White Elephants and Yankee Swaps (or whatever else you call the holiday gift exchanges in which everyone brings one gift and leaves with one gift) are supposed to be fun, at least in a joy-snatching spiteful way. These activities are more than an exchange of items; they’re games with intense competitive energy. So what do you buy for a person you don’t know you’re buying for? Or for the person who steals from the person you don’t know you’re buying for? While some White Elephant traditions dictate that the gift should be a gag, my personal gift exchange strategy has always been to contribute something that the recipient, whoever they may be, will actually appreciate.
But, figuring out what to bring to please everyone isn’t always fun or easy. Often, there’s a variety of ages at play and a budget to take into consideration. And when the gift exchange is among coworkers or family, chances are there will be quite a few people whose taste and interests differ from your own. However, one thing everyone does is eat.
Gifts in the food and drink category may be the easiest way to please the most people, although not just any eating-adjacent gift will do. There was the time I went to my local specialty grocery, Court Street Grocers, to get a last-minute bottle of Spiedie sauce, the regional New York marinade, for my upstate New York family’s Yankee Swap only to discover that Court Street was out. In a panic, I snagged a bottle of Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise. Turns out mayonnaise, despite the adorable packaging, is not an appealing gift. Lesson learned.
I promise the following suggestions are much better. But that said, for the least amount of gift swap stress, remember that it’s practically impossible to choose something absolutely everyone will want, even when food’s involved.
Putting a bottle of wine into the gift exchange isn’t lazy — if you put some thought into your selection. Depending on the crowd, an of-the-moment natural wine with a graphic label is a good option. Odds are, after everything is opened and the steals and swaps have played out, someone will be in the mood for wine. And if you pair it with a well-designed corkscrew, like this holographic rainbow double-hinged corkscrew from Burkelman, the eventual recipient will have something a bit more permanent to take away after they consume (or perhaps even regift) the wine.
Better-than-everyday olive oil
Anyone who cooks likely uses olive oil, though it’s unlikely they’re always getting the good stuff. Brightland extra virgin olive oil is packaged in a glass bottle pretty enough to keep around even after the olive oil is used up, and at $37, it definitely feels special.
An actually nice mug
While a kitschy “world’s best whatever” mug might elicit groans, no one can argue with the practicality of a well-made mug. (Size here does matter.) I’m partial to the 15-ounce Hasami porcelain mug in natural. It’s simple enough to appeal to almost any aesthetic, but with a rough, pleasing texture that conveys quality. Plus, unlike the many beautiful mugs from bespoke ceramicists, it’s within budget for a $30-range gift exchange.
A must-have water bottle
To be a good gift, the water bottle must be cooler than the company-branded ones everyone has at their desks. If there are teens in your gift-exchange, a brightly colored Hydro Flask could win points for desirability, but to appeal to a wider age range, try the Yeti Rambler. It’s practical, durable, and with sizes and prices that fit into many gift exchange budgets, from $30 for the 18 oz. bottle to $50 for the 36 oz. size. If you think your group will be more impressed with aesthetics than rugged functionality, the water bottles from Danish design brand Hay offer eye-catching colors in an unusual silhouette made from on-trend stainless steel.
An everything-enhancing condiment
As I mentioned, everyone eats even if everyone doesn’t cook. A good-on-everything condiment is a flavorful gift for even those who consider themselves eaters first. Wrap up a regional hot sauce or this small-batch Taiwanese chile crisp, which has the advantage of being both a cooking ingredient and finishing condiment.
Chocolate, but make it fun
While the number of people who appreciate an expensive, experimental chocolate bar may be limited, Kit-Kats are universally beloved, and Kit-Kats in unique (to Americans, anyway) flavors are totally giftable. You don’t have to fly to Japan to buy a bag either: flavors like matcha, chestnut, and sweet potato are available on Amazon.
Coasters are an eminently giftable home good. The gift recipient will surely use them, but they’re small and insignificant enough that the gift giver doesn’t have to worry too much about adhering to a particular interior style. But for a gift exchange you don’t want the coasters to be boring. These very reasonably priced bread slice coasters or these colorful plastic Lily Pad coasters, which double as miniature, abstract table sculptures when not in use, would do the trick nicely.
The cookbook everyone’s heard of even if they aren’t into cooking
Alison Roman’s Nothing Fancy is the cookbook to buy right now. Roman’s recipes from her first cookbook Dining In, as well as from the New York Times, took off on Instagram. More recently, she’s made the rounds on shows like the Tonight Show, so it’s quite possible that at least some segment of your gift exchange group will be familiar. The book itself is just as appropriate for the regular home cook as it is for the person who aspires to throw the enviably relaxed dinner parties Roman’s become known for.
This is a practical gift that’s also topical (with the added bonus of potential for sparking loaded family discussion), making it ideal for the White Elephant or Yankee Swap. The past year and a half of straw-killing campaigns means that we now have seemingly endless possibilities for alternatives. Skip the degradable pasta straws, and opt for reusable ones from cookware brand GIR. They come in sets of two, five, or 10 in a variety of colors, always with a case and squeegee. Most important, they’re made of a flexible silicone material that’s more likely to please crowds than teeth-clanking metal or glass.
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