Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tips to keep your frugal food gifts from bombing

As you can see from one of last year's gift baskets, when we give food, we often give packaged treats rather than homemade: tea, coffee, apple butter, popcorn, chocolate, and things like pickled beets canned at a small vegetable market that only opens from spring through fall--so by Christmas, it's impossible to buy them. We like to be able to give an assortment of things, especially to family members who live alone and wouldn't really appreciate, say, a whole box of fudge.

But we have often given small homemade food gifts to friends, Sunday School teachers, and neighbors.  Some ideas we've tried (besides the obvious plates of cookies) are salad topper mixes (like trail mix except you sprinkle it on salads); Cider Beetles; homemade mixes for coffee and hot chocolate; peeled garlic cloves in a jar of honey; peeled and sliced ginger root in a jar of honey; herb mixes for salad dressing.  One year I made up bags of the dry ingredients for Beer Bread.  (I didn't include the beer.) We've given away jars of things we've canned ourselves: jam, apple butter, and, one year, pumpkin butter.  We have given (and received) special health-food items...those expensive natural sweeteners, organic nut butters, and other healthy-but-gourmet ingredients can make good (and still relatively frugal) gifts.  Ethnic groceries often have interesting possibilities too.

But not every food gift is a felicitous choice.  Here are a few tips, especially for giving homemade mixes, that may save time, embarrassment, and/or food waste.

1.  This should go without saying, but check carefully for allergies or other dietary requirements, especially if the gift is for someone you don't know well.  You don't want to be like Muffy's father, cheerfully bringing a ham to the (Jewish) Frenskys.

Even personal tastes and preferences can change from time to time. Several friends who used to be coffee drinkers now ask for herbal tea (one of those midlife things?), so I'm less likely to be making coffee mixes.

2.  Put best-before dates and storage instructions on mixes and baked goods.  Baking mixes that contain baking powder are said to lose quality after a certain time; brown sugar can also go lumpy and hard after awhile.  Also, please list the ingredients, if it's a mix:  see #1.  Surprises are not always welcome.

3.  Some homemade mixes come with baking or cooking directions that are too difficult for the recipients, require them to buy too many extra ingredients, or just make too much at once, like a salad dressing recipe that makes more than one person could eat in a month.  Look for instructions that give alternate amounts, or that suggest variations.  I have one soup mix recipe that calls for mixing the dry ingredients with sausage, onion, carrots, etc.; but I've made it up just with water or broth, and it's still pretty good.

4.  Some layers-in-a-jar ideas, like soup mixes, call for layering need-to-be-washed ingredients like beans, lentils, or brown rice directly with other ingredients.  If it's something that should be rinsed before cooking, then figure out an alternative, like putting the spices in a sandwich bag.

5.  Try not to give people things they already make themselves.  Somebody who makes a lot of jam may not appreciate a jar of yours--unless she gave all hers away as gifts.  So you never know.

BONUS UPDATE:  It's not Christmas yet, but I can post this here because my oldest won't see it--I'm pretty sure she's too busy studying for exams to be browsing through month-old blog posts.  So anyway...she asked me for a muffin pan to fill out some of her off-campus kitchen gear, and that was easy enough.  But I added some other things to make it a Coffee-and-a-Muffin Kit, and now it takes up the whole lid of a paper carton.  I made up four Ziploc bags full of dry ingredients for family-favourite muffins, plus cards with instructions for what else to add.  I added in a few sandwich-sized bags of chocolate chips, walnuts, cinnamon-plus-brown-sugar, and raisins.  There's also a small coffee can full of the Hillbilly Housewife's Vanilla Coffee Mix (figures, my university student is one of the few people left I can give coffee mix to), and a mug.  I'm not a fancy scrapbooker, but I managed to print out a label for the coffee, tags for the mixes, and a full-size label for the whole thing, using a photo I found online.  I tried to colour-co-ordinate the whole thing--mostly blues, blue for the tags, a blue coffee mug, and so on; and I found a big piece of clear basket wrap in our stash of recycled giftwrap.  In spite of the fact that it's sitting in the lid of a paper carton, I think it all looks pretty good.

P.S.  After I got the whole thing put together and then wrapped in a dollar-store plastic tablecloth (the only thing I could find that was big enough), I realized that I left out the package of walnuts.  So I'm going to wrap that up separately with a tag that says "oh, nuts."

Linked from Four Moms discuss Food for Gift Giving

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