In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905), poor Sara Crewe, whose father has just lost all his fortune and then died, is stuck at a boarding school where the headmistress hates her. This mean lady deprives her of food and heat and education and makes her work in the kitchen. But Sara is a kind person, and her friends, including one named Ermengarde, help her. One day, when Ermengarde finds out that Sara is hungry, she offers to share a care package she just got in the mail. “This very afternoon my nicest aunt sent me a box,” says Ermengarde. “It is full of good things. … It’s got cake in it, and little meat pies, and jam tarts and buns, and oranges and red-currant wine, and figs and chocolate. I’ll creep back to my room and get it this minute, and we’ll eat it now.”
I’m pretty sure this passage, along with the part of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter (1940) where the Ingalls open a “Christmas barrel” full of clothes, embroidery thread, and a frozen turkey, set off my yearslong obsession with care packages. I love the cornucopia effect you get from this kind of gift-giving: There’s such pleasure in unwrapping a series of little gifts, and a weird magic in those gifts having been sent across time and space. (All hail the U.S. Postal Service and its Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes!) And now that my immediate family is older, we all have so much crap stuffed into our attics and basements. A box that’s mostly full of special comestibles shares the love, without adding to the piles.
There are so many advantages to sending a care package: flexibility, savings (you can go big or small), personalization. This pandemic holiday season, when a lot of us won’t be able to see our loved ones in person, is the perfect time to lean into care packages for all. Here’s what I put in mine.
A bag of homemade nuts or granola. I have had good luck with sending Ziplocs of a toasted nut mix or a fancy granola. My go-to for nut mixes has become these Sweet-and-Spicy Mixed Nuts (a recipe by Alison Roman for Bon Appetit), which have an addictive spice mix of rosemary and paprika and can be mixed up quickly in one bowl, but I have recently seen people swear by Union Square Cafe’s bar nuts (via Smitten Kitchen). Granola is long-lasting, useful—you solved breakfast for days!—and there are a lot of ways to make it feel fancy. This ginger snap granola from the Bojon Gourmet, which I’ve put in care packages quite often over the holidays, has candied ginger in it and feels decadent in the right way—something you might not make as part of the weekly grind, but you’d definitely eat.
Dense baked goods. Jenny Zhang recently wrote a very helpful post for Eater on sending baking goods in the mail, including advice on picking packing materials and on the types of cookies and cakes that hold up well. I don’t usually send cookies, because I don’t like worrying too much about how the more fragile stuff will arrive and whether it’ll get opened in time, but I was happy to see that a practice I’ve followed for years is endorsed by the experts Zhang interviewed: Bake a quick bread or cake that’s on the heavy, thick side. Freeze it. Then send it. They defrost in the mail and last a long time on the other end.
Of course, the Christmas package is a classic place for a fruit cake—the densest of the dense—but you don’t have to go that route. I like to send olive oil cakes, like this orange-scented one from Saveur, or this rosemary chocolate one from Kim Boyce. My mom used to mail a sour cream chocolate chip coffee cake to me during finals week (the recipe isn’t online, but it’s sort of like this one), which worked along the same principle: A lot of fat is good for longevity.
Something that has a nice scent and feels fancy, that the person wouldn’t have bought for themselves. I always get my sister something along these lines: a sugar scrub, a candle, a tin of body butter. Bonus benefit of sending a candle: It makes the package smell good when opened.
Small crafts. Have kids? They may like cutting out a few snowflakes, making a Christmas card, or making a Waldorf-style window star to put in the box.
Local specialties. Care packages are good places to share a little bit of whatever your hometown offers, supporting local producers along the way. I usually include a beeswax candle or a box of fudge or buckeye candies from the people who sell at our winter farmers market, since my area doesn’t produce much in the way of shippable fruits and vegetables in winter. But if you live in California or Florida and are sending me a care package, please include some interesting citrus fruits in the mix!
Something sentimental. Add a photo in a frame or one made into a mug. Copy out a poem that reminds you of the recipient, onto a nice piece of paper, and include that.
Fun and interesting shelf-stable foodstuffs. Is there a store near where you live that stocks a million interesting types of pantry goods, like canned fish, dried fruits, tea, jam, chocolate bars, coffee creamer, or nut butter? The place where you often find yourself picking up a jar and saying, “Damn, that’s a new one”? For us, that’s a locally run specialty grocery called Kindred Market, and when it’s care package time, I like to go wander the aisles and pick out things I think the recipients might like. I have some go-to items that I know are good, and that might not be familiar to everyone, that I like to include—Nutpods coffee creamers is one—but if my recipient is adventuresome in the kitchen, I’ll also pick some total unknowns (fancy sardines or an interesting spice mix) and ask them to let me know how they are.
Little toys that function as “Advent gifts.” Kids, unlike us jaded older people, still like trinkets. But it can be stressful to try to nail the perfect present for children you don’t see all the time. With a care package, where a little toy is part of the family gift, you can escape the pressure of buying something that’ll just get lost under the tree with the rest of the Christmas morning stuff. I like to get a book, some fun art supplies like stamp sets or Kwik Stix paint crayons, or a cute little stuffie, and label the packages as “Advent gifts,” to be unwrapped and enjoyed well before the floodgates open on Dec. 25.
A note about a donation. “CARE package” is actually a registered trademark—an acronym for “Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe,” a humanitarian group created after World War II that mailed thousands of packages of food and supplies to displaced and hungry Europeans. CARE still exists, and I think it’s good and fitting to send them—or any other group that supplies hungry people with food—some money, and include a note about it in each box. This year, especially.