How To Turn Thanksgiving Into an Opportunity To Give Back

Close-up of a young black woman hands distributing fresh produce to needy homeless people at a food drive.


Simple ways to find time for service during the busiest season.

Every year, the days leading into the holiday season seem to move faster and get more hectic. As soon as the Halloween candy is eaten, thoughts turn to Thanksgiving menu planning and then holiday gift shopping. As a nonprofit founder passionate about encouraging service, I’m trying to take my own advice: slow down; find moments of meaning; and make time to insert small acts of kindness, generosity, and service into these busy days. ‘Tis the season of giving — but giving back will make this time of year more fulfilling than simply giving gifts to loved ones. 

These efforts can help to ground us in gratitude and lower the volume of busyness and stress. On Thanksgiving, amid hosting duties and meal preparation, finding time for service may seem like just another item to add to your lengthy to-do list. And let’s be honest — family togetherness can be exhausting and hard to navigate. But with a little planning, you can make the holiday more meaningful and pleasant by stopping to consider the positive things in your life: the food on your table, the roof over your head, your health, and your family and friends. As gratefulness guru Brother David Steindl-Rast famously said, it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.

Here are a few simple things you can do to bring a little extra gratitude and kindness to your Thanksgiving holiday.

Host a “Friendsgiving” fundraiser for No Kid Hungry 

While the word “Friendsgiving” was added to the dictionary in 2020, the concept has been around much longer. Some people credit the television show Friends with popularizing the idea of spending Thanksgiving with your “chosen family” — your friends. Many people now host Friendsgiving meals in the days before the holiday. A wonderful way to make a difference while celebrating this annual tradition is to host a Friendsgiving for No Kid Hungry, an organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger. Check out the No Kid Hungry website, which provides easy ways to turn your celebration into a fundraiser for hungry kids. 

Feed others

Most food pantries, soup kitchens, and food delivery organizations offer time slots early in the morning on Thanksgiving so that you can work a shift and still get home in time to take your turkey out of the oven. If it’s too hard to find time on the day itself, most nonprofits begin preparations for Thanksgiving well in advance and you may be able to volunteer in the days leading up to the holiday. If you’re not sure where you can volunteer in your community, Feeding America offers a searchable database on its website. Of course, if you’re able, all of these organizations would welcome your financial support, as well, as they can often purchase turkeys and other Thanksgiving food items in bulk and at a discount.

Start a gratitude jar 

Research has proven that simply expressing gratitude — saying what you’re thankful for out loud, or writing it down — makes us feel happier. Distribute colorful slips of paper and ask everyone to write down one or two things for which they’re thankful, making sure they sign and date each one. Place the notes in a glass jar at the center of your table as a decoration. At the beginning of your Thanksgiving meal each year, read a few of the notes from the year before.

Start your countdown to the holidays with kindness

As Santa closes the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the official start of the holiday season begins. What if the days leading up to Christmas, Hanukkah, Three Kings Day, and Kwanzaa were filled with small, intentional acts of kindness instead of only materialism and stress? As an alternative to an advent calendar filled with chocolate or other superfluous treats, consider purchasing a Kindness Advent Calendar. Each window that’s opened reveals an idea for an act of kindness that you and your family can do. Another option is The Giving Manger, which helps families shift the focus of Christmas back to giving. A piece of straw is placed in the manger for each kind deed or act of service performed. On Christmas Day, the Baby is placed in the manger filled with service and love. For a secular version of these two options, create a Kindness Challenge sheet, counting down the days of December with an act of kindness that you and your family can check off. 

Beyond the travel, planning, family drama, and food preparation, Thanksgiving provides a unique opportunity, right at the start of a whirlwind time of year, to slow down and create new family service traditions. We need to find opportunities for moments of connection and gratitude, even in the midst of these busy days, to allow the true spirit of the holiday season to shine.

Natalie Silverstein, MPH, is a writer, speaker, nonprofit founder, and passionate advocate for family and youth service. She is the author of two books on volunteering, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back and Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference, and the host of the award-winning podcast, Simple Acts, Big Impact: Celebrating Teen Changemakers. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook at @simpleactsguide.