This year, consider giving the gift of time, whether it's inviting an elderly neighbor over to bake her favorite holiday cookies, cooking a romantic dinner with your spouse or teaching the kids how to make their favorite meal.
Relative to most gifts, ingredients are inexpensive. But the time spent turning them into a meal can be richly rewarding. And don't bother aiming for perfection. The goal here is quality time, not quality of cooking.
FOR THE KIDS
They might ask for iPods and action figures but what they really want is you. This holiday season, carve out extra time to get in the kitchen with your kids. You bond, they learn, everyone eats, and it's cheap. That is the holiday spirit.
To make a gift of it, consider what interests your child. If it's deciding what the family eats for dinner, make a packet of "gift passes." Each one can be traded in for the right to pick - and help make - dinner.
If your child loves the local Mexican or Chinese restaurant, make the passes redeemable for alone time with mom or dad in the kitchen trying out different recipes from the favored cuisine.
The best child-friendly recipes are easy, inexpensive and call for plenty of hands-on work. Pasta, for example, requires nothing more than mixing together flour and eggs, and kids love playing with the dough.
Breads and other baked goods are another great choice. This recipe for kid-friendly focaccia (Italian flatbread) is simple, cheap, impossible to mess up, and gives children plenty of opportunity to get messy and play with the dough.
Still need inspiration? Check out Zebra Mix baking kits ($5.99). Available in brownies, cupcakes and cookies, the kits include game boards that walk you and your children through the recipe while teaching math and foreign languages.
Or check out K.A.F. Kids baking mixes ($5.95) from King Arthur Flour Company. The kits, which use organic ingredients, include muffins, cupcakes, cookies, a dough alphabet and pizza crust.
If games about food are more your family's style, check out the Green Eggs and Ham Speedy Diner game ($19.99) for ages 4 to 8. It's a fun and fast-paced Dr. Seuss-inspired game in which children get to serve up silly foods.
There's also Playskool's Noodleboro Learning to Listen Pizza Palace game ($19.99), in which children ages 4 and older must listen to instructions, then assemble pizzas with funny toppings such as stinky socks and eggs.
FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO(AND CAN) SPEND MORE
- Keurig Mini K-Cup coffee maker ($79.95)
For the coffee lover in your life, the new Keurig Mini is a surprisingly likable K-Cup coffee maker (K-Cups are mess-free, single-serve coffee shots used by a newer breed of coffee maker).
Unlike other K-Cup coffee makers, the Keurig Mini has a tiny footprint (thanks to having no water reservoir), making it ideal for small kitchens, offices or dorms. The machine is fast (3 minutes per 8-ounce cup) and makes excellent coffee.
- KitchenAid Pro Line Series food processor ($299.99)
If you've got the cash, this is the king of food processors. With a 16 cup-capacity bowl, an extra-wide feed tube and a monster of a motor, there's not much this machine can't do. It even has a special attachment for whipping egg whites.
Because this is such a large and powerful machine, KitchenAid doesn't put much marketing oomph behind it (so you won't see it in many stores). But it's worth hunting down online.
The processor makes easy work out of bread and pasta doughs, and includes two smaller work bowls, a 13-cup and a 4½-cup. It has the same easy three-button functionality as KitchenAid's smaller models.
FOR THE STOCKINGS
Affordable stocking stuffers are easy to find. No cook can have too many measuring spoons, silicone spatulas and wooden spoons. And real cooks aren't spoon snobs.
You can spend considerable sums on exotic olive wood spoons and name brand spatulas and measuring spoons, but it's unnecessary. Better to have four inexpensive spatulas than one pricey one that must be washed multiple times while cooking.
The best way to do this is to head to your nearest dollar store and stock up. I recently walked away with eight wooden spoons and eight silicone spatulas of various sizes. Total cost: $4.
If it makes you feel better, ditch the cheap packaging and wrap them nicely.
FOR THE BOOKSHELF
Books generally aren't cheap (though deals usually can be found online), but these two offer a lot for the money.
l Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr's The River Cottage Family Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2008, $32.50)
Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall already is huge in his native England, and he's poised to become the next big thing here. His family-theme cookbook, his latest released in this country, is a gorgeous, approachable masterpiece of family-friendly cooking.
This massive book is jammed with recipes, ideas, tips and activities, from making butter (all you need is a jar and heavy cream) to building a campfire. This is not dumbed down for kids; it is real food for real families.
1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die, editor Frances Case (Universe Publishing, 2008, $39.95)
It's a visual encyclopedia of global flavors worth scouting. The 960-page book is divided into chapters, such as fruit, vegetables and bakery, with brief descriptions detailing why and how to taste each item.
To turn this book into a gift that keeps giving, select a dozen ingredients from its pages and use them to plan out 12 meals. Then you and your recipient can have dinner dates once a month.