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Egg-cellent Easter Basket Ideas for Tweens (Because the Easter Bunny Loves Hip Hop)

Egg-cellent Easter Basket Ideas for Tweens (Because the Easter Bunny Loves Hip Hop)

easter bunny basket
This Easter, make things memorable for your tween | Image courtesy Darren Coleshill via Unsplash

I still don’t know how the Easter Bunny managed to disappear without a trace every year before my sister and I could spot him. As girls, we would eagerly wait for him to ring our doorbell and leave our baskets on the porch. The problem was, he always surprised us by dropping our goodies at a different entrance than the one we were waiting at. Whatever sort of bunny magic he used to trick us, I’ll never forget the excitement of running to the door and throwing it open to try to catch even a glimpse of his fluffy tail bounding out of sight.

My basket was always bursting with milk chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, a homemade treat or two, and neon Easter grass, but there were also other surprises every year. Fun masks for playing pretend, chapter books and bookmarks, art and craft supplies. I went wild for the sweets, of course, but it was the small gifts that had staying power, especially as I got older and had enough pocket money to buy candy on my own.

Easter isn’t just “the candy holiday.” It was, and still is, an important time for my family to be together, and the personal touches inside my basket are what reminded me that my parents understood me and my passions in life. Creating an Easter basket for your tween isn’t hard. Keep their unique interests and hobbies in mind, all those little details that make up who they are, and they’ll know their basket was filled with so much more than just snacks and sweets.

Themed Baskets for Every Tween

I went through quite a few “phases” growing up. One year I was obsessed with The Little House on the Prairie, the next with The Babysitter’s Club. I wanted to be an actress, then a scientist, then a teacher. Whether your tween aspires to be a YouTube celebrity like Miranda Sings or a dance superstar like Maddie Ziegler, here are a few ideas that will make the Easter Bunny seem pretty cool in their eyes.

baseball art
Hit a homerun with a sports-themed basket | Image courtesy Etsy seller ScarletBlvd

The Star Baseball Player

  • A water bottle from the Chicago cubs to inspire them to never give up on their own dreams
  • A new pair of baseball socks because between grass stains and growing pains, tweens go through socks faster than parents go through coffee
  • A travel-sized sunscreen for those spur of the moment games in the park with their friends
  • A stopwatch so they’re always prepared to go into training mode
  • A new baseball since they’re forever getting lost behind fences
  • Nestle it all in a baseball cap from their favorite team and you’ve hit one out of the park!

The Prima Ballerina

  • A ballerina figurine to remind them of their dreams
  • Hair clips and scrunchies to keep their hair tidy while they pirouette across the stage
  • A new pair of tights (those things run faster than the Easter Bunny trying to hide from my sister and me)
  • A personalized mix CD of inspirational dance music
  • Bundle the gifts inside a cozy sweatshirt they can wear over their leotard while warming up.

The Drama Club President

  • A funny, age appropriate play they can stage with their friends
  • Stage makeup, to practice for their next big performance
  • Costume accessories like fake mustaches, masks, and crowns to making getting into character just a little bit easier
  • A playbill or collectible from their favorite play, to remind them of the bright lights they’re aiming for
  • Tuck the gifts inside an empty movie theater popcorn box because one day they’ll be up on the big screen.

The Future Vet

dog pillow
Tweens can keep their furry bff close with this Boston terrier pillow | Image courtesy Etsy seller GoodAfternoonan
  • Animal stickers to decorate their school supplies with
  • Small toys they can use to play with their pets
  • Grooming tools for when they want to show their pet some extra TLC
  • A stuffed animal resembling their pet that they can snuggle with at night
  • Small plastic or porcelain animal figurines to decorate their desk at school
  • Place the gifts in a brand new water dish for their favorite animal.

The Bird Watcher

  • Birding binoculars so they can take a closer look at their feathered friends
  • A guidebook on birds in your area, so they can sharpen their knowledge
  • Seed bombs, so they can grow wildflowers to attract more birds to your yard
  • A window-mount bird feeder, so they can watch the birds from inside on rainy spring days
  • Choose a natural wood easter basket—it will look like a real bird’s nest!

The Book Worm

  • Bookmarks, so they never lose their place
  • Small chapter books, so they can go on adventures in their mind
  • A reading light for those nights when they just can’t put their book down
  • A pencil case to hold highlighters to mark their favorite passages
  • Stickers or collectible gear related to their favorite book series
  • Place the gifts inside a hollowed out book that can be used later to store all manner of small bookish treasures.

You only need to include a couple of gifts to make your Easter basket stand apart from the norm, whether you choose handmade self-care gifts for your girly girl or outer space-inspired bits and bobbles. It’s your thoughtfully creative packaging that will have them feeling the love.

DIY Customized Phone Cases: An Easter Gift Every Tween Will Relate To

I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was in college, but my 6-year-old niece uses her Grandma’s so much, it might as well be her own. She uses it to make videos of her cheerleading and gymnastics routines. Whether your tween wants to call up their friends for a spontaneous game of baseball or uses it to take pictures of a migrating yellow-rumped warbler at the bird bath, chances are they’re also attached to their smart device. Putting a custom case for their favorite phone in their Easter basket is a surefire way to keep them interested in the Easter Bunny for at least a few more years (and will keep that expensive little computer up and running for as long as possible too).

cell phone case
Help them show off who they are with a custom phone case | Image courtesy Etsy seller ElenaIllustration

To create your own custom phone or tablet case, you’ll need:

  • A clear case for the appropriate device
  • A printed out picture your tween will like (anything from celebrities to sports stars, book characters to cute animals—it depends on the tween!)
  • Mod Podge
  • A glue stick

To make the personalized case:

  1. Cut the picture to fit neatly inside the case. The images should be facing out, so when the case is on the device, you can see the pictures.
  2. Make sure your image isn’t covering any spaces cut out of the case that leave the camera and microphones clear.
  3. Add a thin layer of Mod Podge to the inside of the device case, then press your image, right side out, onto the Mod Podged surface. Use your fingers to press out any air bubbles.
  4. Wait until dry, then add a layer of Mod Podge to the back of your image. Let that dry before adding one final layer to seal it in.
  5. When the last layer of Mod Podge is dry, the case is ready to use.

Walking down store aisles decorated to the nines can make holidays seem commercialized and a little impersonal, but making your own Easter basket is one way to bring meaning back this time of family and renewal. It shows your tween that you “get” them, and the extra effort put forth won’t go unappreciated—even if it is the Easter Bunny who gets the accolades!

As an adult, it’s the books, small figurines, homemade treats, and other surprise gifts from my Easter basket that I remember, not the generic candy. It showed me that my parents—I mean, the Easter Bunny—wanted the day to be truly special. And I carry the tradition on by adding something personal to each gift I give as well.

If you want to make this Easter really magical, check out our Easter gifts for kids guide. You can stay up-to-date with all things Elfster on Facebook, and don’t forget to check in with us on Twitter @Elfster, and Instagram @Elfstergram.

Imaginative Make Up Your Own Holiday Day Ideas That Celebrate Whatever Inspires You

Imaginative Make Up Your Own Holiday Day Ideas That Celebrate Whatever Inspires You

celebrate cake topper
Celebrate with this cake topper any day of the year | Image courtesy Etsy seller LettersToYou

Have you ever said something along the lines of, “Oh man, if I were president, I’d declare a national holiday for whoever invented string cheese.”  Well, it turns out that under a close reading of the Constitution, it isn’t only a president who can declare holidays. It isn’t even one of their primary duties. Anyone, in fact, can invent a holiday, and you should do so at the end of March.

March 26th is Make Up a Holiday Day, a day that celebrates the fact that we can celebrate whatever we want, even if we aren’t president. Think of something underappreciated, unknown, or just plain goofy that you think deserves to be celebrated. It’s a day to ask people what they think’s important, or talk to your kids about who they think should be recognized. It’s a day to reflect on what matters to you, whether it’s solemn and noble, or the concept of fun itself.

So this Sunday get together with friends and brainstorm on the kind of holidays you’d like to see. Who knows? Maybe soon enough they’ll be on the calendar. If Make Up a Holiday Day can get its own, well, day… anything goes!

