding all her creative touches. All of the DIY projects are done together in advance, as well as name cards, or anything else she might need assistance with. We try to keep the projects to a minimum and instead focus on letting her create small arrangements of natural gatherings around the table to make things simple and easy. As we ramble around in the kitchen, one of us will pop in to see how the table is coming and assist with any final touches she might need help with. 

For this tablescape we picked up chargers and white china from Goodwill. Not all the china matches, but it hardly matters! The crisp white plates and dusting of gold from the chargers really helps to elevate the table design and make it feel special, and a little less like you’re eating a casual picnic outside on the ground. The napkins are also from a thrift store, but you can find these similar ones on Etsy. The antique hurricane candle holders were another thrift store find, and the blankets and scarves are our collection from over the years.

Our finished tablescape looks beautiful, but more importantly, our daughter is so very proud of her design, and the fact that she was able to create her very own version of “Thanksgiving In The Woods” for all of us to enjoy. 

This article has been updated from its original publication in November 2021.