This Thanksgiving, pay it forward.

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How do you spend Thanksgiving morning? Maybe your family huddles around the TV, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Or maybe the television is reserved for a day of football games. Maybe you spend Thanksgiving morning in the kitchen, executing a well-rehearsed cooking plan that’s timed down to the minute. Mama knows it takes at least 24 hours to prepare the Thanksgiving feast.

It’s safe to say that most family Thanksgiving-morning traditions revolve around the kitchen or the television. But my family’s tradition? Every year, we spend our Thanksgiving morning volunteering.

Thanksgiving is a day dedicated to expressing gratitude and, quite literally, giving thanks. That’s why, instead of camping in front of the stove or the television, my family spends Thanksgiving morning at a local shelter, church, or food bank. The cause changes with the years—we’ve served dinner for lonely elderly citizens with no family to celebrate with; we’ve cooked in the kitchen at a church (my dad burnt his arm twice trying to retrieve the 20-pound turkey from the oven); and we’ve packed up mashed potatoes and mac and cheese for the homeless. No matter the setting, all of my siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles meet up for the occasion. And no matter the crowd, the people who we serve are always so grateful.

After our morning of volunteering, we return to one of our homes, where my Grandma will heat up mugs of her famous make-ahead Thanksgiving stew and we all pitch in to help prepare dinner. My sister always claims the coveted task of lining the marshmallows atop the sweet potato casserole; my dad carves the turkey, and I prepare my signature Thanksgiving sangria. With limited prep time, our Thanksgiving spread may not be extravagant, but we’re sure to serve all the staples (and we make lots of casseroles in advance).

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For me, the memorable part of Thanksgiving has never been the food. While I can’t resist Grandma’s cooking, I will always remember Thanksgiving as a day of service and connecting with the community. I’ll never forget my cousin Jackson gleefully swing dancing with an older woman to the tune of “Y.M.C.A.,” or my brother secretly doling out double-portions of mashed potatoes. Thanksgiving is about celebrating gratitude and family, in whatever form it takes.

It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of preparing an extravagant Thanksgiving feast, but this year, take time to reflect on the true meaning of the holiday. Even if you don’t spend your Thanksgiving morning volunteering, there are lots of ways to give back this season—from donating to food banks to inviting guests without plans into your home. And volunteering should not be limited to the holiday season; resolve to make a new tradition to give back year-round.

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