A Quick Aside About Making Up a Holiday

pine forest mug
Arbor Day is taken, but what about “National Pine Forest Day”? Pine forests are outstanding! | Image courtesy Etsy seller TeideShop

It might seem weird to “make up” a holiday, but really all of them were made up by someone at some point who wanted to celebrate something. Arbor Day didn’t come to us from above, it came from someone saying, “Hey, know what’s awesome? Trees,” and everyone agreeing.

A holiday can be unofficial and still be celebrated (after all, it isn’t like National Talk Like a Pirate Day is recognized by Congress, though Michigan and California goofily honored it). Social media makes it all possible.

Great ideas are recognized, and build critical mass, and then suddenly everyone is celebrating something and adding their own touches. And really, it isn’t like you get Arbor Day off, so what is the difference between your new holiday and that one, aside from time and tradition. Nothing. And at some point, Arbor Day was new.  So go and start one.

(But also, really, plant a tree. You can even plant a sequoia! It’s a great gift for the person who has everything, and also 4000 years to watch it grow.)

Ideas for Quirky Holidays and Parties to Celebrate Them

So here are a few holiday ideas you can consider. Feel free to take inspiration from them, or even use them as your own, so long as you also propose a National Recognize That Guy Who Came up with This Holiday Day. (Oh, who am I kidding: St. Patrick’s Day is essentially already my holiday anyway).

millard Fillmore
This is Millard Fillmore. Not familiar to you? He was a US president | Image courtesy Wikimedia

Forgotten President’s Day

Technically, Presidents Day celebrates all 44 previous office holders, but most people only think of Washington and Lincoln, and maybe chuck in a Roosevelt or two for good measure. The others are forgotten, and having a day to remember them can actually make for a surprisingly fun party. This isn’t a celebration of truly bad presidents like James Buchanan or Warren G “Regulator” Harding. It’s more of a celebration of the weird quirks of history, that these people who were incredibly powerful, and who worked their whole lives for something, end up dusty and forgotten.

So for your party, assign everyone some obscure president. Have them dress up (your old-timey hat and wig distributor will be thrilled), and have them bring some trivia to do a brief reenactment. This will challenge your friends’ creativity, while also shedding light on the very real events that made us who we are. After all, history didn’t jump from Jackson to Lincoln. People like Franklin Polk made big differences, for better and worse. Who knew? Probably not even Franklin Polk.

National Weird Food Day

Not too long ago, my wife was babysitting my brother’s triplets (!) and when he got home, he made himself a peanut butter and cheese sandwich. No bread, just peanut butter between two slices of cheddar. She was stunned because she makes fun of me for eating that all the time. Neither my brother nor I knew the other one ate them because we never asked, because we both just think it’s normal. Because it is…

Tastes like chicken
Tastes like… | Image courtesy Etsy seller EvenInDeathArt

Every family has weird eating quirks that they take for granted. Same goes for every region and every culture. And that can make for a great party. Have guests come over bearing dishes that, as they grew up, they learned that not everyone eats. It’s a celebration of the strange ways our experiences shape us, and a joyful gathering of the differences that really make us all the same.

Some dishes will be weird to you, and some will be like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. “Where have you been all my life?” you’ll say to spaghetti and jelly.

OK, probably not that. But maybe? And that’s the point.

National Calvinball Day

If you’re making up a holiday, why not make up one that celebrates the very joy of creativity? Calvinball, for those of you who don’t know, is from Calvin and Hobbes, the greatest comic strip of all time (though I’ll hear arguments for Peanuts and Krazy Kat, of course). If you don’t already own the entire collection, Calvinball is a game where the only rule is that there are no rules. You can make it up as you go along, and force the other person to play by your rules as you make them.

Calvin and Hobbes quote
It will all make sense… | Image courtesy Etsy seller CountryHouseStudios

A typical game might involve Calvin hitting a badminton birdie into a tree with a polo mallet to go up Oogy to Boogey, before learning that the Vortex Zone he decreed Hobbes to be in is secretly a Boomerang Zone, so he has to spin. It’s a tough game.

So at the party, encourage people to make up their own rules. Everyone gets a turn. If they say that for the next minute everyone has to sing the theme song to Mr. Belvedere, everyone has to sing the theme song to Mr. Belvedere. If someone decrees that there is going to be a 30-second contest for who can make the coolest tower out of what’s on the cheese platter, it’s time to get all Frank Gehry on some dairy. If someone else decrees it to be time to go outside and play Calvinball, well, you know the drill.

Or rather, you don’t know the drill, and that’s what makes it so exciting. When you’re coming up with something new, it’s unformed. So many holidays have traditions that you don’t have to follow, but you feel weird when you don’t. If we didn’t have ham on Easter, I’d feel strange, even though there’s no real connection between ham and spring, you know?

But when starting from scratch, it’s up to you. But it is also up to the way people interpret your holiday. When you propose and promote a holiday, it might just be between you and your friends. But it might grow and catch on, and you’ll realize something amazing: what is important to you means something to other people as well, and they might want to celebrate it too. And that’s a real connection.

Isn’t that what holidays are all about? We celebrate these connections between us; they’re a joint sense that something is important, whether it’s as goofy as talking like a pirate or as solemn as honoring the fallen brave. Because they are a reminder that there’s something bigger than just ourselves, and that we are bonded in ways we don’t even realize. Every holiday is a raised glass to the threads that bind.

What holiday would you like to see become part of the canon? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or on Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for inspired gifting ideas, browse our gift guides.

Eco-Friendly DIY Earth Day Gifts for a Clean and Green Kitchen This Spring

Eco-Friendly DIY Earth Day Gifts for a Clean and Green Kitchen This Spring

eco friendly jute mat
Jute makes for eco-friendly kitchen accessories | Image courtesy Etsy seller Yanetinne

For the last few years, my fiancé Nick and I have taken a creative approach to celebrating Earth Day. One year, while living in San Francisco, we crafted a kitchen composter out of a coffee canister. The next year we were hunkered down in Orange County so took a trip to Roger’s Gardens, followed by an afternoon spent planting sunflower seeds in our front yard. Then came our spring in Portland, and a rainy day walk through Forest Park. We even brought that woodsy vibe home with us by crafting rustic reclaimed wood tea holders.

Showing our support for the environment on April 22nd is important to us, but it’s also a way of living we like to carry with us every day of the year. We spend more time in our kitchen than in any other part of our home and, as a result, we end up cleaning it a lot! So, we like to make sure that when we put on our Motown records and get to cleaning, we’re doing so in an eco-friendly way. Not only are we protecting the environment, but we love knowing that we could eat straight off our countertops—not that we ever have.

We always share our bounty of DIY cleaners with friends and family as Earth Day gifts. Here are the three undeniable favorites: dishwasher tabs, “un”paper towels, and a simple citrus vinegar cleaner. They smell good and feel good, so when you make them for others, make sure to stock up your own cupboards as well. Here’s to your pristine (and newly green) kitchen!

Get a Sparkly Green Clean with DIY Dishwasher Tabs

The absolute cleanest kitchen I’ve ever seen was in Austin, Texas at a bed and breakfast; the innkeeper swore by baking soda and vinegar. Since then, those two items have become my wondrous miracle workers in the realm of cleaning. When you want it bright and sparkly, they do the job best.

I love the simplicity of throwing a tab into the dishwasher when it’s ready to run, and the gratification of pulling out those sparkling, clean dishes (a trait I seemed to have inherited from my queen-of-the-clean mother). So when I started experimenting with my own dishwasher tabs, I went straight to my go-to clean everything basics: baking soda and vinegar.

You cook, I'll clean
You won’t have to get out of cleaning with these green products | Image courtesy Etsy seller MadebymamaUS

For dish tabs, I like to combine them with Epsom salt (to reduce the effects of hard water), and the natural cleaner Borax. If you’d like, you can also add 10-15 drops of an essential oil, like lemon or grapefruit, to make your dishes smell beautiful too.

What You’ll Need:

  • 2 cups baking soda
  • 2 cups Borax
  • 1/2 cup Epsom salt
  • 1/2 cup vinegar

How to Do It:

  1. In a large metal bowl, mix all of your ingredients together.
  2. After a bit of fizzing, once the ingredients are combined, pack the mixture down into two ice cube trays and let them dry for 24-36 hours.
  3. When you’re ready to use the tabs, I suggest adding about half a cup or so of vinegar to the bottom of your dishwasher to ensure a clean, bright sparkle.

Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk, Make “Un”Paper Towels Instead

Inspiration for the “un”paper towel came to me one evening after I used an entire roll of paper towels to sop up a carton of spilled milk. I’d recently read a statistic from the Paperless Project that if every household in the United States used just one less 70-sheet roll of paper towels a year, that would save a whopping 544,000 trees annually! I’ve always had a fondness for dishtowels and their sentimental value—a paisley print one given from my grandma, a heart-embroidered one from my mom—so why not create my own roll of reusable ones? And that is how “un”paper towels found their place in our kitchen.

"un"paper towels
Handmade “un”paper towels | Image courtesy Etsy seller AnneRiggsDesigns

These towels now fill my cooking space with seasonal prints and quirky patterns while decreasing our waste and environmental impact. I’m not a master seamstress, but you don’t need to be to sew these up. And, instead of buying new fabrics and towels, you can work to upcycle the old ones you already love, giving them new life in a loved one’s kitchen.

What You’ll Need:

  • 4 12-inch squares of terrycloth
  • 4 12-inch squares of woven fabric
  • A package of sew-on snaps

How to Do It:

  1. First, line one piece of terrycloth up with one piece of woven fabric and sew up all the sides (about 1/2 inch from the edge).
  2. Once that’s finished, if you’d like for your “un”paper towels to roll up just like the paper ones do, the next step is to add your sew-on snaps. This part is up to you, but I find it easiest to first start with placement markers, 2 each, on both the left and right sides of the cloth. Attach the caps underneath and the sockets on top on the left side of the towel, but the sockets underneath and the caps on top on the right side of the towel.
  3. The towels are now ready to be rolled and live their new life in the kitchen!

Naturally Sweet Citrus Vinegar Cleaner

This sweet citrus vinegar smells so good that it actually relaxes me while I clean. I got this idea from the same Texas innkeeper who introduced me to vinegar and baking soda. Not only was his kitchen spotless, but it also smelled heavenly of citrus. I was convinced the scent wafting through the air in his home was a candle, or the blossoms of a tree outside the kitchen window, so was surprised to discover it was actually the citrus vinegar cleaner he made himself and sprayed the counters down with to get rid of the breakfast remnants of jam and butter. It’s now become my favorite cleaner to gift and to use—and it’s so simple!

DIY citrus cleaner
Sweet citrus cleans and brightens | Image courtesy Etsy seller CleaningThyme

What You’ll Need:

  • A mason jar
  • Orange peels (to fill half the jar)
  • White vinegar (to cover the peels)

How to Do It:

  1. First, I’d suggest making a nice batch of fresh squeezed orange juice (and maybe throw in a big breakfast of scrambled eggs and buttermilk pancakes as an added bonus).
  2. Save your peels and place them in your mason jar until it is half full.
  3. Next, fill the mason jar with white vinegar, enough to cover the peels.
  4. Let the jar sit in a dimly lit spot for two weeks before straining the citrus over a mesh sieve into a large bowl.
  5. Pour the liquid into a spray bottle, add a simple label if you’d like, and gift (or spray) away!

Celebrating our bountiful, beautiful Earth by creating hands-on traditions is both invigorating and uplifting. Over the years, I’ve found simple DIY projects that enable the joy of giving (and encourage others to do the same) to be incredibly fulfilling. The kitchen is the center of many households, so sharing eco-friendly kitchen cleaning tools is a wonderful way to spread the love of all things clean, and all things green.

Happy Earth Day from Elfster!

For more ideas on how to celebrate holidays creatively, visit Elfster on Facebook, Twitter @Elfster, and on Instagram @Elfstergram. Or, search our Gift Guide for other Earth Day inspirations.

The Gifting Garden: Offering Spring’s Bounty as Homemade Gifts and DIY Edible Crafts

The Gifting Garden: Offering Spring’s Bounty as Homemade Gifts and DIY Edible Crafts

“Is the spring coming?” he said. “What is it like?”

“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine…”

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

fresh seasonal fruit
Spring’s bounty | Image courtesy flick’r user Egan Snow

In the four years that my fiancé Nick and I have been together, we’ve lived inside the flow of many changing seasons. When we first met, it was a cold winter in San Francisco and days were filled with warm cioppino stew and big pots of tortilla soup. Autumns are always spent finding any excuse we could to eat (and carve) pumpkins, butternut squash, and pomegranates. Summers came, promising homemade fruit sorbets and garden fresh heirloom tomatoes—but, first, there was spring.

Beautiful, often unexpected, but much looked for spring.

For us, the season is a time of rebirth, renewal, and transformation. It promises bountiful amounts of fruit and produce, whether from our garden or at the local farmer’s market down the street. The flowers bloom, the sun shines, and our feelings of creativity flourish.

And that is how the idea for an annual Gifting Garden celebration was born.

 

The Essence of the Gifting Garden

spring lilacs
Spring lilacs | Image courtesy Etsy seller WowBloomRoom

We’re big fans of homemade gifts during the holidays, notorious for our gingerbread loaves topped with maple cream cheese frosting. With this in mind, we started a springtime gift giving party tradition so we can intertwine our famous edible gifts with a spring twist, pulling from the season’s natural bounty and focusing on what each ingredient in the gift symbolizes. Lavender, for instance, eases the nerves, while grapefruit offers optimism for the future. We open our home to our friends and family, all toting their own homemade offerings.

We ask our guests to bring a spring wish for themselves written on a slip of paper along with their gift. The party then becomes a true exchange as we work together to choose whom each gift should go home with. Perhaps one friend had just lost a family member and needed comfort, another stability from an uncertain job. The gift each guest receives is meant to pave the way for a plentiful and inspiring spring to come.

 

DIY Lovely Lavender Invitations

lavender party invites
DIY Lavender Invitations | Image courtesy Etsy seller WeddinglamOfficial

Keeping with the natural, tangible spring feel of the party, we like to make our own invitations using lavender from our garden. It offers a tantalizing smell, and can also withstand a trip through the mail. Keep things simple with a fresh sprig or two, a cream colored piece of cardstock or recycled material, and some raffia or twine.

Include a handwritten message for each friend, and simple print out with the invitation offering ideas for homemade gifts like rosewater, marmalade, or basil-infused olive oil (instructions below). Often, folks are intimidated by the idea of crafting their own gifts, so reassure them that homemade gift-giving can be simple and invigorating. Pinterest offers another easy way to get inspired, or encourage friends to get in touch with their roots, opening old craft and DIY gift books from their mothers or grandmothers.

 

Naturally Good Homemade Gifts

The idea of being hands on, quite literally getting in touch with the season, whether through the soil in your garden or the scents and feelings at the market, is one we like to share with our friends through DIY treats and gifts. Here are some of our favorite ideas:

Basil-Infused Olive Oil

Herb-infused olive oils are absurdly easy to make, yet also versatile with room to experiment. They’re delicious mixed into a bowl of pasta, drizzled on top of spinach with sea salt and black pepper, or served alongside hunks of cheese and a loaf of bread. Here’s my favorite infusion recipe:

basil infused olive oil
Homemade Basil-Infused Olive Oil | Image Courtesy Etsy Seller thegreekpantry
  1. Blanch 1 cup basil (briefly boil, then plunge into ice water).
  2. Blend the basil in a food processor with a 1/2 cup of oil and a pinch of sea salt.
  3. Pour the olive oil and basil mixture through a fine mesh strainer.
  4. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Canning jars work well, but, for the classic look, opt for a glass bottle with a rubber or cork stopper.

Basil, like all other herbs, is symbolic of Mother Earth. Although its meaning has changed throughout time, it’s now commonly seen as representing love and protection—two things that, without a doubt, we all hope for in our lives.

 

Grapefruit Marmalade

According to Chinese symbolism, the grapefruit offers abundance. A simple and quick grapefruit marmalade, or marmalade of any sort depending upon which fruits and herbs are available in your region, is a wonderful addition to a Gifting Garden party. It’s divine when spread on crackers with a bit of goat cheese or used as a glaze for shrimp and chicken. This recipe makes about 4 cups:

  1. Place two grapefruits in a large pot with enough water to give them a bit of room to float.
  2. Boil for 2 hours, adding water once or twice if needed.
  3. Drain the grapefruit and let them cool.
  4. Finely slice the grapefruit. This may take a while, so just enjoy the process!
  5. Throw the grapefruit back into the pot with 5 cups of sugar and the juice of two lemons.
  6. Bring it to a boil and allow the mixture to bubble for about 15 minutes, or until you reach the correct consistency
  7. Blend the jam if you’d like it to be smooth, or pour into a jar as is.
grapefruit marmalade
Lemon Thyme Grapefruit Marmalade | Image Courtesy Etsy Seller cupboardcook

Chances are, many of your friends and family have stories about homemade jams or marmalades. My grandmother, for instance, used to make marmalade from the kumquat tree in her Southern California backyard every year. That makes this gift particularly nostalgic and fun to share.

