Memories and Gratitude fill Holiday Traditions

By Ann Foster Thelen

Traditions are what holiday memories are made of and stand the test of time. They connect one generation to the next to keep memories alive for decades. Discover the traditions of many Iowa Food & Family Project partners and their favorite recipes. 

The holidays are filled with family, friends and time-treasured traditions. Whether it’s the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from Grandma’s kitchen, anxiously watching the designated family member carve the turkey or going around the table sharing expressions of gratitude, these moments create meaningful connections.

To kick off this year’s holiday season of gratitude and magic, we asked our partners for their favorite customs and holiday recipes. These ideas might spark nostalgia or inspire you to create your own fun ideas!

Please note, by clicking the following links, you’ll be leaving a partially funded checkoff site.


Thanksgiving traditions will be extra special this year as I share them with my 10-month-old baby. I am most excited about sharing my family’s tradition of kicking off Thanksgiving morning with “Turkey” French toast. I get a few interesting looks when I share this concept with my friends or colleagues. Have no fear; we do not add poultry to this sweet dish. We save turkey for the big meal! When we were younger, my mom would carefully cut our French toast with a turkey-shaped cookie cutter. This tradition has lasted over the years, as Mom has given each of us kids an iconic turkey cookie cutter. Some years, we get to enjoy the special French toast together; other years, we are apart. No matter where we spend our holiday, the turkey cookie cutter is always packed in the bag. The following is one of my favorite French toast recipes.

Baked French Toast with Maple Yogurt and Fruit
6 slices bread or Texas Toast (1-inch thick)
4 egg whites
1 egg
1 cup fat-free dry milk powder
1¼ cups low-fat milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup fat-free plain yogurt
3 tablespoons maple syrup
3 cups mixed berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and/or blackberries)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange bread in a greased 9x13-inch glass baking dish; set aside. 

In a mixing bowl, beat egg and egg whites. In another small bowl, dissolve dry milk powder into milk. Mix thoroughly to make sure no lumps remain. Add milk mixture, vanilla and cinnamon to eggs; whisk well. Pour mixture slowly over bread. Bake for 25 minutes or until bread is golden brown.

While bread is baking, mix yogurt and syrup in a small bowl. Spoon yogurt mixture over individual servings of baked French toast. Top with fresh berries.


Thanksgiving is such a special holiday. It is typically a time that families come together to enjoy spending time with each other, along with serving traditional Thanksgiving foods. It is always interesting to learn what foods are served. My family serves turkey with my Grandmother Funk’s perfect recipe for sage dressing. Our sides consist of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, fresh fruit salad, cranberry relish and scalloped corn casserole. Ours was always a very traditional Midwestern recipe, which included eggs, milk and saltine crackers, all mixed up and then topped with crushed saltines and butter. Of course, it was delicious! When I started working for The Soyfoods Council, we conducted recipe and chef contests. As a result, one of my favorite recipes is now Chipotle Corn Casserole. It is a take on the scalloped corn recipe. We always serve homemade pecan and pumpkin pies, topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. 

Tofu Pumpkin Pie
1 package Mori-Nu Silken Tofu, extra firm (10½ ounces)
15 ounces canned pumpkin
2 tablespoons soybean oil
2 tablespoons dark molasses
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Dash ground cloves
9-inch unbaked piecrust
Soy Whip topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a blender or food processor, add tofu, pumpkin, oil and molasses, blend until smooth. Place in a large bowl.

Stir in sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, vanilla, nutmeg and cloves; blend.

Pour into unbaked crust. Bake at 350 degrees F for 50-60 minutes or until filling is puffed around the edges. Chill 2 to 3 hours.

Serve topped with whipped topping. Refrigerate leftovers.



