A new tradition completely changed what Thanksgiving means to my family

Trading a morning on the couch for volunteering with Meals on Wheels is teaching my kids — and myself — an important lesson on gratitude.
An elderly woman hugs a Meals on Wheels volunteer who delivered a Thanksgiving dinner in Austin, Texas.
An elderly woman hugs a Meals on Wheels volunteer who delivered a Thanksgiving dinner in Austin, Texas.Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman via AP file
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By Ronnie Koenig

As we got ready to make the first stop on our delivery route, I briefly questioned my decision to drag my family out on Thanksgiving morning. It was freezing cold, and back home there was banana bread and our super soft blankie and the Macy’s parade on TV. Since my own childhood, watching the giant balloons glide down Central Park West, cozy in our pajamas, was a tradition, and it was one I passed down to my own kids, at least until last year.

Instead of watching Martina McBride lip sync on a float, we were in my husband’s car, hats and mittens and seat warmers on, and the trunk packed full of brown bags of groceries — meals to be delivered to people less fortunate than us.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of "Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem" reminded me that I had made the right decision: “When you volunteer as a family, it’s putting values into action. It’s concrete," she said. "Kids learn from what they observe. Things are very divisive right now, so anything you can do to help kids understand that we are responsible for our neighbors and that we are a community is important. We all have a responsibility for each other.”

Kids learn from what they observe. Things are very divisive right now, so anything you can do to help kids understand that we are responsible for our neighbors and that we are a community is important.

Volunteering with the kids was an idea that had been germinating in my mind over the past year, ever since my son pointedly asked why we weren’t giving money to a homeless man who was asking for change on the street. Having lived in New York City since college, I had become unsettlingly immune to seeing people with cardboard signs on street corners and people begging on the subway.

“There are better ways to help,” I reflexively told my son when he looked back at the man we had just passed with concern in his eyes. Okay, sure, I thought to myself. But do we ever actually do any of those things?

Koenig, her husband, and their two children on the way to deliver food on Thanksgiving with Meals on Wheels.

A new tradition: Giving back on Thanksgiving

Back in grad school, I followed my now-husband to a local soup kitchen where it became our weekly ritual to help with the free supper — washing dishes, scooping out platefuls of hot food and making small talk with the regulars. But since having twins, all of our extra energy (and then some) was expended on the kids. Giving back was an idea, not a part of our reality.

Over the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving last year, I searched online for volunteer opportunities. One organization I immediately recognized was Meals on Wheels. Signing up for a slot through Volunteermatch.org was super easy, and we were given the name and address of a church in our county where we should report to on Thanksgiving morning.

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In the church basement other volunteers gathered around and awaited instructions. After a welcome from the organizer, we got our delivery route which included the names of three different women, all located not too far from the church. We bagged up the meals according to whatever dietary restrictions were listed and headed back to the car to load up.

My husband drove as I used Waze to navigate to the first address. I glanced at my twins in the backseat and observed their curious looks at what we were doing. They didn’t know what to expect at each of the houses on our list, but neither did we — and that was okay! My husband explained that not everyone has a family or money for a big Thanksgiving celebration and that we were going to visit with them and bring a meal and some cheer.

Koenig's son and husband bagging pre-cooked meals and beverages to deliver with Meals on Wheels.

The mental health benefits of helping others

Beyond the value of helping others in the community, doing this was also a way to build our kids’ confidence, said Kennedy-Moore.

“Real self-esteem come from connecting with something bigger than ourselves,” she told me. “Volunteering is a wonderful way to do this. When you’re packing up meals, kids aren’t thinking do I look good? It quiets those thoughts and they begin to realize they are part of something bigger.”

At the first house, my son eagerly rang the doorbell. (He’s still at that age when doorbells are fun — almost as much fun as pressing them before your sister.) An older woman opened the door and welcomed us inside. After talking for a few minutes, we learned that she was recently widowed and the sadness was palpable from our short conversation. Lightening the mood, my husband pointed out the rotary phone that hung on the wall and we had a laugh watching the twins try it. She gratefully accepted the meal, though I had a feeling it was more the chance to talk to someone than a plateful of turkey that she was grateful for.

It’s 'helper’s high'. It feels good to be helping other people. It gives a sense of meaning and a sense of joy that’s more long-lasting than the high from buying something.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.

At the next address on our list, we rang the doorbell, but no one answered. Traveling on to our third and final stop, our own stomachs were rumbling and thoughts of cooking and drinking prosecco danced around my mind. But strangely, we were also a little pumped up from our do-gooding. Kennedy-Moore told me there’s a reason for that. “It’s ‘helper’s high,’” she explained. “It feels good to be helping other people. It gives a sense of meaning and a sense of joy that’s more long-lasting than the high from buying something.”

At the third home, we rang and were beckoned inside by a home health aide and were introduced to a boisterous, wheelchair-bound older woman holding court in her sun room, which was decorated with hundreds of ceramic figurines.

We set the meal down on the table in the kitchen and were invited to sit down and had a friendly chat that lasted about fifteen minutes. It was a household that was different from the ones the twins had ever been in, and it was cool to see them take in the unique surroundings and answer questions about themselves. I could see that they were getting into the spirit of just making friendly conversation and I knew that, being so adorable, their mere presence was probably enough to brighten someone’s day.

Truly feeling gratitude on the day dedicated to giving thanks

As we drove away, I felt lucky that I got to be around them all the time. And then it hit me: It was Thanksgiving, and I genuinely felt grateful, not just for all the food and stuff we had, but for the fact that we had each other.

And even though it’s become our new Thanksgiving tradition to volunteer, our goal is to find a way to give back more than once a year, even if it’s in small ways.

“Whatever we do most of the time is what kids think is normal or typical,” said Kennedy-Moore. “They learn more from what we do than from what we say. A one-off won’t have that much impact but doing something consistently will.”

Kennedy-Moore encourages us to talk to our children about our deepest values, as early as possible. “Around age four, children are able to begin to understand someone else’s perspective, but even little ones can respond in caring ways,” she said. “Children are hard-wired to respond to feelings. Begin to teach them about kindness.”

We went home to our own celebration feeling hungry, but somehow also a lot fuller than when we had left that morning.

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