Sunday, November 08, 2009

Lovely Holiday Shopping Tips: Food Gifts

Ghiradelli Peppermint Hot Cocoa, at Amazon


Food is a popular gift to give for the holidays, especially during this year's recession. For people you don't know well, it can be an "easy out" in a gift-giving dilemma. You can get really creative when it comes to food gifts, or play it safe with universally loved foods like chocolate and cookies.

Careful thought should be put into food gifts, however. Pay special attention to allergies, diabetes, religious convictions, vegetarianism/veganism, caffeine or alcohol avoidance, and special diets. When in doubt, find out. Ask the person directly, or talk to their spouse or other close friends.

Food gifts can be as simple as a prettily wrapped box of tea, a box of chocolates, a fruit basket sent from a store, or a boxed set of little gourmet jams. (No fruitcakes please!) Or they can be more complicated, like a gift basket you create yourself and fill with various treats. You might bake homemade cookies to send as gifts, or a cake.

If you are going to purchase food at a store, be careful and thoughtful about your selections. At a dinner party one time, I asked my six guests to name the best food gift they'd ever gotten. Hardly anyone could remember a great food gift, but everyone had a story about horrible food they'd been given. It was generally agreed that Hickory Farms food is nasty, and poor quality chocolates from drugstores are to be avoided (Brachs, Whitman, etc).

If you can't afford to give quality chocolate, perhaps give something else instead, like a basket of apples, Trader Joes chocolate covered fruits, or a bag of gourmet cookies.

If you're buying food at a non-grocery store, think about how long the food has been on the shelf. How fresh are those cookies, breadsticks, bread dipping oils, or gourmet crackers?

Some things to keep in mind when giving food gifts are your recipient's allergies (nuts? wheat? dairy?), religious beliefs (Kosher foods, certain types of meats, etc) and preferences (don't give meat or anything with animal products in it to a vegetarian). Is the person diabetic? (Avoid sugar, bread, and potatoes). Is the person on a diet? Perhaps fattening foods like chocolates aren't the best gift for someone currently trying to lose weight. (Etiquette dictates that we never give low-calorie or diet foods to people trying to lose weight).

Wine and liquor gifts pose important considerations, as well - does the person drink? Are they an alcoholic, or do they live with one? Are they trying to cut down on their drinking (or calories)? Is alcohol against their religion? Are they underage? Do you know for sure if they enjoy alcohol or not?

Try not to send regional foods to someone living in the region that food comes from. I wouldn't send pineapples to someone living in Hawaii; nor would I send a gift box of Washington apples to my Washington relatives. But do utilize your own region's foods when creating or ordering gifts for people. I definitely would send Washington apples to my friend in New York.

If you're creating a gift basket with things that need to be baked, like scone mixes, muffin mixes, cookies or cakes, think about the person you are giving the basket to. Do they like to bake? Are they too busy? Will your gifts sit on the shelf for years? Are they a professional chef, so they probably know how to make their own scones without needing a box mix? Are they currently having budget problems, so they maybe can't afford the eggs and oil that your cornbread mix requires?

For upscale gourmet food gifts, I recommend Harry & David, Dean & Deluca, Williams-Sonoma, or Crate & Barrel.

If you're lucky enough to have a Trader Joe's in your neighborhood, you'll have an easy time finding interesting wines, inexpensive quality chocolate, great cookies and crackers, and other nice things to make gift baskets with.

Food gift ideas:

* - Pick up an inexpensive basket at a crafts store, line it with a pretty placemat or linen cloth, and fill it with fresh oranges (or avocados, which are an expensive generous gift). I also like the idea of bringing a large basket of lemons or limes as a hostess gift if you go to a dinner party. It will look lovely in the hostess's kitchen, and will come in handy if she's serving alcoholic mixed drinks.

* - Make a "tea party" basket, with several attractively packaged varieties of tea. Give the tea bag kind, unless you plan on including a tea strainer, in which case you can give loose leaf teas. Include a few pretty packages of cookies and crackers, and honey sticks if you can find them. If you can afford it, Godiva Chocolates sells really pretty tea biscuits in their stores, and wonderful hot chocolate mixes. If your recipient likes to cook, include scone mix. You can also include lemon curd, sold in gourmet grocery stores, Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, and places like Cost Plus Imports. I wouldn't include a teapot or "tea for one" or teacup, since most people already have plenty of those cluttering up their cupboards.

* - Select interesting olive oils, olives, balsamic vinaigrettes, and include crackers to dip into them. (If you can give the gift in person, include a loaf of fresh baked bread). However, I don't recommend the kind of oil that comes in a decorative container with vegetables inside it. You typically find these for really cheap at bed-and-bath stores, or Ross, Marshall's and Tuesday Morning discount stores. Bed-and-bath stores are not grocery stores and should not be in the habit of selling food. These oils are old and gross and I feel they generally make a tacky gift.

* - If you have someone on your gift list who adores hot chocolate, give them a hot chocolate sampler basket. Fill it with a tempting variety of brands. Throw in a raspberry flavored hot chocolate, and see if you can find a white chocolate mix as well just for fun. Again, I'd skip giving them a mug to go with this gift, as everybody already owns plenty of mugs.

* - Are you a good cook? Bake cookies, pies, cakes, breads or other treats. If it's for someone in the same town, make cheesecakes or other perishables.

* - Create a "winter picnic" basket. If you don't want to spend the money on a wicker picnic basket, or suspect your recipient already owns one, just pack everything up in an inexpensive basket from Michael's. Include small bottles of white wine or champagne; hot chocolate mix; gourmet crackers; a jar of olives; cookies; soup mix; interesting pasta and jar of sauce. Cost Plus World Market, if you have one near you, has a wonderful section of little tiny picnic food items.

* - Fruit baskets (I recommend Harry & David's) are an excellent choice for a boss, co-worker or client. They're inoffensive, fresh, healthy and not fattening.

* - For people living in the same town as you, consider a fresh produce basket. Really this is only a good idea for people who actually cook at home; people who eat many meals out might not get to eat the produce you picked out so carefully before it rots. This is an especially good gift for the elderly or people with a new baby who can't get out to the store easily. Go to your local organic produce store (such as Whole Foods) or a gourmet market. Stock a large basket with wintertime treats including artichokes, hothouse tomatoes, fresh garlic cloves, avocados, fresh basil, fresh mint, baby carrots and red potatoes. Arrange them attractively in the basket so it doesn't just look like you threw a bunch of vegetables in a box. You'll be dropping this gift off in person, so shop for it the night before or the day you'll give it to them. If you're seeing them on Christmas, this won't work since grocery stores are closed; but this might be something nice you could drop off early some afternoon during the holiday week.

* - Send cookies from Eleni's. They're fabulously decorated and come in an attractive box or tin as well. Be sure to order early for timely delivery.

* - Avoid foods that might be thought of as weird. Unless you know the person specifically likes sushi, I wouldn't send them a bento box full of nori and sushi making supplies (obviously you wouldn't arrange to have raw fish shipped to their house anyways) and those Japanese candies make great gifts but taste really different from other candies consumed in America, so I wouldn't send them to just anybody. Skip the strange pickled items in jars, too!


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