One of our traditions is that our Christmas tree at home goes up the day after Thanksgiving. We also have a few holiday traditions at Latham Hi-Tech Seeds. We put our tree up in Latham Seeds’ office the first Monday after Thanksgiving. On the first Friday of December, we host a Christmas potluck lunch. Each employee brings a dish to share, and we enjoy a great meal together. The spread of food is always impressive! Each employee places a Christmas ornament with their name on the tree in our office lobby during this event.  A favorite recipe for many employees is the following dish: 

Cranberry Salad
2 cups cranberries, ground
1 large apple, ground
1 cup sugar
2 small packages raspberry Jell-O
2 cups hot water
1 small can crushed pineapple, drained
½ cup miniature marshmallows
¼ cup chopped walnuts 

Mix ground cranberries, ground apple and sugar. Dissolve Jell-O in hot water. Add all ingredients to Jell-O and chill in a mold or container of your choice.


In our family, you must work for your gifts. And by work, I mean winning a game! Each year, my sister-in-law plans holiday games, and we all bring a gift for a male or female but not for anyone specific. Our night consists of relay races and strategy games, and whoever is the winner of each game gets to pick a present. The catch is that you can steal from someone else instead of selecting a new gift to unwrap. My family is quite competitive, so things can get intense. These games are great to keep people up and going after all the delicious food. One of our favorite treats at the Christmas gathering is “Reindeer Mix.” Tip: If you want to change it up, add all your favorite things, and cover it with white chocolate! 

Reindeer Mix
4 cups Chex cereal
4 cups Cheerios
3 cups peanuts
11 ounces red and green M&Ms
24 ounces white chocolate chips
3½ teaspoons shortening 

Combine the Chex cereal, Cheerios, peanuts and M&Ms in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, add the white chocolate chips and shortening and microwave it in 30-second increments, stirring in between increments until melted. Pour the melted chocolate over the mixture; stir to combine.

Place the mix onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and spread evenly. Place the baking sheet in a refrigerator for at least 20 minutes, then transfer to an airtight container for storage. 

Note: You might need to break up some larger clumps after refrigerating.


Our main family Thanksgiving tradition is that we are all together. The recipes are simple but turn out great every time. Our children, Ali and Jakob, specifically request the following two recipes during the holidays. The potato casserole is particularly special because it’s from my (Kris) mom. As for the rest of the meal, we often serve prime rib, but we occasionally make turkey or ham. We always have an assortment of desserts. Cheesecake is a must, so I try to find a new flavor each year!

Slow Cooker Cream Corn                            
Serves 16 

48 ounces frozen corn, thawed                                              
8-10 ounces milk
16-20 ounces cream cheese, cubed              
2½ tablespoons sugar
1 cup butter, cubed                                                     
½ teaspoon crushed thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

In slow cooker, combine all ingredients. Cook on high or low for 5 to 6 hours. Stir every couple of hours to blend everything. Start at the low end of the amount of cream cheese and milk, then after everything starts blending, add more cream cheese and/or milk to reach the desired thickness and taste.

Potato Casserole                                          
Serves 12

2 pounds frozen cubed hash browns, thawed            
1 can cream of chicken soup
½ cup melted butter                                        
16 ounces sour cream
2 cups grated American cheese                                 
1 tablespoon minced onion
Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup crushed cornflakes                                           
¼ cup melted butter

Add thawed potatoes and melted butter, stirring in shredded cheese. In separate bowl, mix the soup, sour cream, onion, salt and pepper. Add to potato mixture and stir together. Put in a 9x13-inch buttered dish. 

Mix topping ingredients. Spread on top of potatoes. Bake 50 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees F.


Thanksgiving is often lost in the excitement of Christmas, but in my family, Thanksgiving is THE holiday. I grew up with seven siblings. Now, we live in five states, so it is a rare occurrence that we all get together … except for Thanksgiving! We begin the night before with a celebration called the Outlaw Party. This gathering was initially planned by all the in-laws in the family. It is a fun way to welcome everyone back home for the holiday weekend. We even rent an ice cream machine for everyone’s delight!

Thanksgiving Day includes a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including special requests by the grandkids – like homemade noodles – and my mom always accommodates these wishes (recipe below). She also makes delicious homemade pecan, cherry and pumpkin pies to complete the meal. Our family then celebrates Thanksgiving on a third day. We head to a local pizza place (enjoying all the tasty pork toppings!) for lunch on Black Friday and follow it up with bowling for some family-friendly competition. The bowler with the best score of the day is awarded the coveted Golden Shoe traveling trophy. We have a lot of laughs and are thankful for loved ones near and far, including remembering family that has passed. 

