Go shop in the pantry

A tight budget is a good excuse to look to your pantry for gift-giving inspiration.


Gifts from the kitchen, such as a box of homemade Christmas cookies or jars of jazzed up hot cocoa mix, are easy and inexpensive to prepare; moreover, they add a personal touch in this era of gift cards.

Making a great food gift is a balance between culinary creativity and clever packaging ideas.

Lucinda Scala Quinn, the executive director of food and entertaining for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, suggests using colored parchment or plastic to wrap bite-size pieces of homemade fudge. Twist the ends to look like old-fashioned candy and package them up in a cellophane bag tied with a ribbon. Another idea is to use the candies individually as stocking stuffers.

Ms. Quinn says that flavored nuts also make lovely holiday gifts, especially when portioned in decorative cupcake liners, placed inside cellophane bags and tied with colored twine or ribbon.

You can use a recipe for easy-to-make homemade cocktail mixers in flavors such as cranberry and apricot-ginger fizz. To package, decant them into decorative bottles (found at home-goods stores) and add a label with drink recipes and storage instructions.

If you want to avoid bottling, Ms. Quinn suggests making sachets of spices for mulling wine or cider. Fill squares of cheesecloth with a half-inch cinnamon stick, 1 star anise, 2 cardamom pods, 4 black peppercorns and 1/4 teaspoon of whole cloves. Tie each sachet with kitchen twine and package in a decorative tin tied with a bow and holly sprig.

The best food gifts often are the simplest, says Tanya Steel, the editor-in-chief of Epicurious.com. Not only are they easy to appreciate but they also save you time.

Ms. Steel gravitates toward pretty jars with screw-on tops and airtight plastic containers -- it's important that containers are airtight so that food gifts remain fresh and sturdy, especially for cookies, which crush easily. If the containers will come into contact with the food, make sure they are labeled food-safe.

To be even thriftier, Ms. Steel suggests repurposing containers that are sitting around your home. Jars and old tins are great, she says, but you also can package foods in an airtight cellophane bag set in a pretty bowl that you no longer use.

These gifts also are a good way to involve children in the gift process. It's a fun way to teach children, says Ms. Steel, that the holidays are more about giving than receiving -- and that's a gift in and of itself.

Are you thinking of giving someone a fruit and nut basket? Assemble your own for far less money. Bulk nuts in the shell are inexpensive. Those already shelled can be wrapped in cellophane bags. Fill a basket with nuts, then top with fresh (and affordable) fruit, such as apples, pears, oranges, even a pineapple.

Don't forget, there also is the gift of time. Especially for an elderly relative or neighbor, a "gift certificate" good for an afternoon of help in the kitchen can be more valuable than any material item.