Recognize community members who give all year but never ask for anything in return, such as hospice volunteers, shelter workers or youth mentors. Gifts of homemade holiday treats, including fresh-baked breads or iced cookies, will look striking in pretty packaging. Fold colorful card stock to create easy containers. Accent with ribbons and tie on a meaningful message.
To make the bread packaging as shown, click on the link below for a free template and instructions. See "Scrumptious Quickbreads" for some of our favorite recipes.
Welcome college students, refugees or others who can't visit family for Thanksgiving. Des Moines resident Marilyn Hansen invited Iraqi brothers to dinner. "These two young men wanted to be a part of the American festivities," Marilyn says. At the table, she handed out questions--some were silly and some were serious--to start the conversation and learn about each other's cultures. Contact your local refugee-support organization or nearby university for help locating potential guests.
Invite neighbors you've known for years--and those who just moved in down the street--to a holiday get-together, such as an open house, chili cook-off or sledding party. A "give thanks" wreath will let guests know they're at the right place. Decorate with roses, pinecones, hypericum berries, champagne grapes and hydrangeas (keep flower stems in water picks).
Many families share the tradition of drawing names for holiday gift giving. This year, draw charities. Invite family members to create tags that represent their favorite philanthropies. Then donate your time or money to the organization you draw--and look for creative volunteer opportunities.
Karen Fallstrom of Minneapolis hosts scrapbooking classes for kids at the nearby Ronald McDonald House. It's one of hundreds of houses the Illinois-based group licenses worldwide to host families of children undergoing hospital treatment. "Craft time gives the kids a chance to express themselves and to be away from the hospital," Karen says.
Crafts store take-out boxes will turn leftovers into treats to go. Fall-theme stamps in natural-tone inks give the boxes a seasonal look. (Place aluminum foil or sandwich bags inside the boxes to prevent leaking.)
Play together. Give your family one new board game each Thanksgiving, and plan a game night before Christmas. Relish the laid-back break from your holiday schedule.
Kids away from home? Keep in touch creatively. "Last year, all of my three kids were far away at Christmas, so I made each of them a calendar [through a photo website] with photos of themselves at home and added family quotes they know so well," says Connie Johnson of Leland, Iowa.
Make the holiday meal more meaningful by giving each guest a personal note of appreciation. Present the notes in envelopes as place cards. Or turn them into keepsakes: Print each message on colorful paper and wrap it around a candleholder. (But don't leave lit candles unattended.)
Holidays are the perfect time to teach youngsters about their heritage. Make it an activity by cutting out copies of vintage baby photos and arranging them on the wall in a "family tree." Family members can guess who's who.
We recommend monogramming--an easy way to give gifts a just-for-you tone. Accent plain stationery with letter stamps in holiday-color inks. To make coasters, cover the bottom of a plain glass coaster with a computer-printed monogram design. Adhere it to the coaster with decoupage medium, which dries clear. Add a piece of felt to the bottom. For glass tumblers, tape a letter stencil to the outside of the glass; coat with white or frosted-glass spray paint to create a letter shape. All supplies and tools are available at crafts stores.
Start a scrapbook just for the holidays to record your family's traditions. Let each family member create a page with photos, recipes, journal entries or other holiday mementos. Add to the book every year.
Let Grandma (or the top family "chef") give the kids a mini lesson in cooking a family Thanksgiving favorite, such as pumpkin pie. Have fun with it, and record the demonstration as if she's doing a cooking show. You'll have the recipe secrets for years to come.
Show how much you appreciate the outdoors by teaching a new generation to love it, too. Take kids on a woodland scavenger hunt that encourages exploration. List 10 items to find, such as a maple leaf, pinecone and animal tracks. Bring bags (and gloves) to pick up trash along the way.
Frame a sentiment of the season. We selected stanzas from three poems (Right, from top left): "If It Could Talk" and "Family Thanksgiving" by Gerald J.J. Johnson of Marshalltown, Iowa, and "Thanksgiving Verse" by Omaha native Myra Cohn Livingston (1926-1996). Print poems in a pretty type or have a calligrapher do the work. Frame separately for a series of wall hangings that becomes a reminder to be thankful all year.
See the next two slides for details on the tree and basket in our photo.
Invite dinner guests to write their blessings on paper ornaments. Sign and date each ornament to create an archive. Tie ornaments each year to fallen tree branches anchored with sand in a pitcher.
Invite guests to bring good-condition winter gear, along with books, canned goods and toiletries, to holiday gatherings. Collect the items in a basket by the entryway. Afterwards, cart the donations to a local charity. The most-needed goods in the Midwest region during the holidays, according to The Salvation Army: winter coats, children's clothing and new, unwrapped toys.
The National Day of Listening, a day for recording family stories, is in late November. Jan Hieggelke of Chicago interviewed and videotaped her parents. "We learned quite a few interesting things about our family," Jan says. Visit the StoryCorps website for question suggestions and a how-to guide.
Many Midwest cities host 5K runs or walks on Thanksgiving Day. It's a great way to burn some of those 3,000 calories (the average for a Thanks- giving meal) and support a charity.
Find a local race, or try one of these on Thanksgiving morning: Chicago Turkey Trot 8K Run/Walk in Lincoln Park, benefits the Greater Chicago Food Depository. (773) 404-2372; caprievents.com 
Walk to End Hunger at the Mall of America, for the Twin Cities Hunger Initiative. (612) 807-2228; walktoendhunger.org 
Thanksgiving Day 5K Run & Family Stroll in Overland Park, Kansas, for the Kansas City Sports Commission and Foundation. (816) 474-4652; sportkc.org 
Contact the USO (United Service Organizations) to buy a care package for troops overseas. Each pack contains toiletries, snacks, books and more (like cooling scarves or hand warmers), along with a letter from you. Cost per package is $25. (800) 876-7469; uso.org 
"I make up lots of baskets of food and small gifts and give them to everyone who knocks on my door, from the mailman to the UPS person," says Michigan native Sandy Berkowitz. "They are always surprised when they deliver me a package, and I give them one in return."
It's fine to "Facebook" old friends or locate them on other social networking sites. But don't stop there. Call a friend to catch up, or schedule a coffee date.
Why not trade stressful mall shopping for browsing nearby neighborhood shops? You'll not only enjoy a more leisurely pace, but also support local businesses.
Some of our favorite spots to shop: Zionsville, an Indianapolis suburb, for one-of-a-kind gift shops, jewelry stores and an old-fashioned toy shop along a brick-paved Main Street. Kansas City Crossroads Art District in Missouri (left) for a diverse mix of art, antiques, home accessories and locally designed clothing. Short North Arts District in Columbus, Ohio, for fair-trade gifts, arty wares and hipster boutiques.
Keep the cookies for yourself, but reward four-legged friends with healthy food bites. Pooches will love a small spoonful of real canned pumpkin--not pie filling because of its sugar content. Plain cooked turkey without the skin is a safe occasional treat for dogs or cats. Or click on Pet Munchies below for a dog-treat recipe. No pets? Make seed ornaments for the birds out of wooden shapes. Coat with peanut butter and sprinkle on birdseed.
Pet Munchies 
Team up with others in your town to give back in a big way. "A 10-year tradition in our community is a free Thanksgiving meal on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving," says Deb Brandlee of Bristol, South Dakota. Many local businesses, churches and groups provide and serve meals in the school auditorium.
Want to help others, but not sure where to start? Check out websites that list volunteer opportunities by ZIP code. You can start with the links below.
Volunteer Match 
United We Serve 
Volunteer Family