A Beginner’s Guide to Grocery Store Gifting

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two "baby" watermelon with bows sitting among other wrapped gifts
Baby watermelon under the tree. Oh, and it’s very likely that the one behind the blue one is the Pop Tarts. Or maybe the mac and cheese? Photo: Amy M Weir

Either the worst or best Christmas gift I have ever received was a can of leftover almonds. My husband’s grandparents ate a lot of mixed nuts, but neither of them liked almonds, and, having grown up during the Great Depression, they weren’t about to throw the almonds out. So, over the course of at least a year, they saved all their uneaten almonds in a spare can. When the can was full, they wrapped them up and gave them to us for Christmas that year.

“A can of leftover almonds” sounds a little like something the Dursleys would have given Harry Potter for Christmas the years when they were feeling particularly generous. But on the other hand, we did like almonds, and we certainly used them. It made perfect sense from a practical standpoint. The almonds didn’t go to waste!

I caught this article recently (I believe I have Evil Genius Mum to thank) about the wasteful environmental impact of gift-giving for-the-sake-of-giving-something, even if the gift isn’t useful beyond a brief laugh. I have given my share of silly plastic gifts—those rubber chickens still get use, though! But I’ve also addressed the wastefulness of rampant consumerism in gift-giving by, ironically enough, investing in gifts that are meant to be consumed.

Your gift recipients receive something they can truly enjoy—that may even additionally offer them a brief laugh—but that won’t clutter up their room, house, or landfill afterward (aside from packaging. Packaging is yet another layer to this. But at least the gift ITSELF isn’t cluttering up the earth!). You can do your gift shopping during your weekly trip to the grocery store! And with a little mindful care, those gifts can feel truly special rather than thoughtless cast-offs.

Fancy Produce

Your grocery store is probably one step ahead of you in one area: ready-made gift baskets of fruit and/or nuts. A can of leftover almonds sounds laughable, but a nice box of tastefully arranged sugar-roasted almonds with a bow… could sound generic, depending on if you grabbed a bunch of ready-made boxes from the produce section just to hand to people you don’t know what else to give. But if you happen to know a person who loves sugar-roasted almonds but doesn’t get them often, that same ready-made box is a real treat.

Better yet, create your own produce-section gift baskets. Many grocery stores have fancy olive bars that will let you build a sampler tray, or you can simply pile fruit in a basket. You can choose just the fruits you know your recipient likes, or might like to try. We actually curated fruit baskets for the almond-hating grandparents for several years, to great success. After all, they were in the process of giving most of their earthly possessions away: why would we give them more junk for their descendants to sort through after their not-too-distant deaths (they were in their nineties)? Fruit, they ate every day.

But why stick to what your recipients eat every day, either? A gift of exotic fruits can elicit serious “oooo”s. My kids are more than familiar with kiwifruit, but when I was their age, it was harder to come by in Pennsylvania. When our babysitter presented us with a freshly sliced kiwifruit one New Year’s Eve, it felt like an event in and of itself, and it’s stuck with me all my life, no matter how much kiwifruit I’ve had since.

My family has a tradition of always getting an orange right in the toe of your stocking. I believe this is a fairly common tradition, although my husband’s family claims it isn’t. Either way, it probably started when oranges were less common in northern climates, and were a special treat instead of a sort of in-joke.

One Christmas my kids found two baby watermelon, festooned with bows, under the tree.  They never got watermelon in December! And these were small and cute and they each got a whole one all to themselves! I don’t know how good December baby watermelon tastes, but the concept itself made the experience. “Remember when we got the baby watermelon for Christmas?” they will still ask, several times a year. I’m not sure they remember anything else about that Christmas.

Personalized Junk Food

You know all those times you were forced to take your kids to the grocery store with you and they spent the whole time going, “can we get this?” “No.” “How about this?” “No.” “I want THIS!” “No.” Holidays give you a chance to say “Yes” with less guilt.

I started this tradition not for my kids, but for my husband. I’m not sure what inspired me, early in our marriage, to give him a box of Pop Tarts for his birthday, but it happened again on Christmas, and then for his next birthday, and has worked its way into both those holidays and eventually a few Father’s Days ever since. The fun part is wrapping it differently each time—or, on some occasions, wrapping completely unrelated things to look like the traditional box of Pop Tarts. Silly as it sounds, the few times I forgot (or even intentionally skipped) the Pop Tarts, he’s been genuinely disappointed. “I don’t know what to do! I was looking forward to having my twice-yearly Pop Tarts for breakfast this morning!”

Single-serving packs make great stocking stuffers. Those crackers you spread with cheese or icing, or the little breadsticks you dip, are things often asked for during the year but avoided because buying a bigger box and cracking open a whole jar of peanut butter is cheaper (and frankly, less wasteful, too). But little packages of favorite snacks are so cute! My kids are thrilled by tiny cartons of Goldfish crackers. I have fond memories of the animal crackers that come in the little circus car box with a carrying string. They were perfect for the car ride to the relatives’ houses later that day.