Homemade Rose Water

Homemade rose water is one of my favorite ways to celebrate spring. It’s refreshing, smells sublime, and always seems to lift my spirits. I give my face a spray before bed at night and in the morning after I put on makeup.

The rose itself is a symbol of balance—perfect for spring—and using a recipe with actual rose petals in the mix enhances this feeling. Here is my favorite recipe to brew up a bottle of rose water:

  1. Pluck the petals from a dozen fresh roses, layering them in a large pot and covering with distilled water. Bring to simmer.
  2. Cover the pot with a lid, allowing to simmer for 15 minutes or until the roses begin to lose their color.
  3. Drain the liquid into a spray bottle.
  4. Pamper someone you love.

A Spring Bouquet

For a unique twist on a natural wildflower bouquet, ask your guests to each bring a few flowers or bits of greenery from their own yards. Combine the efforts of your friends into reused glass bottles, or wrap in a piece of parchment paper, so everyone can go home with their own floral party favors.

A Gifting Garden spring celebration has become a sweet, simple, and ever-evolving tradition in our home. It brings friends together to celebrate the season and each other, offers our loved ones hope and well wishes, and helps us to remember the essence of sharing. The true gift, after all, is being able to sit together under our favorite trees outside, sipping, eating, and learning from each other. Happy spring! May yours be filled with the magic of the natural world all around us.

Elfster loves spring, and knows you do too. Keep your gifting fresh with our food and drink gift guides. Share your own DIY inspirations on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram.

Thank You Note Etiquette: DIY Marbled Handmade Cards to Express Your Gratitude

Thank You Note Etiquette: DIY Marbled Handmade Cards to Express Your Gratitude

thank you card
Printable thank you cards are always at hand | Image courtesy Etsy seller DesignYourLove

The art of the thank you note. Always appreciated but so frequently forgotten. Saying a sincere thanks can absolutely make someone’s day, so why do the ones I send often feel so obligatory, especially around birthdays and the crunch of the holiday season?

I’ve been guilty, more often than I would like, of sending out late or lackluster letters that don’t truly capture how grateful I am for the sweet generosity someone sent my way. It’s never out of a lack of true appreciation, I just get so caught up in the return to regular life post-holiday that it slips my mind. And, when I do remember, it becomes more important just to get them out than to make them meaningful.

But, after inspiring the joy of giving in my favorite littles ones recently, I intend to start doing things differently. I’ve resolved to start writing timely and expressive thank you notes. My resolution may be a little late, since it’s already well into March, but my thank you notes sure won’t be. Join me in making 2017 a year of sincere gratitude. Here are my tips and tricks to help you craft meaningful and memorable thank you notes that are gifts for your favorite gifters, in and of themselves.

The Medium Makes a Difference

floral note card
Flowers show love, even in print | Image courtesy Etsy seller GoldLeafDesignandCo

Stationery has the power to say a lot without a single word; it can make all the difference when it comes to thank you notes. So, before the pen even meets the paper, it’s important to decide just which pen and which paper to pick. Personally, I think we should all keep a few sets of notecards and stationery on hand for various occasions, everything from simple blank cards that can be dressed up on a creative whim, casual all-purpose thank you notes, and personalized formal stationery. I’m known for stocking up on every cute or whimsical note card I lay my eyes on, far more than I may actually need to stash away. But the beauty of it is, I’m always able to find the perfect thank you seemingly designed just for any friend or family member.

Make sure to pick your paper according to the occasion at hand. A formal affair, like a wedding or black-tie bash, requires a formal thank you written on high-quality stationery. Steer clear of gel pens and colorful markers here, instead opting for the elegance of a black ink fountain pen. And script beats print letters in this case; taking time to craft each word with your best penmanship will imbue your note with a true sense of your heartfelt thanks.

Casual cards of gratitude have less particular parameters, so this is where I say to get creative. For birthdays, or if a friend treats you to lunch or flowers, simple stationery can do the trick. Just this past week, a good friend left me homemade chicken soup and sweet strawberry sorbet as I battled the flu, and my floral, but not too fancy, cards from a local gift shop were perfect!

DIY Marbled Cards and Envelopes

Simple marbled card DIY supplies
Simple marbled card DIY supplies

My one rule when it comes to paper is to steer clear of generic grocery store thank you cards. Instead, a better option that shows heartfelt appreciation is to make some yourself. With just a few household items, and a little ingenuity, I played around with this dip-dye card idea. Here’s how I did it—and the gorgeous colored marble results:

The Supplies:

  • Blank cards and envelopes
  • Watercolor paint
  • A mixing bowl used for crafts
  • Paper towels

watercolor note cardsThe How-To:

  1. Mix the watercolor paint in a bowl, leaving enough room to dip your paper. I tested the strength of the color on scratch paper first before dipping my cards right in.
  2. Dip your cards and envelopes into the bowl. Experiment with different angles or try layering the color in some areas. Get creative. Really, anything goes!
  3. Blot the cards on the paper towels to drain any excess water and then hang them someplace safe to dry.

That’s it! So easy, right? If your cards curve a bit, just stick them under a few books once they’ve dried completely to flatten them out. Then write, seal, send, repeat!

Find the “Write” Words

Having mastered your materials and made up your mind on the proper medium, it’s time to write! But what exactly do you say beyond the simple words of thank you? While there’s no steadfast set of rules, it can be helpful to have a general outline of how to compose a thank

colored pens
Colorful pens inspire colorful words | Image courtesy Etsy seller PapergeekCo

you, so you can worry less about how to express your love, and more about the actual expression of it.

  1. Start with a greeting: Your initial introduction should reflect both the nature of the relationship with the person you’re writing to and the formality of the occasion at hand. Opening with “Dear So-&-So” is always a safe and classy start, but other options may feel more personal and appropriate. For casual letters, I sometimes begin with “Salutations!” or “To My Dear Friend.” However you say hello, always finish your address with a comma!
  2. Say thank you: Easy enough, right? Express your thanks right after you open your letter. Thank you notes are supposed to be short and sweet, and by leading with an expression of gratitude, you make the intention of your letter crystal clear, and give your appreciation the spotlight.
  3. Identify the gift: Make sure to be specific and thank the giver by naming the gift. It shows a greater sense of gratitude and personal interest in the exchange. If it’s a monetary gift, let the individual know what you plan to do with the funds, if appropriate.
  4. Reiterate your thanks before you finish: You don’t have to write long, drawn out thank you notes. A few short sentences that finish with a final thank you are all it takes.
  5. Sign, seal, and deliver: Last but not least, make sure to sign your note before sending it out. You can close with a traditional “Sincerely,” but I tend to choose a more meaningful closing statements, like:
  • Kind regards,
  • Best wishes,
  • All my love,
  • With gratitude,
  • Warmly,

The Fine Print of Formalities

No doubt the biggest issue with thank you note etiquette is the timeliness in which they’re mailed out. Punctuality is imperative, but perhaps the most difficult part to master. In general, a week is the longest you should wait before sending out your cards, but the sooner the better. I aim to write them within 24 hours, when the details of the exchange are fresh in my mind. If I wait any longer, especially around big holidays, I tend to forget who gave what.

you rock gift set
A thank you made from paper, rock, and scissors | Image courtesy Etsy seller AirFriend

Sometimes, I hardly know if a thank you card is a must or a thoughtful courtesy. Do I necessarily need to pull out my trusty pen and paper, or can a quick call suffice? While there’s no clear-cut answer, I always try to err on the side of sending a written note when in doubt. A note of thanks is always appreciated regardless of circumstances, so if you have the time to write one, I say go for it!

When all is said and done—and written out on gorgeous stationery—the most important piece of advice I can offer about writing thank you notes is that any way you express gratitude is the right way. Maybe it’s with an inspirational candle, or a “gem” of a gift in return, or even a piece of art. It can be a challenge to get those envelopes in the mail, but a much more enjoyable project if you keep that in mind and bring in a little creativity to process.

