Picks

Highly Unusual but Incredibly Useful Gifts Your Family Will Love

Collage of useful gifts.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ironwood Gourmet, VicTsing, Doublefan, Klean Kanteen, LifeStraw, Zoku, OXO, Fjallraven, Super Yaki, Polder, and Clipa2.

Need more gift inspiration? Check out our guide to luxury gifts worth the splurge. Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series features gift ideas from a variety of our beloved advice columnists: Jamilah Lemieux advocates for a bit of self-care to get you through the season; Nicole Cliffe recommends classic toys for children of every age; and Carrie Bauer weighs in on educational (but fun!) gifts for kids.

Remember that Christmas your mother-in-law gave you, like, an enormous thermal coffee carafe, and of course you gave her a polite thank-you, but inside you bristled and thought, Huh, what an odd gift? Then, four months later, scrambling to serve brunch to a crowd, you remembered that carafe, and it saved the day? Everyone has an unexpected item that’s wormed its way into their lives and made things better in some small way. Slate presents you with a gift guide dedicated to these highly unusual but very useful gifts. We hope that they puzzle—and subsequently delight—your loved ones as much as they’ve delighted us.

Ice Cream Scoop

When my housemates got married a few years ago, they asked that people not buy them presents; they already had too much stuff, they said. I ignored their request and got them an ice cream scoop. Our regular spoons were bent from chipping away at frozen blocks, and with this marginally larger spoon, their life would suddenly become a little bit easier. They were thrilled.

The scoop-as-a-gift idea came from my parents, who were given a fancy silver one for a wedding anniversary. It was beloved in our household. What a great gift was a thought I often had while using it.

Ice cream scoops are compact, usually dishwasher-safe, and one of those things that yield an outsize amount of happiness for their cost. Here’s the one I got for my housemates. This one’s pretty good too. —Salomone Baquis, software engineer

Olive Oil Dispenser

This oil dispenser is the only truly dripless one I’ve ever tried, and it looks beautiful on a tabletop or counter. It’s also an affordable way to bring a bit of classic, award-winning design into the home. (The original was created by Catalan designer Rafael Marquina in 1961.) I can’t believe I used to dispense olive oil straight from the bottle—now, every pour feels like a luxury. —Christina Cauterucci, staff writer

Baguette Miter

Someone gave me this baguette miter as a wedding gift over a decade ago, and I thought it was pretty but assumed I’d never use it. I’m surprised by how much I actually have; baguettes are kind of cumbersome, and it’s a nice easy way to serve the bread at dinner. I usually cut the baguette lengthwise after warming it and drizzle whatever—garlic, butter, or whatever else—on it and then slice for guests. Not a drop spills, no crumbs on the table, and no tearing it with hands. —Lili Loofbourow, staff writer

Bread Bin

This mini red retro bin by Polder solved a marital conflict for us earlier this year. I prefer to keep bread and baked goods in the fridge so that they will last longer before going stale. My husband prefers that bread (and cookies and pastries) be at room temp when eaten. Compounding the problem, we generally purchase bread from a local bakery or make it at home, rendering “just leave it on the countertop in its bag” an impractical solution.

For anyone on your list who’s got enough counter space and goes through a lot of bread, a vintage-y bread box like this one is an excellent gift. It’s got holes that vent a bit of air to keep the bread inside fresh. Loaves last a weirdly long time in there, while frustrated ants and flies stay on the outside. It also looks neato, and your giftees will feel like ’50s housewives (without the ennui) every time they reach in for their perfectly 72-degree muffins. —Rebecca Onion, staff writer

Bag Hanger

I’m not precious about my purse (though I do prefer to think of it as a bag). Stains, tears, whatever—as long as it carries my belongings, I’m happy. But I do get grossed out by putting it on the floor at bars or restaurants. Enter the Clipa2 bag hanger: a handsome little ring that you can use to hang your bag from any surface. Clip away to keep your belongings close by without risk of biohazard. —Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor

Hair Ties

Gone are the days of constricted wrists now that I use Hair Ties for Guys from The Longhairs. Please withhold your judgment about the product’s name, at least for a moment. These aren’t just for guys—anyone with long hair will appreciate them! The reinforced stitching keeps the stretchy and durable material from snapping, and they don’t snag or dent your hair. Because they come in a variety of patterns, they also double as fun, quirky bracelets when they’re not in my hair. —Laura Lai, analytics engineer 

Flashlight

This superlatively tiny flashlight—a battery with a few LEDs stuck to the end—has come in handy so many times since my dad gifted me one last Christmas. It easily hangs out in a purse, ready to save the night when you realize you could use a little more light and don’t want to wear down your phone battery. It’s also perfect to throw in your daypack for peace of mind, in case you get stuck on a hike past sundown. Gift it with a piece of camping gear or a good book for a little extra delightfulness. —Shannon Palus, staff writer

Weightlifting Gloves

Dead lifts, bench presses, and other heavy weightlifting exercises can painfully pinch your hands and strain your wrists, especially when you’re trying to push yourself to add more weight. Cobra Grips have helped me feel more confident about using heavier weight while exercising because they stabilize my wrists and protect my palms. If you’re used to wearing gloves or hooks, you’ll probably need time to adjust to these, but trust me, you won’t regret making the switch. —Laura Lai, analytics engineer