Homemade Noodles
2 beaten eggs
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup milk
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Combine the beaten eggs, salt and milk. Add flour and stir to make a soft dough. Roll the dough thin on a well-floured surface. Let dry 20 minutes. Roll up and slice 1/8-inch thick. Shake off excess flour. Drop in boiling water until noodles are cooked through, approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Drain and serve with melted butter drizzled over the top.


I always thought cookie decorating was fun, but little did I know the seriousness of the event until I married into the Van Manen family. When planning for Thanksgiving, one central question always comes up: “When is the cookie decorating happening?” We have learned to make Christmas cookies early in the season, so everyone has them to take to parties and daycares and to give to family and friends. 

This cookie decorating tradition is serious as we usually make around 40 dozen cookies, and they are all hand-piped. My husband Jacob and father-in-law Kevin, who are both farmers, also sit down and pipe cookies. This surprised me when Jacob and I first started dating, but I quickly learned that it’s a deep-seated tradition that everyone enjoys. With small kids in the mix now, it is super fun – and a bit of a challenge, as the kids’ piping artistry isn’t as professional as ours. At least, not yet! We give kids a few cookies to decorate, and after they go to bed, the adults finish the work in our serious Van Manen way. 

Enjoy our family’s cookie and frosting recipe. It’s been with us for more than 20 years. 

Mary’s Sugar Cookies
1½ cups powdered sugar
1 cup butter or margarine (I usually use a stick of each or all butter)
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Mix sugar and butter. Add egg and flavorings; mix thoroughly. Stir dry ingredients together and blend in. Refrigerate at least 2 to 3 hours.

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Divide dough in half and roll out on lightly floured surface. Cut with cookie cutters.

Place on baking sheet. Bake 7 to 8 minutes, depending on thickness. Cool on wire racks.

Frosting: Beat one stick of butter (room temperature), 1 cup of solid Crisco, ½ bag of powdered sugar and ½ cup of hot water. Then add the remaining bag of powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon almond extract and 1 teaspoon butter flavoring. Mix until well blended.


Thanksgiving is a big holiday for our family because that's when my extended family gets together, my brother and sister and their families, along with my family. It's a huge gathering. We've got the whole gamut of ages, from toddlers to high schoolers. As cattle farmers, we always have beef at the holiday table, usually beef tenderloin, prime rib or a strip loin roast. Our adult kids will smoke the turkeys, and I will be cooking the beef tenderloin roast. I like making beef roast because I want to spend as much time as possible with my family. Whatever beef I select, I season it, put it in the oven, cook it to the desired doneness and it's ready to go. It's easy to prep and doesn't take a lot of time, yet it's always delicious.

My side of the family has a Scandinavian heritage, so we always try and have a couple Scandinavian family recipes also with the meals to keep our tradition alive. I always make rice pudding. We put an almond in the rice pudding, and the person who finds the almond hidden in their rice pudding has good fortune for the year.

We always have a family football game after the big meal. From the kids to the adults, everyone joins in on the fun!

Beef Tenderloin with Easy Cranberry Balsamic Glaze
1 whole beef tenderloin roast (about 4 to 5 pounds)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon pepper
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1 can (16 ounces) whole berry cranberry sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Combine thyme and pepper; reserve 1 teaspoon seasoning mixture for sauce. Press remaining seasoning mixture evenly onto all surfaces of beef roast.

Place roast on rack in shallow roasting pan. Insert ovenproof meat thermometer so tip is centered in thickest part of beef. Do not add water or cover. Roast in 425 degrees F oven 45 to 55 minutes for medium-rare; 55 to 65 minutes for medium doneness.

Remove roast when meat thermometer registers 135 degrees F for medium rare; 145 degrees F for medium. Transfer roast to carving board; tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes. (Temperature will continue to rise about 10 to 15 degrees F to reach 145 degrees F for medium rare; 160 degrees F for medium.)

Meanwhile, prepare sauce. Combine vinegar and shallots in small saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 3 minutes. Stir in cranberry sauce; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 6 minutes to blend flavors, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in reserved seasoning and salt.

Carve roast into slices; serve with sauce.