The minute November comes around each year I’m in full-on worry mode about the holidays. Where are we going for Christmas this year? When is Chanukah? Who do we get gifts for? Combine this annual worry with a pinch of belt-tightening and the winter holidays can seem like more of a recipe for stress balls than butter balls.
This year I am planning to skip the malls and get back to that most basic of gifts: Food. Food-related gifts are relatively inexpensive to make, don’t require AA batteries or make obnoxious noises, and are usually highly appreciated by their recipients. Better still, you can involve the kids on the assembly line and in the process create a new tradition around giving that imparts the satisfaction of making something that their friends and relatives will truly love.
Here are 10 ideas for food-related gifts you can make with your kids:
Marzipan Animals, Leaves, or Fruits
Molding marzipan fruits and vegetables for Christmas presents is one of the most memorable craft experiences from my childhood. Marzipan is a tasty paste of play dough-like malleability that is made of ground almonds and sugar. You can make your own marzipan, but it’s easiest to buy a tube of it. Color chunks of it with food coloring (or paint it with a paintbrush) and use it to model pretty much anything you can think of. Kids of all ages enjoy modeling creatures out of it or using cookie cutters to make cake decorations. If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and some serious baking skills, have the kids help make marzipan mushrooms, branches, leaves, and forest critters to adorn a Bûche de Noël.
This year, consider making homemade marshmallows. Your kids will watch the sugar-laden process with laser focus and fascination, and the results are fantastic — so much better than the mass-produced sweets we all mindlessly buy. Your sous chefs can cut the marshmallows into different shapes with a knife or cookie cutter, choose different flavors, or even model them into snowmen. Just watch that lowly marshmallow go from camping trip bit player to top-billed star of the holiday show! Bag the marshmallows and match them with some high-quality cocoa (Theo Chocolates, fr’instance) and perhaps a mug or cute spoon for a sweet, inexpensive gift.
Soup Mix or Cookie Mix in a Jar
I’m not sure how the “put it in a jar” idea escaped me until now, but I’m all in. Like all great ideas, this one is dead-simple. Get some canning jars at a garage sale (or buy them new), sterilize and dry them, and then add all the makings for a great soup or batch of cookies. Adorn each jar with nice ribbon and cloth, print a label for it, attach the recipe, and voilà! The recipient gets to choose when to make the food (say, in February, after she has recovered from the glut of holiday goodies). Pack the ingredients neatly and vary the colors to form pretty stripes. Given how many sweets the average American eats between Halloween and New Year’s, I’m leaning towards jarring a hearty bean soup this year. Let the kids help pick and measure the ingredients, pack the jars, and design the labels and decorations. So delightfully ye olde timey. If your family pickles stuff, then you know what I mean.
Homemade Energy Bars
Homemade energy bars are a healthier, yet still sweet, alternative to traditional holiday treats. The recipes for homemade versions abound, and the ingredients vary a great deal based on personal taste. Some are no-bake, like this recipe for chocolate-cranberry bars, and some are baked, like this version from PCC. All versions feature some kind of binding ingredient (e.g., peanut butter, honey, dates) and a bunch of grains, seeds, nuts, and/or dried fruits. Here again the kids are a great help in picking and measuring out the ingredients and mixing them. If you’re feeling ambitious you can also grease some cookie cutters and cut or form the mixtures into simple shapes. Be sure to list the ingredients for those who have allergies to nuts, seeds, etc. Here is a raw foods recipe that looked good, as did this organic raspberry bar.
Similar to energy bars, granola is ultra-versatile, easy to make, and one of those foods that tastes better when homemade. You can better control the fat content and the flavors (e.g., take out that icky coconut most companies add) when you make it at home. Granola lends itself to bulk output and looks great in a decorated container. Older kids can probably make it themselves if they can handle the minimal baking requirements. Epicurious’ Easy-Does-It granola recipe offers a nice balance of fruits and nuts. This wheat-free recipe includes handy tips for making the granola into a holiday gift. As for me, I plan to make this molasses granola recipe.
This One Is for the Birds
This is perhaps a bit of stretch, because it’s not a human food gift, but what kid or backyard naturalist doesn’t love feeding wild animals, especially birds? The commercial versions of these bird feeders are typically pretty pricy — which makes this easy-on-the-pocketbook project practically economical and a great gift to help our winged friends get through the winter. That’s what I’d call a holiday season win-win. Here’s an easy DIY pinecone feeder and a more involved but pretty birdseed wreath. Consider buying the seed at Seattle Audubon Society to support local bird habitat conservation efforts.
Given the amount of allergies in most families, it’s kind of hard to give the gift of nuts anymore. But I included them because, boy, are they good! A mixture of nuts roasted with rosemary or almonds roasted with thyme in particular just smell “holiday” to me. Consider adding a pack of smoky maple and brown sugar pecans along with the savory nuts so your friend has an elegant topping for ice cream, salads, or crumbles. Kids can prepare the fresh herbs, mix the spices, and package the nuts for you. My child loves helping make candied pecans because she gets to lick maple syrup off everything.
Yes, Virginia, That Is a Cheese Log
Don’t skip ahead! I know this sounds old-fashioned and stodgy, but a cheese log (or wheel or triangle) is fun to make, delicious to eat, and a delight to receive. This festive food gift is one that your friends and relatives can use as an appetizer at their own holiday meal or party. I discovered a great recipe that convinced me a cheese log is in fact a great gift to make with kids. When made by hand at home with high-quality cheeses and nuts, you have a crowd pleaser, not a Hickory Farms sodium bomb. Best of all, the recipient can freeze it and bring it out later in the season..
If you do decide to go with sweets for a present, then chocolate-dipped pretzels are fun to make with kids. The basic idea is that you take pretzel rods and dip them in melted chocolate and then roll them in cute sprinkles, nuts, toffee, etc. The kids can help with all the steps, though younger kids will need some guidance with the melted chocolate, which, as we all know, is ridiculously messy, staining, and irresistible. Plan to use premium chocolate, like Scharffen Berger or Valrhona. It’s one of the few expenses involved and makes a big difference in the quality of the finished product. Here is a cute, simpler variation, called a reindeer nose, which features round pretzels, chocolate kisses, and M&Ms.
What grandparent wouldn’t want a cookie ornament made by their grandchild? We have some cookie ornaments on our family tree that my brother and I made back in the 1970s. Each one has a great story. Most kids are familiar with the process of making sugar cookies, so making these similar-in-concept ornaments is not much of a stretch. Simply roll out and bake a batch of salt dough cutouts and then shellac them to help preserve them, or you can make something a bit more complicated like a cutout “jam” cookie ornament. (Shellac is a clear coat hardener available in most craft stores. By the way, remind parents to hang them high on the tree. My little brother ate a chunk out of one when he was a baby, shellac and all.)
Want more DIY holiday gift ideas? We’ve got ’em:
- 15 Homemade Christmas Gifts That Kids Can Make
- 10 Homemade Christmas Ornaments That Kids Can Make
- 20 More Christmas Ornaments That Kids Can Make
- 15 Hanukkah Crafts for Kids
- 10 Fantastic Homemade Advent Calendars
- 15 Quick and Easy Homemade Christmas Decorations
- 10 Easy DIY Christmas Wrapping Paper Ideas
Elise Gruber is a freelance writer and project manager who loves to cook with her daughter, as long as she doesn’t bite the butter. Although not particularly crafty, she does like the finished result of making stuff at home. She plans to jar soups for Christmas this year and if you’re nice, you might get one.