Hot and Cold Gel Wraps

If you’re a runner or experience chronic muscle pain, chances are you’re either icing yourself all the time or thinking about how you should be icing yourself all the time. Elasto-Gel Hot & Cold Therapy Wraps make a weird but terrific gift for any frequently sore person in your life. The Velcro strap and the wrap’s supple nature make it a cinch to ice your sore limbs while casually watching Netflix. These wraps also don’t drip with condensation or stick to your skin—a million times better than a normal ice pack. —Elena Botella, editorial intern

Disaster Preparedness Kit

I have constant angst that my family doesn’t have a disaster preparedness kit. We live in a disaster-prone urban area with two kids and two pets. While it’s sort of hard to imagine gifting something so practical as a holiday gift, I would love for someone to buy this for me so that I’d be done with it. This kit is Federal Emergency Management Agency–compliant, the water and food last for five years, and it also has a guidebook to help you determine how to plan for an emergency. —Erika Anderson, regional sales director

Air Humidifier

Yes, an air humidifier is an unusual gift, but it’s very useful in dry homes, especially during the winter when the heat is on. I like this one because it also allows you to infuse the air with essential oils (a little extra side gift). The calming and soothing scents can help you relax and sleep better, and they smell great. —Aldana Cardich, ad operations specialist

Portable Water Filter

Whether you’re camping, traveling, or living in a place where clean water is scarce, the LifeStraw bottle can easily filter water from lakes or streams and remove any bacteria or chemicals. I have a 22–fluid ounce LifeStraw Go, which is for daily use and has saved me from many waterborne illnesses while traveling. But there are also bottles for camping, emergencies, humanitarian work, and more. —Christina Djossa, associate producer, The Gist

Jacket Extender

I’m surprised more parents don’t use a jacket extender like this one by a small Canadian outfit called MakeMyBellyFit. They’re primarily marketed as maternity jackets, it seems, but as a new dad trying to get outside during a long Boston winter, I liked how the extender made it possible to wear a jacket over a BabyBjörn- or Ergobaby-style carrier. There are some compatibility considerations to navigate, but the product worked great with my jacket’s molded plastic zippers. —Jeff Friedrich, associate editor, Slate Plus

Poker Chips

Even if you are a casual board game player, you should have a nice set of poker chips. Not to play card games, but to replace the flimsy dollar bills and lightweight tokens included as “cash” in most board games that have a money component. Easily countable, heavy, satisfying, and stackable chips are an instant upgrade. —Ruth Graham, staff writer

Notebook

When MacArthur-certified genius Lynda Barry teaches writing workshops, she asks students to bring a notebook to class. Not a fancy Moleskine or leather-bound notebook of the type writers are frequently given as gifts, the kind that you write on the first page of and immediately think (Barry jokes), “Dang, I screwed this nice notebook up.” No, Barry has students write and draw in what she uses herself: those old-fashioned composition notebooks with black and white cardboard covers. Mead makes a good one, sold in a three-pack for under 10 bucks. Give the writer in your life the gift not of one fancy notebook she’ll be afraid to use, but three notebooks she’ll use till they run out of paper and she buys three more. —Dan Kois, senior editor

Pouch

I love to gift a pouch. Because they come in a variety of shapes, colors, and patterns, they have all the aesthetic appeal of common smaller gifts like candles and notebooks, but they are more useful and unique. People often have too many things and not enough places to put them, and everyone can use another container to store sunscreen, a charger, makeup, or whatever you need to tote around in your daily life. The Fjallraven Pencil Case is large enough to accommodate an assortment of personal items, but small enough to easily fit in your bag. —Cleo Levin, commerce production associate

Personal Stamp

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received is a stamp of my face, which my girlfriend bought for me to use at book signings. A face stamp is a great conversation starter—that conversation will start, inevitably: “You have a stamp of your face?”—and it’s also an acceptable substitute for writing something witty and/or pithy when something witty and/or pithy doesn’t spring to mind. Just send in a digital photo and you’ll get an impressive rubberized likeness that’s suitable for stamping on wedding invitations, thank-you notes, business cards, and any other stampable surface. You won’t regret it (and if you do, there’s always washable ink). —Josh Levin, national editor

Puzzle Mat

All puzzlers, at some point or another, have to face the reality that their puzzle is disruptive to the nonpuzzlers in their household. That is why I love this mat: If you start a puzzle on it, then, at any point during your puzzling, you can roll the mat up so as to stash your puzzle somewhere else. I can do a puzzle on my dining room table and still have people over for dinner. Pair it with an actual puzzle and give pure joy to an anxious person in your life. (And tell them to iron it first.) —Susan Matthews, features editor

Pop Culture Miscellany

What’s more useful than a gift that will perk its recipient right up? I’ve found the site Super Yaki to be full of quirky potential presents sure to make pop culture lovers smile. I bought one friend a baseball cap that reads “a film by Nora Ephron,” and I liked it so much that when they came back in stock, I bought one for myself too. Super Yaki has a great selection of other funny shirts, hats, and pins. —Heather Schwedel, staff writer

Reusable Straw

I’ve been trying to adopt reusable straws in my life, especially since I’m a big iced coffee drinker. I have a Klean Kanteen reusable cup and straw as well as a metal straw from Tandem Coffee in Portland, Maine, that I keep in my backpack, which help me to mostly avoid plastic straws. But what about those moments when I forget my cup or don’t have my backpack? This has saved me: a collapsible straw from Zoku that I keep in my purse. Because it comes in a case, I don’t feel weird about throwing it into my messy purse. And it neatly collapses into itself, making it so compact you could even fit it in your pocket. It makes a great stocking gift for a loved one who’s trying to be more economically conscious. —Samira Tazari, producer, Slate Studios