Welcome to the annual shopping marathon, a competitive sport in which harried parents race to fill the family’s ever-growing gift list, only to be met with the prize of exhaustion and frustration at the finish line.
Instead of going through the time-consuming exercise this year, get your family involved in a gift-making project. It’s less expensive and guaranteed to be more pleasurable than mall-o-mania.
I suggest making food mixes, which are combinations of dry ingredients the recipient uses as the base for a recipe. You can prepare cookie, snack, seasoning or soup mixes using the basic items you probably have in your cupboard
If your children can fill a container—and what child who has been through Preschool Pouring 101 hasn’t mastered the technique—-they can help. If you’re worried about the mess, think about the compensation. Your child can learn about fractions while measuring out quarter- or half-cups of ingredients.
Here’s how it works. Start with a canning jar or a fancier glass storage container from Target, Cost Plus World Market or similar stores. Just make sure it is big enough to hold the mix you choose—a two-cup jar to hold a recipe of two cups dry ingredients, for example. Layer the items alternating colors and textures in the jar.
You may want to choose particular ingredients for their colors, such as red cranberries instead of raisins or green pistachios in place of peanuts. Add a list of the additional ingredients the recipient will have to add along with directions for cooking or baking. You can paste the list and directions as a label or note.
The following recipes will get you started. Choose the age-appropriate steps for your children to handle and do the rest yourself. If anyone in your family has peanut or nut allergies, substitute more dried fruit for nuts in the sweet recipes and replace nuts with pretzels or more cereal in the cereal snack mixes.
Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies Mix 3/4 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries 1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats 1/2 cup granulated sugar 1/4 cup brown sugar 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Stir the flour, baking soda and salt together in a bowl. Spoon or pour into a 1-quart jar. Add the cranberries, followed by the oats, granulated sugar, brown sugar and walnuts. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add Cranberry Oatmeal Cookie recipe and the date. Recipe 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 egg 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 jar Cranberry Oatmeal Mix
Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until creamy. Beat in the egg and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Dump in the jar of Cranberry Oatmeal Mix. Beat until a dough forms. Scoop out dough by the heaping tablespoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 18 minutes or until golden brown and crisp at the edges. Makes about 28 cookies.
Oatmeal With Raisins The following Almost Instant Oats gift is terrific for anyone who hosts sleepovers and is looking for a quick breakfast for a hungry gang.. Mix 3 cups quick oats 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup brown sugar 3/4 cup raisins
Stir the oats and salt together in a bowl. Spoon or pour into a 1-quart jar. Add the brown sugar and raisins. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a recipe for hot cooked oatmeal and the date. Recipe 5 1/2 cups cold water 1 jar Almost Instant Oats
Bring the water to a boil over high heat in a large pot. Stir in the jar of Almost Instant Oats. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Cover the pot, remove from heat and set aside for 2 minutes. Serves 6
Note: This makes a thick oatmeal; for thinner cereal, add 1/4 cup water.
Hot Chocolate Mix 1/2 cup baking cocoa (unsweetened cocoa) Pinch of salt 1 cup sugar 1/4 cup miniature marshmallows
Stir the cocoa and salt together in a cup. Layer small amounts of the cocoa and sugar in a 2-cup jar to create “stripes.” Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a recipe for hot chocolate and the date. Place the marshmallows in a small plastic bag. Wrap in gift-wrapping paper and tie to the jar. Marshmallows aren’t added to the mix because they’ll melt when making the hot chocolate. Recipe 1 jar Hot Chocolate Mix 1/3 cup hot water 1 quart (4 cups) milk 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dump the Hot Chocolate Mix into a large saucepan. Stir in the water to form a paste. Cook and stir over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes stirring constantly. Stir in the milk and simmer. Do not bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Serves 6.
Toasted Cereal Snack Mix 1 1/2 cups rice squares cereal 1 1/2 cups corn squares cereal 1/2 cup bite-size pretzel nuggets 1/2 cup honey-roasted peanuts 1 to 3 teaspoons chili powder (see note) 1/4 teaspoon crushed dried oregano 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon salt
Layer rice cereal, corn cereal and pretzels in a 1-quart jar. Stir together peanuts, chili powder, oregano, garlic powder and salt in a bowl. Add to the jar. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a recipe for Toasted Cereal Snack and the date. Note: One teaspoon of chili powder is slightly hot; 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) is pretty spicy. Recipe 1/4 cup butter 1 jar Cereal Mix
Melt the butter in a large skillet or pot. Add the Cereal Mix and toss over low heat, stirring constantly to coat cereal mixture with butter. Spread the cereal on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the cereal is crisp. Makes 4 cups; serves 16.
Caramel-Pecan-Cinnamon Crunch Mix 3 cups cinnamon crunch cereal squares 1 cup chopped salted pecans
Layer the cereal and pecans in a 1-quart jar. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add a recipe for Caramel-Pecan-Cinnamon Crunch and the date.
Recipe 1/3 cup caramel sauce 2 teaspoons butter 1 jar Pecan-Cinnamon Mix
Combine the caramel sauce and butter in a large nonstick pot over low heat. Remove from heat. Pour in the Pecan-Cinnamon Mix and stir well. Spoon the cereal onto a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 10 minutes. Stir and bake another 5 minutes or until the mix is fragrant. Remove from the oven. Cool at room temperature and break into bite-size pieces. Makes 4 cups; serves 16.
Bev Bennett is the mother of two and the author of 30 Minute Meals for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).