Sending a card to a friend, especially a thank you note, is a gesture that strengthens relationships and inspires deeper bonds. We all want to know we are seen, heard, and that someone is grateful to, and for, us. All it takes is five minutes, pen, and some paper. Here’s to making 2017 your most grateful year yet!

The elves are always hard at work to make gift giving meaningful for everyone. Like us on Facebook for more gift inspirations, or follow us on Twitter @Elfster or Instagram @Elfstergram.

An April Fools’ Day Gag Gift Exchange and Prank Party Ideas That Are No Joke

An April Fools’ Day Gag Gift Exchange and Prank Party Ideas That Are No Joke

 

hollowed out book
What goes in is up to them | Image courtesy Etsy seller BookLoveGifts

Maybe the first recorded prank in history was when the Greek army hid themselves in a giant horse and pretended it was a gift to the Trojan people. While the Trojans slept, the Greeks slipped out, yelled “Surprise!,” and… well, it didn’t go too well for the Trojans. Not funny? Maybe the joke gets lost in translation. Maybe you had to be there (pro tip: you should not have been there).

Pranks these days are a little more about silly jokes and tricks, and less about pillage. We also usually reserve them for April Fools’ Day, a day so rife with mischief that everyone is on edge, wondering if everything they hear is a joke.

That’s what makes it such a great day for a party celebrating goofy fun with a gag gift exchange. A lot of people don’t like April Fools’ Day because they think it’s just a chance to be cruel—and to be fair, we all know the guy who says, “Hey, the boss wants to see you now… April Fools,” then yuks it up over your irregular heart palpitations. But it’s not meant to be a day for malice or mean-spiritedness. It’s a day to have a good time reveling in the absurdity of everything, of life. It’s wearing mustache sunglasses not to disguise yourself, but to show who you really are.

So have a celebration! Exchange gifts! Just don’t invite your friends for a party, and then claim it was just a joke. They might still make you provide snacks. Better use my party ideas instead.

No Fooling: Gag Gift Exchange Ideas

One year at my office, a buddy of mine decided it would be a good idea to have an April Fools’ gift exchange. At first, I was confused. Were we actually having an exchange? Or were we not? And if so, were we swapping real gifts?

handmade chocolates
Handmade chocolates are no joke | Image courtesy Etsy seller LaviniaWilsonsChoc

I didn’t understand the goofy (or dark) genius of it all. It was a real gift exchange, but you didn’t know if you were going to get a gag gift or a real one. You didn’t know if your gift was going to actually be a prank, or if you were just so worried that a nice, normal gift was, in fact, a prank that you didn’t want to accept it. It played with the very concept of pranks in such a way that anything was possible, making the unexpected the expected.

This was perfectly illustrated by my gift: a box of assorted chocolates. It’s well-known in certain parts that I love those old-fashioned assorted chocolate boxes. Also well-known is my almost heroic (Homeric) bravery. I never just nibble a chocolate or look at the maps and legends. No, I just bite right in. It could be sea salt and caramel (bliss). It could be coconut (terror). But the point is, you never know. And that’s what made it such a good gag gift.

I was terrified of what could be in them. Was the nougat somehow replaced with mud or castor oil? Was there a mouse? Or worst of all, were they all coconut? Could such evil exist? I couldn’t eat one all day, so nervous was I. Of course, it turned out to be just a perfectly delicious box of candies. But the joke was the very idea that it could be a joke. It was brilliant.

fake beetle
A terrifyingly unnatural beetle | Image courtesy Etsy seller TheAmateurNaturalist

Now it’s your turn to explore the boundaries of what makes a clever prank. Set up a gift exchange, so that whether you’re hosting it in your office or with friends across the country, you can be sure that everyone who wants to be involved can be in an easy and organized way. Save the uncertainty for the actual gifts.

Some other great gag gift ideas include:

  • A very realistic fake bug: Can also be used as a paperweight, regifted, or sent shrieking through the window!
  • Funny personalized plates: I like this one that says, “You’ve been poisoned by XYZ.” With this gift, you aren’t pulling a prank on someone, but giving them a way to play a trick on someone else.
  • A dribble glass: Is it corny? Yes. Is it old-fashioned? Yes. Is the dribble glass still funny every time? Of course it is.
  • A hollowed-out book: This is a great gift if the person is bookish because at first they’re excited about getting a book… until they see it isn’t actually real. Such a good gag! But then, they realize it’s actually still useful, and fun, and it’s something they’ll use—and think about you when they do. Maybe the perfect combination of a gag and a thoughtful gift.

Throwing an April Fools’ Day Party… for Real

As you may know if you read this blog, my wife and I don’t need much of an excuse to have a party; we’ve been known to throw them for such special occasions as “a new color of the year” or “the changing of the season into fall.”  So while having a party for April Fools’ Day isn’t totally normal, it isn’t completely unexpected from us either. The only surprise is what the celebration entails.

the patron saint of pranks
Philip Neri is the Patron Saint of Practical Jokes, if you want an inspiration for your party. That’s not a joke. | Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

So, the party is a standard one. You don’t have to have costumes or an over-riding theme with it—and that’s sort of the point. It should seem like a standard get-together (chips, dip, some music), except that around every corner, there’s an opportunity for a joke.

Remember that you aren’t having a party to humiliate your friends with cruel pranks or a laugh at their expense. That’s sort of lame and pretty childish and only fun for a brief and acrid second. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at all.

The nice thing about being an adult is that the stuff that’s silly and funny when you’re a kid can still be silly and funny now. You laugh at, just differently, at the goofiness and cheesiness of it. Such ideas like glow-in-the-dark eyeball ice cubes won’t actually scare anyone, but they might produce a quick start before the mark dissolves into giggles at how delightfully dumb it is. The realistic toy alligator in the bathroom will do the same.

If you want to go bigger, why not try putting toothpaste in Oreos? Not in all of them, of course. Just a few. You want it to be a surprise. I’ve also seen people put out a bowl where Skittles, M&Ms, and Reese’s Pieces are all mixed together. Throwing a handful into your mouth produces a very unusual taste sensation.

The whole point is to have fun, to laugh at yourselves, and to laugh with each other. Make sure you stay in people’s comfort zones. It’s true that the classic idea of “the fool” is to highlight the absurdity in others, but there’s enough that’s annoying and frustrating and downright scary right now. Use the day to highlight the silly laughter that comes from love, from dumb jokes, and from the kind of pranks that bring people together. The day might be about gags, but it’s really just a Trojan Horse smuggling in friendship.

It’s not a joke! Elfster wants to hear your favorite April Fools’ Day stories. Tell us about them on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or on Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for inspired gifting ideas, browse our gift guides.

Make Ahead Meals for Busy Moms: National Nutrition Month Activities for Adults

Make Ahead Meals for Busy Moms: National Nutrition Month Activities for Adults

goldfish cracker tie
Image courtesy Etsy seller takeabowooo

I know that goldfish crackers aren’t an appropriate breakfast food, but try telling that to my preschooler. They’re also not meant to replace all three meals in a given day, but battling a 3-year-old’s logic at 7 a.m., noon, and again at dinnertime sometimes feels like a battle not worth fighting.

That’s why make ahead meals for busy moms— dishes that can be prepped on the weekend, then reheated throughout the week—have been such a lifesaver for my family. It’s a lot easier to say no to junk food when you have delicious, healthy choices at hand. It’s a constant juggling act to balance a nutritious diet with the realities of my family’s on-the-go lifestyle, but these national nutrition month ideas will help you kick each and every one of your weeks off to a delicious start.

Better Breakfasts for Busy Mornings

Squeezing in a healthy meal every morning is a priority in my house. I know that a breakfast loaded with sugar is going to leave me and my little ones feeling bleary-eyed and hungry within an hour or two. It’s an endless cycle that’s too easy to get stuck in, especially for anyone who isn’t a morning person, myself included.

