I've been sending food gifts to my family and friends for years.
During my childhood, we saw my relatives at Thanksgiving and at Christmas. My mom, sister, and I always made chocolate chip cookies, and we would make pecan pies and chocolate pies galore. One of my aunts made sausage balls and other recipes that she got from friends at work, like these cookie bars (which are my childhood favorites).
After my parents moved while I was in college, we lived too far to visit during my few weeks of breaks. The first few years that I sent food gifts, I made the same kinds of sweets and cookies we always shared. But I finally acknowledge that some of those don't keep or transport very well.
After over 10 years of sending food gifts, I'd like to share some of my favorite DIY food gift recipes with you.
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Want to know what's here? Here's what's below:
- Giving Food Gifts in Person
- Giving Food Gifts from a Distance
- My Favorite Recipes for DIY Food Gifts
- Tips for Packaging DIY Food Gifts
- Tips for Shipping DIY Food Gifts
Giving Food Gifts in Person
If you want to make DIY food gifts and you can give them to your friends face-to-face, you can make just about anything!
My favorite things to make to give to nearby friends and coworkers have been cookies, cakes or breads, and hot chocolate mix and marshmallows. Most cookie recipes on this website are great for giving in person. While I have shipped panettone (and panettone muffins) and stollen before, they are best fresh, within a day of making.
I make a huge batch of homemade vanilla extract and give it whenever possible.
If you plan it right, you can give treats that are frozen - like cinnamon rolls. I've never done this formally, in the form of a present. (I more show up at someone's house to say, "Here, I brought you cinnamon rolls to put in your freezer!")
I like things to be pretty, but I become impatient; presentation is not my strong suit. So I put treats in festive tins that hide the contents whenever possible. And lots of cellophane bags and curly ribbon. It's hard to go wrong with lots of loopy, curly ribbon.
Giving Food Gifts from a Distance
Sending food gifts to loved ones is more difficult when you must ship it. How fresh will it be when it gets there? For that reason, I don't make and send many cookies nowadays. (Although if you do want to ship cookies, Chowhound has some advice.)
There's lots of great treats to make that aren't cookies, though!
Fruitcake (the good, homemade kind - not the store-bought, butt-of-jokes kind) ships very well; fresh bread like panettone, or anything covered with powdered sugar, not so much.
Spiced nuts and granola keep very well as gifts and ship well. Hot chocolate mix and marshmallows are still my favorites to send, so I make a version of them every year. Marshmallows in particular are light, nice since weight is a consideration when you have to mail your gifts.
My Favorite Recipes for DIY Food Gifts
Nothing is easier than making this deliciously addictive Microwave Peanut Brittle. It's super-fast to make. I'm not a fan of store-bought peanut brittle, but I love this. I usually use unsalted peanuts, then sprinkle salt on it after I've made it, while it's still warm.
It ships well. I put it in individual treat or cellophane bags.
Granola makes a great gift. It's easy to make in advance, and one batch will yield a lot of gifts. You can include special ingredients, and customize it to your lucky gift recipients. I wrap them in individual cellophane bags, but be aware that there is a chance they can burst in transit if you overstuff them.
Cherry, Almond, and Cinnamon Granola is one of my favorites.
Olive Oil Granola with Dried Apricots and Pistachios is my other favorite. Olive oil adds a richness and depth of flavor to this granola, making it more distinctive.
Bourbon Balls/Rum Balls
These fudgy Bourbon Balls have made it onto my rotation in the past few years. They're basically a bourbon-soaked brownie truffle. I make them with rum for friends who don't like bourbon (and cross my fingers that I don't get the packages mixed up).
Bourbon balls are quick and easy to make in a food processor. They store very well, so you can make them up to a month in advance, before you get really busy. I also make a version that's soaked with regular apple cider, for kids or anyone who avoids alcohol, but I keep those in the fridge so I don't recommend shipping them.
I usually gift bourbon balls in rigid plastic containers, but I believe I've sent them in treat bags as well if I don't have anything heavy to squish them.
Hot Cocoa Mix and Hot Chocolate Mix
I love, love, love giving hot chocolate mix that you add milk to. I consider it to be a real treat here at home. Plus, if you use dairy-free chocolate (Shoprite brand is, as is Trader Joe's brand chocolate chips, although not TJ chocolate chunks), you can give it to anyone who needs to avoid dairy.
For the first several years, I made this sweeter Hot Chocolate Mix. It's just like drinking a candy bar in a mug.
For the last few years, I've made and sent Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix (pictured above), which is richer and less sweet. It's what I prefer to drink at home. Friends tell me they sometimes stir their mix into their morning coffee.
If you want an instant, just-add-water hot cocoa mix, Alton Brown's Hot Cocoa Mix (pictured below) is a classic. It's a less sweet, more chocolatey mix, and has ruined any and all store-bought mix for me. It's made with just 5 ingredients - powdered milk (none of that powdered creamer stuff), cocoa powder, powdered sugar, cornstarch, and salt. It can also be made with artificial sweetener. It's fantastic with lots of marshmallows added to the top.
