Prep my gift closet
January 17, 2014 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Although I plan ahead for many things, I'm often confounded by last-minute gift needs -- one of my kids' friends has a birthday, and I just found out via FB, "Honey, we were asked to dinner tomorrow" kind of thing. Please help me set up and stock a gift closet so I can cope.

Common problem spots:
* Last-minute invitations to birthday parties for kids we don't know well
* "Thank you" small presents to recognize a kindness an adult has done
* Host/hostess gifts for last-minute visits
* Spontaneous get-togethers, "please bring something to share" casual events

I'm a good baker, and can whip up yummies when given enough notice. Sometimes time or bandwidth doesn't permit, and store runs require planning, so I'd like to keep a box of ready-to-go gifts on hand.

There are two aspects to this request.

One: Gift guilt. I'm bad about remembering life celebrations and am conflicted about not being able to find just the right present for an individual, and want to select the *right* thing, even when I don't know what it is (witness the numerous questions here about "What's hip with 6-year-olds this season?"). How can I convince myself that general stock gifts are OK? (Also because ACK, more stuff! I'm always trying to get rid of stuff, and feel conflicted about dumping another to-be-managed item on someone, even though I understand that small gifting is the common expectation.)

Two: Materials. What do I need? I have wrapping paper and tape. Gift bags? Coffee? Cards? A list of suggested presentation materials as well as contents would be helpful. I guess I need these to be "generally pleasing shelf-stable stuff" for 1) kids 13 and under, and 2) adults I don't know well. Also, though I have some difficulty with baked goods from a box, are there specific shelf-stable tasty-enough pre-mix goodies from a bag that I can make quickly?

Thanks for any help you can offer.
posted by MonkeyToes to Shopping (35 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
We don't stock different categories of gift--but my wife and I do generally keep a cute baby thing or two (there used to be an awesome hipster-y craft market every December with awesome onesies and stuff), and several bottles of "gift wine" that's better than our usual table wine, but not so tempting that we dip into it (mostly reds, but a couple of whites to do a bare minimum of pairing with food).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:27 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not organized enough to manage a gift closet, but I have two elementary age kids, and after a run of birthday parties a few months ago, I stocked up on nice art and craft supplies. I like them because they work for a range of ages, and either gender. It works even better if you go slightly quirky, so instead of Crayola colored pencils and a coloring book, a set of those tree twig colored pencils and a blank artists' book of heavy textured paper, for example. Equally attractive to a kindergarten student or a fifth grader.
posted by instamatic at 9:38 AM on January 17, 2014 [15 favorites]

Yeah, a few bottles of gift wine are great for grabbing on the way out the door, and having some cute bottle gift bags on hand for them takes the gift up a big notch. Other things my mom or I have had on our "gift shelf" in the attic: pretty wooden or pottery bowls, platters, little plates - these all go great with homemade treats or are fine on their own for host/engagement/housewarming gifts. Oh! And a stack of cards: birthday and blank.

For kids, things like bananagrams or other multi-age games? Mostly, people are just grateful for a gift.
posted by ldthomps at 9:38 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Gift cards and trinkets or unusual candy seem to be okay for a_random_tween_kid birthday parties in my corner of the world. (You're giving them some purchasing autonomy as the gift -- my kid LOVES this.) If you have something like a Five Below near you, this is pretty much their demographic. Craft supplies and kits also work well, especially for slightly younger than tween.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:38 AM on January 17, 2014

My very small stash contains gift wine, Playmobil figures, Weleda Skin Food gift sets from when they went on sale before the holidays, Orla Kiely blank books and some baby hats. This general assemblage has helped me with lots of gift-giving jams. It's also right near where I stash gift bags that people give me gifts in.
posted by zem at 9:38 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

We buy wine a couple of times a year on trips to wine country, and also have a wine club membership at one favorite place. That's enough to give us a nice stash on hand to gift to people at random intervals, and it's a little extra special because we can say we visited the winery in person, are members and enjoy it, etc.