Thankfully, there are a lot of simple make ahead breakfasts you can prep on the weekends, then grab-and-go on weekday mornings. You’ll get the nutrients you need to make your days not only manageable, but enjoyable. These are the fast breakfasts my family loves—no culinary degree required:

hangry hand towel
This towel will remind you to eat breakfast | Image courtesy Etsy seller FrenchSilver
  • Whole wheat pancakes: Baking with whole grains can seem intimidating, and more nutritious than delicious, but these whole wheat pancakes are surprisingly easy and tasty. They use more baking powder than most pancake recipes, making them a little extra fluffy. We like to make them on the smaller side so they fit in the toaster oven for reheating. Make an extra batch or two if you serve them up for Sunday brunch, freezing them in a single layer before transferring them to a zip-top bag. They reheat in just a couple minutes and a smear of almond butter and some all-natural jam makes them nearly irresistible to kids.
  • Omelettes in a mug: Beat a dozen eggs together on Sunday, then store in an airtight container in the fridge. On weekday mornings, add a couple tablespoons of frozen mixed veggies to a mug. Microwave for 30 seconds, then add ¼ cup of the beaten egg mixture, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of cheese. Microwave for another 30 to 60 seconds, or until the egg is fully cooked.
  • Overnight oats: We make overnight oats in mason jars with lids on the weekend, then grab one on our way out the door on busy mornings. The basic recipe is simple: add ½ a cup of oats, 2 tsps of chia seeds, and ¾ cups of milk to a mason jar, along with any spices, sweeteners, fruit, etc. that you fancy. For creamier oats, you can add a tablespoon or two of yogurt; for thinner oats, add more milk. Stir well, then cover. Overnight oats can be eaten cold, or you can microwave them for about a minute until they’re warm. Play with the flavors. Cocoa powder and some mini chocolate chips make for a sweet breakfast that’s still healthy; coconut flakes and sliced bananas are a tropical treat; and apple butter and cinnamon replicates a classic instant oatmeal flavor in a more nutritious way. It’s a surprisingly healthy choice that kids and adults will both devour.
  • Breakfast burritos: Find an easy breakfast burrito recipe you love, then make a batch to freeze. These can easily be microwaved in the mornings for a quick meal. I like making vegan breakfast burritos by “scrambling” some extra-firm tofu with onions, bell peppers, garlic, cumin, and turmeric, then adding the mixture to a tortilla with vegetarian refried beans and salsa. I’ve even added leftovers, everything from pot roast to barbecue pulled chicken, along with some scrambled eggs and cheese. You can use egg whites, extra veggies, and whole wheat tortillas for an even lighter option.
  • Healthier toaster pastries: I’m obsessed with toaster pastries, but they’re more of a treat than a proper breakfast. That’s why I love the idea of making them myself. Using a whole wheat pastry crust adds some complex carbs and fiber into the mix, and I can choose a filling that’s free from high-fructose corn syrup, artificial dyes, and added sugars. Kids are creatures of habit, so sometimes you have to compromise and these vegan toaster pastries are healthier than what you get at the store, but are still familiar enough that kids (and you) will chow down without a fight.

Grown-Up Lunches for On-the-Go

Before our kids came along, my husband and I were both putting in 70 hour work weeks, but we knew we couldn’t subsist on soggy deli sandwiches alone. A homemade meal wasn’t just healthier—it was also a pleasant mid-day reminder of life outside of work.

a grown up lunch box
You won’t forget your lunch at home ever again | Image courtesy Etsy seller BuboBoutique

Making meals in batches was the easiest way to keep well fed on our craziest of days. Just prepare enough veggies, grains, and protein for five weekday meals on the weekend, add them to air-tight plastic containers, then grab one on your way out the door for healthy lunches all week. These are our favorite meal prep lunches (served hot or cold):

  • Chicken fajita bowls: Fill containers with cooked brown rice, then top with fajita-seasoned grilled chicken and veggies. Add some salsa, hot sauce, or a sprinkle of cheese if you’re feeling fancy.
  • Teriyaki tofu bowls: Marinate cubed tofu in teriyaki sauce, then pan-fry until browned on all sides. Add to containers with soba noodles, microwave-in-bag stir fry veggies, a drizzle of sesame oil, and some sriracha.
  • Chicken pesto pasta bowls: Saute chicken, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with salt and pepper. Cook whole wheat pasta and toss with storebought pesto. Add pasta to containers, then top with the chicken-veggie mixture.
  • Tandoori chicken bowls: Marinate chicken in yogurt, garlic, ginger, and curry powder. Grill, then add to containers with brown rice and roasted broccoli.
  • Greek chicken bowls: Marinate chicken in balsamic dressing. Grill chicken, then add to containers with cooked bulgur wheat, chopped cucumbers, grape tomatoes, feta cheese, and a lemon wedge.

Assembly Line Lunches for Kids

kid friendly lunch box
Forget brown-bagging it with this creative lunchbox | Image courtesy Etsy seller ChampuChinito

I remember school lunches being full of highs and lows. 7-layer bars for dessert? I still dream about them. Mystery meat casserole? It made me jealous of the kids who remembered to pack a lunch! My kids are picky eaters, so they always bring a lunch from home. To save time in the mornings, we started assembly line lunches:

  1. Add a variety of fruits to one of the drawers in your fridge. Think easy-to-eat clementines and apples, or grapes you’ve portioned out ahead of time.
  2. Clear a spot in your fridge, and place two containers about the size of shoeboxes next to each other. Label one “sides” and the other “mains.”
  3. In the “sides” bin, add things like string cheese, yogurt, or individual packs of baby carrots.
  4. In the “mains” bin, add the “entrees.” These can be sandwiches, wraps, or tupperware containers filled with leftovers.
  5. Label an organizing bin “snacks,” and put it in an easy-to-reach spot on the counter. Add nonperishable snacks like packs of nuts, whole grain crackers, and fruit leathers.

In the morning, each kid just grabs one item from each container, along with a juice or milk box, and adds it to a lunch bag. It’s so much easier than having to sort through everything in the fridge or cupboard each morning!

Throwing a Meal Prep Party

I don’t want to miss out on weekend socializing just so I can prepare meals for the coming week each Sunday, and my best friend is in the same boat. We both love entertaining (Beauty and the Beast-themed dinner party, here we come!), so we decided to throw a slowcooker soup mix party. The idea was that everyone coming to the party would make enough of one slow-cooker soup mix recipe for themselves and each of the other guests. Then, we swap, each person going home with five different jars to keep in the pantry, each ready to throw in the slow-cooker on a busy morning for dinner that evening.

recipe cards
Custom recipe cards add creative flair | Image courtesy Etsy seller papersushi

We decided on soup mixes because they’re easy to make, full of healthy beans and veggies, and loved by kids and adults alike. And, dried beans cook up beautifully in the slow-cooker, meaning none of us would have to spend time fussing over the stove at the end of a long day. To throw your own soup mix party, set up a gift exchange online and have each guest mix up one of these recipes:

  1. Vegetarian Five Bean Soup Mix
  2. Southwestern Three Bean and Barley Soup Mix
  3. Rice and Lentil Soup Mix
  4. Split Pea Soup Mix
  5. Spicy Black Bean Soup Mix

All of the recipes are customizable—add cans of fire-roasted tomatoes to enrich the broth, stir in a splash of half and half at the end of cooking to make your soup creamy, throw in smoked ham hocks or smoked pork chops with the rest of the ingredients to add more umami, or spice to suit your personal preference.

We all left the party with five nights of meals, after only having to prepare one of the recipes at home—a pretty good trade-off, if you ask me! But, whether you make soup mixes or freezer meals, the real gift you’re giving one another is more time to enjoy the good things in life with your families.

It seems like everything in my life goes more a little more smoothly when I’m eating nutritious meals. It’s just a matter of making them a priority, and setting aside time on the weekends to prepare for a busy week ahead. My little one still has a thing for her Goldfish crackers, and I’ll snack on a bowl of sugar-coated cereal on special occasions, but in our everyday life, we’re eating more healthy foods, all because we’re taking the time to plan ahead.

What are your favorite meals to cook with your family? Let us know on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or on Instagram @Elfstergram. For ideas on what to get the chef in your family, check out our kitchen gift guide.

 

Weight Watchers Members “Send the Love” on Connect Using Elfster’s Gift Exchanges

Weight Watchers Members “Send the Love” on Connect Using Elfster’s Gift Exchanges

Eleanor Roosevelt, who paved the way for so many strong and independent women leaders, famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Her statements were backed up a few years later by one Lady Gaga, who noted, “Remember there’s always someone fighting for you.”

send the love
#WWSendTheLove on Elfster

Both of these women are expressing that being strong, and gaining strength from other’s encouragement, are still relevant. When doing something difficult, it helps to have a strong community to back you up, keep you inspired, and help ferry you across those dark nights of the soul.