For all of these, I recommend using a food processor to grind the ingredients finely; they melt better into milk and mix together better. (I love my Breville food processor for full batches, where I use a bullet blender for small/partial batches.) However, you can do it by hand; be sure to grate your chocolate for the hot chocolate mixes.
When I gave hot chocolate mix in person, I used mason jars or empty cocoa powder containers (Nestle's used to be cute little houses, while Hershey's cocoa containers are dishwasher safe) for full batches, and cellophane bags for individual or double servings. After chocolate bag disasters in my gift packages, now I send the mix by mail only in plastic containers. (Glad 14-oz snack size containers, which is what I currently use, hold one batch of the Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix.) When giving a half batch, I place a cellophane bag of marshmallows on top of the mix inside the container to keep the mix from shaking around too much.
Marshmallows are so easy to make! At least, they are if you have a stand mixer. I highly recommend making them as they're sooo much better than what you can buy. People who don't care for marshmallows often LOVE homemade marshmallows.
I always make a batch of regular vanilla Marshmallows and a batch of Chocolate Marshmallows (and chocolate chip ones sometimes, although the best ones I made were by accident). I give a few of both with every hot chocolate mix, except to my vegan friends (since marshmallows contain gelatin).
When making marshmallows, I coat them well with powdered sugar, then put them into a tin. I package them in cellophane bags for shipping; being squished won't hurt them much. I've kept marshmallows a month, easily, so you can make them in advance.
Homemade fruitcake is worlds apart from ones you buy in the grocery store. It's not the stuff of jokes.
Good fruitcake is stuffed with dried (but not candied) fruit, and brushed liberally with alcohol. I prefer my fruitcake to be lightly spiced. Alton Brown's Fruitcake (pictured above) is great, as is this Golden Fruitcake recipe I got from King Arthur Flour.
I've often made fruitcake for my relatives who enjoy it. I bake it in small paper loaf pans to send to people individually. People who say they don't like fruitcake enjoy eating these homemade loaves.
I slide the mini loaf pans into treat bags; they barely fit, so I use tape to seal the edges so that it's roughly airtight. Next time I make them I will wrap them in a layer or two of plastic wrap before putting them in the treat bags, for extra protection.
It's been a long time since I've made large fruitcake loaves, so I don't recall how I packaged them. Do be aware that if you send your fruitcake in containers that are not rigid boxes, you run the risk of your cakes being squished or flattened, so pack your shipping boxes carefully.
Other Recipe Options for DIY Food Gifts
Just as most recipes on this blog are sweets, so are most of the gifts I make.
- Spiced nuts
- Flavored popcorn or caramel corn would be delicious and lightweight. It also doesn't hurt it to be shaken a bit, so it would require little padding.
- Spice mixtures, like my Barbecue Spice Rub or Fennel Spice Rub - place them in small, empty spice containers
- Chex mix - my aunt always made us Chex mix. My father-in-law also always made a batch. The nice thing about Chex mix is that it's not very heavy, and it's customizable. (Don't like nuts? Don't add them!) It's also easy to ship.
(Want a Chex mix recipe? Honestly, I make us Chex mix about once a year, and the recipe on the back of the box, even of the store brand cereal, works just fine. You can use soy sauce instead of the Worchestershire sauce to make the Chex Mix vegetarian.)
Tips for Packaging DIY Food Gifts
First, I always include a note to the recipient, listing the contents of the package (in case it's not obvious), the ingredients (in case there are food allergies), and serving suggestions (for instance, how much cocoa mix to use with how much milk/water).
Packaging for giving gifts to people in person is not the same as packaging them up to ship them. In person I like to use glass if possible, or I repurpose some clear plastic food containers (like from cookies or candy at Trader Joe's) and decorate them with Christmas stickers.
I can only give these in person because I'm not shipping them. Otherwise, they might come open. I also use cellophane bags, but you have to be careful not to over-stuff them, particularly if you ship them.
Packaging food to ship is more difficult. I stick with plastic bags or containers. Shipping food can be messy, so splurge for containers over various kinds of bags. One year I sent hot chocolate mix in cheap bags (that were overstuffed, like the old pictures of granola above) that burst in transit. Everything else in the boxes was coated in chocolate dust.
Even using plastic containers, I'm very careful in how I arrange the package's contents so that nothing jostles the container lids. I'm still pretty embarrassed by the chocolate dust disaster.
We order a lot of stuff online, mainly from Amazon. Throughout the year I save the packaging from these boxes. This makes my basement rather messy, but I'm thankful in December because then I have enough boxes of the right size for gifts, as well as some bubble wrap and air cushions to protect the food (and that don't add to the weight). And, all that packaging is free!
Tips for Shipping DIY Food Gifts
For shipping options, I've found USPS is often least expensive (particularly the flat rate boxes), followed by FedEx, then UPS. However, none of them guarantee shipping times at Christmas.
I've used the USPS before, and most packages arrive on day 2 or 3 as promised. However, I've also had 2 packages arrive up to a full week after I shipped them. And they were last minute packages, which weren't delivered despite my family members being home, so they arrived on December 27. I almost always ship via FedEx or UPS now. My food gifts, like hot chocolate mix, are very shelf-stable so they can sit around a while, but I never seem to ship with plenty of time to spare.
What are your favorite food gifts to make and give?