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Homemade for the holidays: Do more with less

Categories: Frugal Living, Hacking Life, do more with less


For the past several years, I’ve been filling baskets with homemade treats for my friends and family members for the holidays. I started doing it because I couldn’t think of what to give my brothers, who have everything they need (as well as the ability to buy for themselves anything they don’t already have); now I do it because, well, money is tight and it’s just getting tighter, but homemade gifts hold their value.

Many people think of homemade holiday gifts and have visions of bean soups layered into jars or batch upon batch of labor-intensive cookies crumbling in boxes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are 10 homemade gifts that take less time, energy, and money to create than you might think — and they still make quite an impact.

1.) Nut brittles. Peanut brittle is a well-known favorite; use macadamia nuts for a more decadent candy. This recipe from the Food Network is easy and fast (if you don’t have a silicone baking mat, generously butter a rimmed baking sheet and warm it in the oven before pouring on the hot candy); make it even more of a treat by drizzling the pieces with melted white chocolate.

2.) Almost anything dipped in chocolate. Pretzels are a favorite, and if you use long pretzel rods then the kids can help you dip. (Is your household gluten-free? Glutino pretzels work well in this, too — lay them on a baking sheet and drizzle away.) But don’t limit yourself to pretzels. Dried apricots are delicious when dipped into dark chocolate, and regular old marshmallows become something else entirely when you coat them in milk chocolate.

3.) Limoncello. This one takes a bit of planning, so if you’d like to give pretty bottles of sunshine-colored lemon liqueur as gifts this year (Hanukkah starts on Dec. 22!), start now. All you need to do is shave the peel from several lemons and steep them in vodka for about two weeks; add simple syrup and pour into bottles. That’s it. I have a few batches hanging out in a dark cupboard right now.

4.) Cookies. The trick here is to make one type of dough and use it several different ways — hey, if we can multitask, so can our baked goods. Country Home magazine has a great sugar cookie recipe that you can use to make five different types of cookies (or, of course, you can just sprinkle a single batch with five different types of colored sugar and call it a night).

5.) Jam. I started making jam because I hated to see blackberries rotting on the vines around our then-new home; now, I make jam because if I don’t, my family says, “Hey, where’s the jam?” It’s probably the most time-consuming item in this post, but it’s pretty easy (and, if you don’t have blackberry canes running riot near you, you can always use frozen berries from the supermarket). This recipe from Alton Brown is awesome, but you can follow the directions inside a box of pectin with good results, too.

6.) Spiced nuts. Here’s an excellent recipe for rosemary pecans from the folks at Wondertime magazine: Heat the oven to 350 degrees, place about 1 pound of unsalted pecan halves on a cookie sheet and toast them, stirring every so often, for about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 2 teaspoons brown sugar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1 tablespoon melted butter; add the toasted nuts, and toss to coat. Package the nuts in 1-cup portions. Then go and make another batch, because you’ll have already eaten most of this one.

7.) Spice blends. Make your own garahm masala or rib rub or Cajun blackening spice or herbs de Provence or… you get the idea. It’s easy, it’s delicious, and it’ll definitely be appreciated.

8.) Drink mixes. When I was about 10, my mom showed me how to make my own “Swiss Mocha” mix, a la those International Coffees that were so popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s (did I just date myself here? I think I just dated myself. Moving on…). This Mocha au Lait mix has just four ingredients — dry milk, semi-sweet chocolate chips, brown sugar, and instant coffee — and I’m going to whip up a batch for old time’s sake. Also: Shannon from Rocks In My Dryer offered up a couple of great homemade drink mixes in a recent guest post at Ordering Disorder… check them out.

9.) Baking mixes. My youngest brother is crazy for old-fashioned oatmeal raisin cookies, so last year I packaged up all the dry ingredients, attached a tag describing what else he needed to add and how to put it all together, and he happily baked them up at all hours of the day and night. This year, my neices and godchildren are getting “chef kits” with several homemade mixes for chocolate chip cookies, raisin scones, and brownies. Don’t feel like coming up with your own recipes? You can cheat and pour grocery-store mixes into holiday bags… no one will know.

10.) Trail mix and Muddy Buddies. Combine your favorite fruits and nuts to make your own trail mix, or toss Chex cereal with peanut butter, chocolate, and powdered sugar and make a batch of Muddy Buddies for your coworkers.

Do you make homemade treats for the holidays? I’m always on the lookout for new ideas… share yours in the comments!

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9 comments so far...

  • OMG, love the Limoncello idea — on my list now! Thanks for that.

    Nataly  |  December 4th, 2008 at 1:55 pm

  • Nataly, you’ll love it! My whole kitchen smells like lemons right now…

    Lylah  |  December 4th, 2008 at 2:10 pm

  • Lylah, you rock. This list is fantastic b/c I was running out of ideas. I’ve done the nuts and the pretzels (choc & white choc - kids help with a tall sippy cup filled w/ the choc). This year I’m going to try caramel under the chocolate for the pretzels. And I’ll add choc covered graham crackers. Thanks for the list!!

    Mandy Nelson  |  December 4th, 2008 at 9:08 pm

  • I love the cookie or bar mixes in a jar. It takes me a little time, a small investment, and the recipients always love it. Trail mix in a uniqe jar is fun, too. Layer the nuts and raisins and anything else (I like seasonal M&Ms) and you have a lovely and useful gift.

    Daisy  |  December 4th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

  • Glad you liked it, Mandy! Let me know how the caramel under the chocolate turns out… I’m a sucker for anything caramel!

    Daisy, what’s you favorite mix to layer into a jar? Which ones get the highest “approval ratings” from the recipients?

    Lylah  |  December 4th, 2008 at 10:36 pm

  • I just made two batches of fudge last night in under an hour that I will use for gifts for the neighbors. Very easy — just follow the recipe and directions on the back of the Marshmellow Creme jar.

    SoftwareMom  |  December 5th, 2008 at 4:08 pm

  • I love the baking mixes idea! I’d been thinking about doing this for myself so that I have recipes prepared and don’t have to think about it. But, giving as a gift, perfect.

    Love your ideas overall. Keep them coming.

    Michele  |  December 6th, 2008 at 1:59 pm

  • Last year, I made granola with dried cranberries and slivered almonds. It was a nice, healthy treat that everyone enjoyed. We sent cookies too. I have a butter cookie recipe that I used to make iced cut out cookies, as well as twisted candy cane cookies. Yum!

    Kristie  |  December 8th, 2008 at 3:06 pm

  • My name is Nancy and I make homemade bath salts, I call them bath cocktails. I started by making them as party favors for my aunt bridial shower. I decorate the glass jar because people don’t use bath products because it looks pretty. I make the bath cocktails to be used, so I decorate the jars to be used after the salt is gone it can be reclycled or even regifted after the salt is gone. To make it more profitable I make spa baskets with the salts, and put everything in it to give you a spa fill in the comfort of your bathroom. I do take orders and personalize the baskets, salts, and colors if your interested email me at, the prices vary.

    Nancy  |  May 19th, 2010 at 10:37 am