But that’s what can make changing habits and losing weight so difficult. It’s really one of the most personal and individual things you can do. It’s all about your body and your actions. It can be hard to make a community out of something so atomized. But that’s what Weight Watchers has done, and by using cool new social media technology, and the magic of gift exchange services, a group of Weight Watchers members have taken it even further.

Social media has made it easier than ever to find like-minded, encouraging people to help us through tough times and to help us summit difficult peaks. Healthy weight loss, which is really a sustained lifestyle choice, is one of those challenging summits. But by forming a community of support, and by sending each other gifts to help create a stronger community that knows each other better, a nationwide group has expanded exponentially. They’re connected by technology. They’re connected by a shared struggle. They’re connected by the victories that happen every day. And, in this sometimes autonomous world, they’re connected by friendship.

As the Lifetime Weight Watchers member who co-runs the group, Stephanie Keller, tells us: they hang together.

Finding Friendship Across the Country

The most amazing part about the group is that people are nice, and are almost unrelentingly positive and supportive—an enormous difference from so many other parts of the internet, which (spoiler alert!) can be mean. Anonymous online users on other sites are sometimes known for tearing others down for a quick anonymous thrill. That’s not conducive to healthy attitudes. But, as Stephanie explained to us, her Weight Watchers Connect group doesn’t have any of that.

inspirational sign
Finding others to help you stay strong can make your courage grow | Image courtesy Etsy seller PRINTANDPROUD

“Connect,” she explained, “is like Facebook, but it’s entirely positive. No one is ever negative on there. People share stuff and tell each other things that they can never share anywhere else. People admit to troubles and addictions. They share their stories. And the best part is that they’re supportive and motivational. On the internet, to virtual strangers, they’re sharing their before and after pictures. It’s safe. Nobody wants to see someone else fail.”

You could hear the excitement in Stephanie’s voice as she told us about the growth of Connect, which users join through the Weight Watchers app. She mentions that it’s “very hashtag based,” which can be intimidating to some users, but it’s also very user-friendly, and everyone is extremely helpful; Stephanie believes that’s the most important part.

“Everybody that’s on there struggles with their weight somehow, and some members have no one who’s supportive in their life. That’s where Connect comes in. I’ve made friends all over the country on there and we’re now friends offline too. Everybody is really, really kind on there.”

But some people have taken it a step further with a #WWSendTheLove group. We profiled them last year, talking to founder Stephanie Encin, when the group had really just started to get going. The idea was simple: members of the group would send each other motivational gifts to help each other with their journey. It was instantly a huge success.

Since then, Stephanie Encin turned the reigns over to Stephanie Keller and Davita Ritchie in October 2016, who before this technology would probably never have met (Stephanie is in New Jersey, and Davita lives in New Mexico). Their group has grown ever since, with as many as 850 participants. It’s something both incredibly simple, and emotionally wonderful: a gift exchange. It’s how they turn a community of like-minded, friendly, encouraging people into actual friends.

The Gift of Friendship

The group uses the Elfster Gift Exchange, which makes a nationwide program incredibly manageable and fun. It’s purely voluntary: you sign up to give and receive a gift box from someone else in your group every month. For about $25, people fill their box with 10-12 little, inspirational items. But the real heart of it is that you learn about the person you’re matched with.

Stephanie explained that it wasn’t just a matter of getting assigned a random person, and then sending them something. You may already sort of know them through Connect, or maybe they’re a total stranger, but, once matched, you start talking to them. You chat or exchange messages about what they like, where they live, who they are, and more. You discover their needs and wants, and then you send them something. For example, if someone you know was having a spring party, you might send them something green and seasonal.

And you get something too! “It’s like Christmas every month,” says Stephanie.

inspirational mug
Mugs are a gift that keeps on giving Image courtesy Etsy seller TheGiftableGoodies

Some gift ideas include:

  • Motivational posters: When facing challenges, it’s always good to have something that bucks you up, lifts your spirit, and gives you the strength to keep going. Posters can be moving or funny, but if they’re sent with your gift partner in mind, they’ll always be meaningful.
  • Inspirational calendars: I love 365-day calendars, whether they’re words or movie quotes or comics. But when faced with the daily challenges of healthy eating, a calendar with a different inspirational quote every day can be as fresh a wake-up as a cup of coffee.
  • Coffee mugs: Of course, real coffee is also as important as metaphorical coffee, which is why mugs are always a great gift.
  • Weight Watchers-inspired cookbooks: The best part about Weight Watchers is that you can make delicious meals while maintaining points and using the right ingredients. The organization has many cookbooks that make healthy eating easy and fun. It’s a great way to keep your friend on the path.

But one of the great joys is that this is a national group, so you get interesting gifts from all over the country. One of Stephanie’s favorite gifts was a genuine Alaskan Ulu knife.

Other popular gifts include water bottles or food items, like powdered peanut butter, and foodstuffs that can only be found in certain regions. Some members don’t have a Whole Foods, Aldi, or Trader Joe’s near them, but their gift exchange partner might. They might receive something they’ve been craving from afar, in a Christmas box in the middle of the spring.

A Few of Your Favorite Things

In January, Oprah got involved with the Weight Watchers Connect program, giving it that patented Oprah boost. But Stephanie thinks the Queen of Daytime should also get to know the #WWSendTheLove group.

gift ideas
Inspirational gifting ideas from the Send the Love exchange

“This is about people helping people,” she tells us. “This is a really great, motivational, positive program. People come back month after month. They don’t have to do it again, but they do. I get tagged and emailed all day long from people wanting to join. It was started by one person, and now it’s huge. It’s the power of people.” Stephanie believes that if Weight Watchers really got behind this—and who knows, maybe even Oprah—that it could be taken to the next level.

At Elfster, we can testify to their power. We’re proud to say that they’re the largest group we’ve ever hosted! Gift exchanges are a fun way to bring groups of friends closer together, or to turn groups of strangers into friends. It’s easy to get started, and as Stephanie and Davita show, they can be run by people on opposite sides of the country as if they were in the same room. That’s what makes them such a great tool for bonding; in a way, they bring the whole community into a big room.

And at the end, the bigger the community, the more people can feel loved. They can feel friendship and non-judgemental connections. It’s how strength is formed, and how real life changes are made. And it just makes life more fun! It’s the gift of being alive, and being a part of something. Stephanie and Davita’s group embraces technology, and relies on it, but it isn’t a technological solution. It’s people connecting to people. If more of life could come down to that, we’d all be better off.

Interested in joining the fun? Look up these hashtags on Weight Watchers Connect: #sendthelove, #wwsendthelove, #wwsendthelove(month), and #sendthelove(month). Stephanie and Davita can also be reached on Connect at @StephanieKeller65 or @LadyRoscoe.

Are you part of a community that uses a gift exchange? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or on Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for inspired gifting ideas, browse our gift guides.

A Sorbet Soirée: National Nutrition Month Party Ideas for Creative Ways to Serve Fruit

A Sorbet Soirée: National Nutrition Month Party Ideas for Creative Ways to Serve Fruit

red, ripe strawberries
Red, ripe strawberries | Image courtesy Unsplash user Artur Rutkowski

Growing up on an avocado farm in rural San Diego, fresh fruit was almost always in season. Our property was filled with pomegranates, blood oranges, apples, bananas, lemons, limes, cherimoyas, and, of course, our beloved, creamy avocados.

Early on, my parents instilled in my siblings and me a passion for fresh fruit that still runs deep. When we get together as a family, all of us “kids” often end up in the orchard, eating oranges straight from the trees, letting their sticky juices run down our hands, or experimenting with the slightly tangy taste of mini latundan bananas (“apple” bananas) in our birthday cakes. The sweet smell of vibrant tropical plants envelops us every time we return to our childhood home.

In March, we celebrate the start of springtime and National Nutrition Month. It’s the perfect opportunity to draw in friends and family to your own backyard and start a nutritious tradition. Giving kids a love, a zest, for fruit early on paves the way for healthy eating well into adulthood. A backyard sorbet soirée is a deliciously sweet way to welcome in the fruit-filled season—and show little ones that nutrition can be both silly and good for you.

DIY Fresh Fruit Costumes

I welcomed some unusual guests to my last backyard get together—a six-foot tall strawberry, a slice of walking watermelon, and a banana who could talk. For the party, encourage your guests to come dressed as one of their favorite fruits! You can even have a contest for the most clever or outrageous costume, allowing the winning piece of fruit to take home a basket of fresh finds from the local farmer’s market.

