Craft and Gift Your Own Healthy Holiday Foods

Think outside the box this season and present your loved ones with beautiful, tasty homemade gifts that aren’t packed with sugar.

This gift-giving season, how about going beyond traditional holiday treats (like cookies and cakes) and giving a homemade food gift that is both heartfelt and heart-healthy?

There are many that are easy, thoughtful, and attractive. Spice mixes, flavored oils and vinegars, pickled vegetables, dehydrated fruit slices, granola, colorful bean soup mix, and citrus and herb potpourri, are all great options. We’ve provided details on some of these ideas. Scale up the recipes to make several gifts at one time—and consider making an extra one for yourself!

Once you’ve decided what to make, gather the necessary ingredients, along with jars, bottles, or other appropriate containers, as well as tags or labels and any festive touches you want to add.

Keep these tips in mind for your healthy food gifts:

Shop. Choose recipes with accessible, affordable ingredients. Costs can add up quickly when making multiple gifts.

Contain it. Choose packaging that suits the recipe, whether a jar, bottle, tin, or bag. (Dollar and thrift stores are great places to find inexpensive containers.)

Tag it. Make or purchase tags with space to handwrite or print out things like ingredients, how to prepare or use the gift, and a “To/From” section.

‘Tis the Seasoning

Salt is a common way to add flavor to food, but it also adds sodium to the diet, increasing risk for high blood pressure. Salt-free seasonings enhance flavor in a heart-friendly way. For an attractive, easy, delicious, and healthy gift, give your friends and family homemade spice mixes! Create your own combination of favorite herbs or try recipes like the ones in this article. Be sure to package the mix in an airtight container for longer lasting flavor.

Italian Seasoning

This blend of herbs is a great way to perk up flavor in your favorite savory dishes.

For each 4-ounce (½-cup) jar (about 4 x 2 inches), mix: 

2 Tbsp dried basil
1 Tbsp dried marjoram
2 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp dried parsley
1 Tbsp dried rosemary
1 Tbsp dried thyme

Chinese Five Spice

Use this fragrant, peppery-sweet mixture as a rub on poultry or lean meats or to add a bold savoriness to stir-fries.

For each 4-ounce (½-cup) jar (about 4 x 2 inches), mix:

1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp ground cloves
2 Tbsp ground fennel
1 Tbsp ground ginger
1 Tbsp ground star anise
2 Tbsp ground Szechuan pepper, or black pepper

Holiday Zest in a Bottle

Another way to reduce salt is to boost flavor with flavored vinegars. Herb or citrus-infused vinegars are a great base for vinaigrettes and are delicious sprinkled over veggies or seafood. 

Infusing flavors into oils is also easy to do, although for both these gifts you’ll need to plan ahead to allow time for the flavor to develop. Plant oils like olive, canola, corn, and soybean oils are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids. Like flavored vinegars, flavored oils work well in salad dressings, or you can cook with them or sprinkle them on vegetables, beans, lentils, grains, seafood, poultry, or lean meats. 

Simply soak fresh or dried herbs, spices, or other ingredients in vinegar or a healthy oil and then strain to create a tasty and beautiful gift, then present them in leakproof glass jars or bottles. Crowd pleasers include tarragon or dill vinegar and lemon or chili infused oil. 

Tarragon Vinegar

Enjoy in vinaigrettes and marinades, drizzled onto vegetables, or as a bright herbal boost to most any dish!

4 cups (1 quart) white wine vinegar
6-8 sprigs (about ½ cup) fresh tarragon
(or 2 Tbsp dried), plus optional additional sprigs for presentation

1. In a medium saucepan, heat vinegar to just shy of boiling.

2. Place fresh or dried tarragon into a sterilized quart-size glass, lidded container.

3. Pour heated vinegar over the herbs in the jar, seal and cool. 

4. When cool, cover, and place in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks, checking for desired flavor after a week. 

5. When flavored to your liking, pour vinegar through a strainer or cheese cloth to remove the tarragon and pour into sterilized jars or bottles. Insert a sprig of fresh tarragon if desired, seal, and label. 

This recipe makes four 1-cup bottles. Scale up as necessary.

Lemon Infused Olive Oil

Whisk with a light vinegar and toss into salads, stews, or steamed roasted vegetables; use as a dip for bread; drizzle over pasta, fish, and poultry.

4 cups (1 quart) extra virgin olive oil new
Fresh zest of 4 lemons

1. In a medium saucepan, slowly heat olive oil and lemon zest over low heat. When the zest just begins to sizzle, remove from heat, cover, and let cool completely. 

2. When cool, strain zest from the oil using a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth, pour into sterilized glass bottles, and seal. Store at room temperature. 

This recipe makes four 1-cup bottles. Scale up as necessary.

Soup-er Mixes

A shelf stable, quick, and easy meal is a gift everybody loves to receive. Dry bean- or lentil-based soup mixes are a snap to assemble in jars or food-safe bags, require few additional ingredients other than water, and make a pretty package with decorative layers of different colored beans, pastas, lentils, dried veggies, or whole grains like barley.

The soup recipe below offers one such gift idea. This colorful, thoughtful gift doesn’t cost a lot, but it packs a powerful health-promoting punch. Beans and lentils are high in fiber and provide protein and plenty of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume three cups of beans per week to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

With a little planning and preparation, you can give a personal, homemade gift this season that truly shows you care.

Pasta Fagiolo Soup

8 Servings

  • 1 cup pasta
  • 3/4 cup dried pinto beans
  • 3/4 cup dried kidney beans
  • 3/4 cup dried great northern or navy beans
  • 1/4 cup parsley flakes
  • 1/2 cup onion
  • 1 can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes
  • 3 chopped carrots

Soup Mix Steps:

1. In a quart-sized clear jar, layer pinto beans, kidney beans, and white beans one at a time.
2. In a small bowl, mix together remaining ingredients. Seal seasonings in a small bag, place on top of the beans and securely close the jar.

Soup Steps:

1. In a large pot, combine dried beans and 6 to 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover and continue to boil for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let beans soak about 2 hours.
2. Drain beans and return to the pot. Add 6 cups of water and the seasoning packet. Cook for about 1 to 1½ hours, or until beans are fork-tender.
3. Add diced tomatoes, carrots and celery. Simmer 30 minutes.
4. Add pasta, and cook to al dente, about 10 more minutes.

Per serving: Calories: 264; Total Fat: 1 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Total Carbohydrate: 52 g; Total Sugars: 6 g (Added, 0 g); Dietary Fiber: 9 g; Protein: 13 g; Sodium: 238 mg; Potassium: 672 mg; Calcium: 78 mg; Vitamin D: 0 mcg; Iron: 4 mg.

(tsp=teaspoon; oz=ounce; g=grams; mg=milligram(s); mcg=micrograms.)

Recipe adapted courtesy of Melissa Garcia, Consumer Queen, www.consumerqueen.com

This article originally appeared in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, published each month by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. To get more expert guidance on healthy cooking, eating, and living, subscribe here.

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