Sometimes it’s not so much about the junkiness of the food, but more the acknowledgment that this particular food is the particular favorite treat of the recipient. My son has gotten those big five-packs of mac and cheese on several occasions; my daughter’s specialty is microwave popcorn. I just bought an oversized jar of Nutella for the boy whose new favorite it is, now hiding in my closet until the 25th.

Boxes of mac and cheese beside a boy under a christmas tree
Some mac and cheese. The taco box wasn’t tacos, though: that was used to wrap something else.

Oh, and depending on the liquor laws of your area, you can even pick up some beer for the other adults in your life at the grocery store. It’s particularly fun if you can mix and match bottles to make a case, and can give a personalized variety pack.

Non-Edible Consumables

toddler with high chair tray full of stocking stuffers including chocolate, toothpaste, a toothbrush, barrettes, an orange, and animal crackers
The junk food and the toothpaste counterbalance each other. And the animal crackers are still awesome.

On the other hand, toiletries make excellent stocking stuffers, too. Not a year went by in my childhood when I didn’t find a toothbrush in my stocking. Lip balm often even comes in those plastic candy canes, ready to go! I’ll often wrap up shampoo or body wash or deodorant for a stocking, too. It sounds boring, but on the other hand, when you frame these things as gifts, you realize how much you take just picking stuff up at the store for granted. After all, shampoo may seem like a necessity, but if you had to choose between it and food, shampoo would be a luxury. So it does belong in your treasure horde after all.

You can have genuine fun with the non-edible consumables, too. Hair accessories or even wash-out hair dye can easily fit in a stocking. But my personal favorite stocking stuffers are office supplies. Time to restock everyone’s glue sticks and sticky notes! Throw in some fun mechanical pencils! I am all about a pack of good ergonomic pens. It’s just not a proper stocking without a few office supplies!

Homemade Meal Kits

Every year my dad’s cousin hands out homemade scones mix to everyone at our Christmas Eve bash, and every year we all look forward to it. If you’re a Pinterest user, you’re probably familiar with these kinds of gifts. Mix all the dry ingredients to some kind of baked good, attach directions, and tie it together in a ribbon-infested jelly jar. It works just as well for trail mix, soup (just add broth), hot cocoa mixes, and specialty popcorn topping. Of course, you don’t necessarily need the ribbons and jars. My dad’s cousin puts her scones mix in plain Ziplock bags, and no one complains. But if ribbons are your thing, go for it.

You could also pull ingredients for an entire meal together. One year I gave my sister a pizza kit—a couple of my homemade crusts, some fancy Italian cheeses, a big stick of pepperoni, and several specialty sauces—at least one of which wasn’t tomato sauce, for my tomato-sauce-hating brother-in-law.

She and her husband took it a step further for our parents last year. He’s a good cook and a home beer-brewer, so they put together a small menu and attached some coupons for a “fancy night out” at their house: a several course meal of our parents’ choice, paired with a few specialty home-brews.

Because many grocery stores also allow you to buy gift cards to other institutions there, you can pair a gift card with something thematically appropriate from the store. A great gift idea for a family is a few boxes of movie-snack-style candy and a Fandango gift card (*cough* not that you intend for them to smuggle that candy into the movie theater or anything *cough*). Or, popcorn and a Netflix gift card.

Those Hard-to-Find Varieties

For this I’m cheating a little. These are gifts you’ll find the inspiration for at the grocery store. But to get the gifts themselves, you’ll have to turn to the internet. At our house last Christmas, this happened:

The exact thing he was exclaiming was, “Aw, come on! They don’t even make Tabasco Soy Sauce anymore!” I don’t know what inspired him to go to the official Tabasco website two days before Christmas, but it didn’t matter: I’d already been there. And I had found their soy sauce, and ordered two bottles, along with a huge jug of green Tabasco. Both these varieties were no longer being carried at our local grocery stores, even though green Tabasco is a staple condiment all by itself. (Now, apparently, the soy sauce has been phased out completely, but you can still get a whole jug of green sauce if you’d like).

Man holding large jug of green jalepeno Tabasco sauce and a small bottle of jelly beans designed to look like a Tabasco bottle
Now we won’t run out of green Tabasco; throw in some Tabasco-flavored Jelly Bellies to round out the theme.

Hard-to-find varieties of favorite foods aren’t quite as hard to find when you have internet access. Your store doesn’t carry that flavor? Check the website: who knows how many flavors they actually offer! Some grocery stores will even allow you to order through them, so with some planning ahead, you can pick the food up during your regular grocery run.

It can be fun to check the website for someone’s favorite product brand even if you aren’t in search of a hard-to-find variety. Giving someone the institutional-size of their favorite food—like a gallon of green Tabasco—will both make them laugh and keep them satisfied for a long while. And maybe there are t-shirts so they can boast their favorite product to the world.

Best of all, if you’ve got someone homesick for a particular brand only sold in their hometown on the other side of the country, you might discover that company is willing to ship directly to you. You could make someone’s entire holiday that way!

So on your next trip to the grocery store, think of the people you want to buy for as you browse the aisles. You may find the perfect gift for them while picking up the bread and milk.

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