Young and Old Benefit from Family Food Traditions

Holiday Baking UtensilsFor more information, contact the author – Laura DeWitt, RD (, Extension Assistant – SNAP-Ed and Go NAP SACC Trainer

Laura DeWittMy most-treasured holiday memories include time spent as a child with my grandparents and enjoying our family's food traditions together. These traditions connect me to my roots and I am responsible for passing them to my daughter, along with chances to make memories with her own grandparents.

Like many people of the Great Depression era, my grandparents were a pair of strong people from hard-working farm families who lived most of their days without many of the modern conveniences we now rely upon. The wisdom of our elders, the simple yet uncommon knowledge and life skills they honed over a lifetime, can be all at once timeless, priceless and yet endangered in today's society.

Research shows that both older adults and children benefit from time spent together. If a child does not have a relationship with a safe older person, volunteering at a nearby retirement village or nursing home or taking part in an intergenerational program can give chances for "ongoing exchanges of resources and learning among older and younger generations." Studies have shown that such activities increase adults' self-esteem, improve well-being, increase social contact, decrease distress, and gratification for their contribution to the community, while children develop positive attitudes towards the elderly, and understanding of the aging process.

Activities with food, or sharing food traditions are a way for elders to pass along essential skills to the next generation, including young children. A family food tradition might be rising before the sun and making frybread or tamales together for hundreds of others, or simply eating a special food or beverage together over conversation. Food connects us, and its preparation and consumption are activities that can bridge members of multiple generations.

This holiday, my three-year-old daughter was able to spend quality time with her paternal grandma and extended family to make and decorate sugar cookies. We will make another cookie at my mom's house, using my grandma's recipe for Pfeffernusse, or German for "pepper nuts." Pfeffernusse was my childhood favorite. My daughter will now get to play with a bit of the gingerbread-spiced dough and help us form the dough into bite-sized nuggets for baking and rolling in powdered sugar. Like a fun-sized gingerbread biscotti, these treats are easy for young children to munch on, or for grown children to eat with after-meal coffee or tea.

I am thankful to have my grandma's handwritten recipe for Pfeffernusse and even a few of the (empty) McCormick spice tins she had in her pantry, to pass on someday to my own child. These are family heirlooms. So, too, are the few lessons I was not too foolish to miss in her kitchen, such as how to thicken a turkey gravy (make a slurry – mix together cold water and flour, and whisk into hot gravy), or how to coordinate the holiday menu so that everything is served on time. If there was one thing I would do differently, I'd have spent more time with my grandma in the kitchen helping her cook and learning her secrets. I carry inside everything she taught me; above all, how to nurture and show love by feeding her family well. Our children are our living legacy; let's allow young and old to share and create food traditions together!

Pfeffernusse (Pepper Nuts)

1 cup light corn syruppepper nuts
¾ cup molasses
½ cup shortening
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp anise extract
2 cups black walnuts, chopped fine
1 ½ tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp sour cream
7 cups flour
¾ tsp salt

  1. Combine syrup and molasses; bring to a boil. Allow to cool. Cream shortening, butter and sugar thoroughly; mix into cooled syrup. Beat in eggs one at a time, beating after each. Mix in spices, anise extract and nuts. Dissolve soda in sour cream and blend into mixture.
  2. Sift flour and salt; add to mixture; mix well. Chill. Roll into thin ropes of dough and cut into pieces. Bake at 325 degrees F for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.


  • Gualano, M., Voglino, G., Bert, F., Thomas, R., Camussi, E., & Siliquini, R. (2017). The impact of intergenerational programs on children and older adults: A review. International Psychogeriatrics, 1-18. doi:10.1017/S104161021700182X
  • Morita K., Kobayashi M. (2013). Interactive programs with preschool children bring smiles and conversation to older adults: time-sampling study. BMC Geriatr., 13:111. doi: 10.1186/1471-2318-13-111