For the kids gift, I have Amazon long as the last minute gives you at least a couple of days notice you can quickly pick up a Plan Toys/Melissa and Doug/set of board books etc. I have a few go-to items I've bought a bunch of times, but they are skewed to much younger-aged kids.
posted by handful of rain at 9:39 AM on January 17, 2014

I usually try to buy craft kits or games for kid's birthdays. If what I'm buying is a % off/buy-one-get-one/otherwise on sale, I always buy more than one, especially if that kid is my own son's age. Then I stick the extra in a big tote in my closet.

I used to have some anxiousness or guilt over buying presents for kids. What if their parents don't like 8 thousand pieces of beads? Maybe this kid doesn't like to color? Suppose they only buy toys made in the US? But then I realized how much pleasure my kid gets from opening presents and playing with them, pretty much no matter what they are, and I certainly would never judge a present. So I gave myself permission to not fret quite so much.

The other stuff, I just give booze, booze, always booze. Usually wine. Maybe a Starbucks gift card if booze were wildly inappropriate.
posted by lyssabee at 9:40 AM on January 17, 2014

For kids, my default gift is books. I keep an eye out for stuff on sale or at thrift stores/resale shops and keep a few around. I also get my kid to help me make a birthday card out of scrapbook paper that I have laying around. I draw a sad excuse for a cupcake usually, write "Happy Birthday [Name] on the inside, and he colors it and sticks stickers to it. Birthday cards from random friends usually end up in the recycling bin pretty quickly in my house, and I'm sure it's the same for my other parent friends, so I feel wasteful dropping a few bucks on what is essentially trash in 24 hours when I can make my kid do some art and get involved in the process.

I also save the birthday gift bags we get as the year goes on and keep them in a drawer for reuse, along with a pack of tissue paper and a roll of solid colored wrapping paper and matching ribbon of some sort.
posted by chiababe at 9:43 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I pretty much only buy metallic gift bags in a variety of sizes and ivory tissue paper-- you can always dress them up with ribbons or stamps (though I only keep metallic ribbons around.) I always have metallic sharpies and blank cards (with designs and totally blank note cards too.) I'm not as good at keeping gifts around but I agree that wine is a good one as are flavored salts or sugars.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:44 AM on January 17, 2014

Homemade spice mixes/hot chocolate springs to mind for an easy foodie-related gift that can be stored and is pretty shelf-stable.

Hot chocolate mix - 1 tablespoon (ish) sugar to 1 teaspoon unsweeted cocoa powder. Add marshmallows, etc. Store in a mason jar with a set of measuring spoons (or a coffee scoop, something like that?) and it's good to go.

Similar thing with spice mixes. Just look up "homemade onion soup mix" or "caujin spice mix", "lemon pepper seasoning" etc. Throw some spices together in a mason jar, tie it up with a ribbon, and it looks super cute and good for a simple hostess-type gift.

If you want it to be even classier, add a bottle of wine to go along with it. I also think you can do something similar with pancake mix - Pintrest is a wealth of information for premade mixes like that, and also for ideas to make them look cute.

Otherwise, a few rolls of birthday/generic gift wrap would be good, along with some ribbon, a few bags, some tissue paper, etc. I usually use gift bags outside of the Christmas season, to be honest. I might keep a few nice blank cards in there as well -- maybe get a mixed box of cards with different designs. Hallmark always has something like that.
posted by PearlRose at 9:44 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

We usually give wine, but we also keep a few small boxes of nice chocolates or biscuits on hand for emergency gifting.
posted by evoque at 9:44 AM on January 17, 2014

Wine is always good, and frequently you can recycle wines you get as gifts. Stick a post-it on there to remind you who got you what.

Fancy candles, to your friends who like that sort of thing. On sale, always, everywhere. When you see good soy ones with natural essences, stock up.

Legos are good for kids in the 5-10 bracket.

Gift soaps are a hostess gift from a time gone by. These rose petal soaps are gorgeous, unique and perfect for when you don't know your hostess.

Hit up Marshalls RIGHT NOW! They're flogging off all the Christmas food gift stuff. Jams, balsamic vinegar, etc. Stock up.

Gift cards are nice to stick into cards, Starbucks, Amazon, iTunes. Also good for kids, believe it or don't.

Get some cards and keep them on hand in a shoe box, ditto gift bags and tissue. For my birthday, Husbunny gives me a card with deep mushy stuff on it, and one that he thinks I'd enjoy, but he leaves it blank so I can give it to someone.

Keep your eyes peeled. When shopping if you see something that's cute, but kind of useless, and if it's cheap, snag it for your gift closet. You never know.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:46 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jigsaw puzzles are easy to buy for different ages/skill-levels and are also easy enough for someone to re-gift if it's not their thing. (Not that re-gifting isn't controversial, but personally, I'm happy to help stock someone else's gift closet, if that's how things work out. YMMV.) It's especially fun to find local images, if you live somewhere touristy.
posted by juliplease at 9:47 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not great at gifts because I always second-guess what the person already has. My only suggestion is Hexbugs, because kids love them even if they've already got one or more (yes, girls too; check out the ant and the aquabots).

As for wrappings, save gift bags and stick a post-it on or inside noting who it's from; you won't give that back to the same person. Also keep a post-it in the lid of a box of notecards, and jot the name for your own records when you write/send one. It's easier than wondering, "Did I use that card with the owls on it for the last thing I sent them?"

Brown craft paper is your friend. Stock up on nice ribbon, and a brown paper package turns classy in an instant. Look at Pintrest for printable gift tags, print and cut out ones you like, and keep them with your wrapping supplies.
posted by whoiam at 9:54 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

In addition to craft paper, it is also totally acceptable - nay, encouraged! - to wrap with the Sunday funnies.
posted by juliplease at 9:56 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here are some things I do:

— Up your wine game, in adddition to wine, I keep some nice champagne in the house. You can always bring/give these. I like to give a bottle of champagne to friends as a last minute birthday present with a card saying: here's to your next year, I'm sure you'll have something to celebrate soon!
— I have multiple copies of my three favorite books and give those regularly. I buy them anytime I see them in old bookstores and keep a stash.
— I have a favorite poetry book that I give people — I place different colored ribbons on my favorite poems.
— I make granola (easy, cheap!) and keep extra jars on hand for gift-giving.

For wrapping, buy some plain brown bags, plain notecards and expensive silk ribbon. This is key. I keep silk ribbon in a lovely mossy green color, and it classes up any gift instantly.
posted by amoeba at 9:58 AM on January 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Last-minute invitations to birthday parties for kids we don't know well

Passes for the local movie theater. This is a wildly well received gift, especially for kids who have everything. Pretty universal.

Re. hostess gifts and other gifts for adults, it has been my observation that gifts of THINGS aren't generally appreciated all that much since many people are going through a de-cluttering process. Consumables seem to be the best option, like wines. I had a friend gift us a bottle of bubbly and a bottle of cassis so that we could make Kir Royale. That was really nice and a little different. Just be aware of food allergies/sensitivities. Most baked goods have gluten, for example. People sometimes gift us foods that one or both of us cannot eat due to gluten. That is frustrating.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:00 AM on January 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

If you are a good baker, why not make some goodies and freeze them?

I make Buckeyes which keep in the freezer for aeons, and EVERYONE who doesn't have a peanut allergy loves them. everyone.
posted by greenish at 10:02 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stomp rockets and squeeze rockets are my default on-hand stock-up toys for the preschool and school-aged set.

For a slightly younger age bracket (~1-6), bath coloring tablets! Cause even if they have some, they could always use some more.

Also, eraseable chalkboard t-shirts (stock up in a variety of sizes) are cool 'cause you can particularize them by writing an occasion-appropriate message ("Happy Arbor Day Janet!") right on the shirt itself.
posted by Bardolph at 10:15 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to elaborate on the "no things" comment. I know some people would probably appreciate a book or a bowl or fancy soaps. I would appreciate the gesture and the sentiment behind it but find the actual item difficult to deal with. We have a small home and we don't have any space for added THINGS, and we aren't the only ones. I know people mean well, but seriously, where I am going to put that? I would also be very wary of scented things like candles and soaps. A lot of people have strong scent sensitivities. And food items really are extremely tricky. SO much of what people gift food wise is gluten ladden OR sugary/unhealthy. For a gluten intolerant trying to lose weight this is about the worst thing ever. If you really want to give gifts of this ilk then I really think you should take a bit of time to find out what they could or could not use.

Honestly, I think booze is about the most safe option. If they are non-drinkers/recovering alcoholics then fine, booze is a bad idea, but aside from that there aren't many people who wouldn't appreciate being handed a bottle of nice wine or a case of beer (depending upon the person and the situation). If you want to branch away from the obvious wine, I again suggest you get a combination of liquors that combine to make a specific drink (like my Kir Royale suggestion).
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:15 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I stock up on clearance items. The best items for kids birthdays is Christmas clearances where things like table foosball, telescopes and other items go for $5-10. I always scope out clearance at Target too in the crafts area and toys. I also get cards in bulk from Costco.

Wines and let's be honest, re-gift items that you receive.

But if necessary, Amazon Prime, is the resource of choice and cost is not such an issue.
posted by jadepearl at 10:17 AM on January 17, 2014

For a long time, our quick, go-to gift for kids birthdays was a Movie Night package/basket: bucket of popcorn, two bottles of soda, two candy bars and a card for a movie rental at the local shop. It was always pretty well received. If you still have video places nearby, they'll have all that stuff right up front.
posted by jquinby at 10:22 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Right now I have the card game Set and an origami book that comes with origami paper in our gift shelf for kids birthdays. It is fantastic not to need to schedule an extra shopping trip.
posted by jazh at 10:51 AM on January 17, 2014

I only buy white and yellow tissue paper, since these colors match most gift bags. Yellow works for some baby showers, and for most colorful gift bags that have any yellow design on them. White goes with Christmas/winter gift bags, and also with baby blue and baby pink.
posted by at 11:00 AM on January 17, 2014

We stock our gift closet mostly from craft shows and galleries, as well as the occasional gift-shop if we see something truly unusual. I personally prefer giving people items that can be used, like interesting candles, handmade coasters, pretty placemats/napkins, and so forth. Even if the item wasn't selected with the specific recipient in mind (which of course it wasn't because it came out of our gift closet), it still seems more personal and distinctive than a mass-produced item.

I can't seem to get the hang of using gift bags, so I always ask the crafter (or gallery) for a box. Whenever World Market has a sale, I stock up on their handmade wrapping papers so I can present a suitable gift on very little notice.
posted by DrGail at 11:51 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

For kids, I try to stock up on art supplies when they are on sale. For instance, last summer I scored a bunch of Crayola crayon packs for 50% off at Toys R Us. Add a $1 coloring book from the dollar store, and voila, a gift that a kid will appreciate, and it didn't break the bank. Also, easy to store several items in a small drawer or plastic tub.

For hostess gifts, like most above I also keep several wines in cupboard, but I also keep a couple of bottles of "fancy" soda for those friends who don't drink. Generally only purchased when they are on sale. If I am going to a brunch, I have a couple of nice (smallish) bags of gourmet coffee and a couple of boxes of "gourmet" biscotti. For book club, I keep a couple of boxes of brownie mix in the cupboard, in the event that I don't have time to make anything fancy.

I get my wrapping paper at the dollar store (please, no gift bags for kids, half the fun is in ripping the paper!), and kids birthday cards too (how many kids do you know - let's say 10; buy 2 or 3 "boy" cards, 2 or 3 "girl" cards, and a couple of generic ones). Just get a bunch of cards at once so you never have that "crap, we have to stop at the store for a card!" moment.
posted by vignettist at 12:53 PM on January 17, 2014

I like candle tapers for an adult hostess gift. I bundle 6 or 8 of them together with ribbon and put them in a wine bag. It's great for parties where the host/hostess is going to be handed a lot of wine as gifts. It stands out and is still a consumable that almost any person is sure to have use for.
posted by juggler at 1:03 PM on January 17, 2014

1. Wine for adults - that covers thank you gifts, host/hostess gifts, and potluck get-togethers.
2. For kids birthdays - we keep a few boxes of small lego sets, craft sets, and second copies of books our kids love.

I vote against more stuff (candles, bowls, decorative items) because its so subjective according to your and their taste, and also potentially clutter. Consumables are good. If you're a good baker then it really doesn't take long to whip up a batch of cookies.
posted by Joh at 1:17 PM on January 17, 2014

Wine/good beer, really good chocolates, nice lotion, iTunes/Amazon/GooglePlay gift cards, books that you love for babies and young children. Really last minute - fresh flowers. My goto for a quick birthday card addition is a lottery ticket. Many groc. stores carry gift cards, which are terrific for teens - college ages. If you are crafty, tart up USB sticks and fill with free music ( or podcasts. For the holidays, I gave everyone in my family a nifty LED flashlight that charges in the car lighter.
posted by theora55 at 3:23 PM on January 17, 2014

How can I convince myself that general stock gifts are OK?

Get some extras of household products, kitchen gadgets, or packaged foods you've really enjoyed yourself. Tell the recipient how much you've enjoyed the soaps/zester/truffle oil you're giving them, and that you wanted to share it with them because it's so terrific.

Have a selection of things so you can pick something the person would like from your gift stash. If someone lives in a small place, give them something to eat. If someone is traveling, give them something flat that the TSA won't seize.

The other approach is to have one thing you always give to people. This is great if you need to give less personal sort of gifts, such as in a professional setting or to people you've never met before. It's hard to find the right thing, something the local area is known for can be good.

There's a great gift that takes no space, costs little, and is often appreciated -- but you have to plan in advance. Collections of photos of the givee or their friends and family.
posted by yohko at 4:02 PM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

The indie toy store near me has a selection of novelty hats and sunglasses. A quick Amazon search for silly hats brings up similar things. I think they'd be fun gifts for the 6-10 year old set.

Fancy olive oil could be a good substitute for wine.

King Arthur Flour sells a variety of baking mixes that are quite tasty. Scones, bread, cakes, everything. You could buy the mixes either for gifting or baking ahead of time.
posted by MadMadam at 4:05 PM on January 17, 2014

I like quirky books. There are often new books out by bloggers that would be appropriate for most (adult) recipients, for example Humans of New York or Hyperbole and a Half. I also think Birds and Words would make a neat gift. Go to your local bookstore and see what stands out, then stash it away for your next emergency.
posted by spacewaitress at 4:55 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Science kits (example) are good for both sexes and a pretty wide range of ages, and they're often consumable.
posted by lakeroon at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2014

I have a dear friend who always brings specialty butter as a hostess gift as the hostess won't feel obligated to serve it right away and it can be enjoyed later. I admit to stealing this idea, and it doesn't take much room in the fridge/can be restocked easily.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:51 PM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I knit and crochet, so usually have a stash of nice handmade stuff on hand. I try to make a fair bit of baby stuff because there always seems to be a new baby coming along. Otherwise it is wine, coffee or fancy tea for adults, and things like movie passes for kids. For real little people I give books - let's be honest, kids two in below you are really giving the gift so the parent notices, not the kid, and books go down well.
posted by Megami at 4:38 AM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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