Fruit-inspired costumes are actually quite easy to get creative with. Here are a few of my favorite DIY ideas:

Giddy Grapes

baby grape costume
For a bundle, or bunch, of love | Image courtesy Etsy seller gentleness

I first stumbled upon this costume idea one Halloween a few years back when I thought I had absolutely nothing to wear for a last minute invitation. My quick-thinking best friend ran to a party store and, in less than half an hour, I was transformed into a bunch of grapes.

Materials List:

  • Purple leggings
  • A purple top
  • A green headband
  • Several bags of purple balloons
  • Safety pins

Instructions:

  1. Blow up your balloons, leaving about an inch after the tie so they can be easily attached to your clothes.
  2. Put on your purple apparel, making sure they aren’t pieces that can easily snag.
  3. Carefully pin the balloons onto the top half of your body, adding a few near your hips to achieve the grape shape.
  4. To complete your ensemble, you’ll need a green stem. I used a thick green headband, but you can also wear a scarf or piece of fabric.

Pineapple People

pineapple baby costume
Sweet Baby Pineapples | Image Etsy seller TheWishingElephant

The vibrant colors and unique shape of a pineapple make it one of the most eccentric in the tropical world—and, with its sweet, juicy flavor, it tends to be a favorite amongst even the pickiest of kids. What I love most about the pineapple, especially for parties, is that it symbolizes the feelings of home: warmth, welcome, and hospitality.

A pineapple costume is a simple DIY project for all ages to help craft. You’ll want to dress head to toe in yellow clothing, then create this easy pineapple topper using a toilet paper tube, green card stock, and a headband.

Cut your cardstock into leaf shapes of various lengths. I made 6, 8, 10, and 12-inch pieces, four to five leaves of each length. Then, starting with the longest pieces, hot glue them to the top of the toilet paper tube. Continue gluing the leaves down the tube, from longest to shortest. When you’re finished, flip the tube upside down. Attach it to a headband with glue to secure it in place. And, just like that, you’ve become the pine-apple of your guests’ eye.

Fruit Stamped Invitation Inspiration

lemon stamping
Lemons stamping for DIY invites | Image courtesy Unsplash user Brooke Lark

When I first discovered “fruit stamping,” my homemade cards I love to send to friends near and far blossomed into new levels of craftiness. I started stamping with apples, oranges, limes, and, my personal favorite, lemons. To create these simple but ingenious invitations, you’ll need just three things: half of a lemon, a bit of yellow paint, and a plain white card.

First, cut your lemon in half and dry it with a paper towel to get rid of excess moisture. Next, dip the lemon into your paint and press it onto the blank card as if it’s a sponge. Make sure not to use too much paint when you dip, or the fine details of the lemon won’t show up as well. Just think of it like a stamp. Less ink is often better for detailed results. Be sure to get your kiddos involved in this; it’s a bit sticky, so they’ll love this project!

Strawberry-Guava-Grapefruit Fields Forever Playlist

tutti frutti
Tutti Frutti by Little Richard | Image courtesy Amazon

My childhood memories of food are so closely intertwined with music. Strawberry Fields Forever would play as we made strawberry jam. I Heard It Through the Grapevine would echo as we’d indulge in an afternoon snack of grapes and sliced cheese. Blueberry Hill would sound through the open kitchen on Saturday mornings when we’d measure out fresh blueberries to add to our homemade pancakes or waffles.

To this day, I have specific playlists for stirring a pot of pasta sauce, making pizza dough, or mixing guacamole. But the playlist below is the one that comes through my speakers when I’m in the mood for all things sweet and fruity. Hit play to create the ultimate fruity vibe and get all your guests grooving to their love of fruit in your backyard:

A Tutti Frutti Party Playlist

  • Tutti Frutti by Little Richard
  • Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
  • I Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye
  • Banana Boat by Harry Belafonte
  • Coconut by Harry Nilsson
  • Apples and Bananas by Raffi
  • Grapefruit – Juicy Fruit by Jimmy Buffet
  • Guava Jelly by Bob Marley
  • Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock
  • Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino
  • Tangerine by Frank Sinatra
  • Little Green Apples by O.C. Smith

Homemade Honied Sorbet

Easy-to-make, fruit-based sorbets will get your kids’ creative juices flowing in the healthiest of dessert ways. Fruit sorbets can be simply made with sugar, water, and your fruit of choice, but I like to make mine with honey to let the natural sweetness of the fruit shine through.

raw honey
Honey is simply sweet | Image courtesy Etsy seller thegreekpantry

For parties, I find fruity sorbets to be especially fun when given a little extra visual a-”peel” by scooping the sorbets into fruit shells before serving. Watermelon, orange, lime, and lemon sorbets all look beautiful and refreshing when served in hollowed out shells.

Lemon sorbet is my favorite party treat to whip up because the ingredients are inexpensive so you can create a big batch. The first time I made lemon sorbet with honey, I was hooked. A little bit tangy, a little bit sweet, and a lovely pale yellow in color, it’s a sorbet sure to make your springtime guests swoon.

The Ingredients:

(makes about 6-8 small servings)

  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 1⁄2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 12 small lemons, with 4 lemon halves reserved to use as cups)

The Directions:

  1. Combine the honey, water, and lemon juice in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the honey is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
  2. Pour the lemon mixture into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Or, just pour it into a freezer-safe container like a shallow metal cake pan. If you use a pan, you’ll need to stir and smash the sorbet with a fork every 30 minutes until it’s firm.
  3. To get your lemon cups, cut a small circular slice off the bottoms of the reserved lemon halves so they’ll stand up, then use a small spoon to hollow out the insides.
  4. When you’re ready to serve the sorbet, fill up the lemon cups with the sweet treat.

Once you start experimenting with homemade sorbets, you’ll find you can use any fruit you’d like, and even jazz them up with fresh herbs like mint or thyme.

A DIY Paper Fruit Garland (and Party Favor)

strawberry strand
A DIY string of strawberries | Image courtesy Etsy seller The Shabby Scrapper

With sweetness still lingering on your guest’s tongues after digging into their sorbet, it’s time to sit and unwind with a fruit-inspired craft. At a long table covered with parchment paper, set out card stock in every color you can find, scissors, pencils, glue sticks, mini clothespins, and baker’s twine. Also set out an assortment of sliced fruit for your guests to draw inspiration from—strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, oranges, limes, and lemons.

Have your guests trace what they see, cut out the shapes, glue on a bit of greenery or seeds for detail, then attach the fruit cut-outs to the baker’s twine with the mini clothespins to create a paper fruit garland that can be taken home as a party favor. String them up in your kitchen or in your kids’ rooms to add pops of color—and remind them that fruit is fun! An appreciation for nutritious fruit is something that can be cultivated in childhood and last into adulthood.

Happy National Nutrition Month from Elfster! May it be full of goodness that fills the belly and the soul.

For more pieces of springtime inspiration and feel-good food-related festivities, join Elfster on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, and on Instagram @Elfstergram.

National Read Across America Day Ideas for an Alice in Wonderland Mad Tea Party

National Read Across America Day Ideas for an Alice in Wonderland Mad Tea Party

“Dear dear, how queer everything is today. And yesterday things went on just as usual!”

mad tea party
Celebrate reading with an Alice-inspired party | Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever had a Mad Tea Party? To do so, one has to be warned, is to abdicate any sense of rules or decorum. It is to embrace nonsense as the guiding principle: pure, anarchic nonsense of the kind that leads to sloshed tea cups and wild, wordy toasts, circumlocutions that never quite make a circle. It’s bonkers, of course, and you’ll be bonkers for joining in. But the best people are.

The worlds created by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass are celebrations of many things. They’re mathematical metaphors. They’re lovely and adventurous excursions into the gleeful jungles of language. Most of all, they’re an ode to imagination, wonder, and the persistent logic of children in a world that grownups make upside down and absurd with rules and customs. It’s why Alice, sweet and wonderful, stubborn and brave Alice, has persisted for over a hundred years. And it’s why we celebrate her, and Carroll, on National Read Across America Day.

Today, March 2nd, the National Education Association is proud to celebrate Read Across America Day, when educators, parents, librarians—anyone who loves the gift of books—shares that magic with children. One of the authors celebrated this year is Lewis Carroll, which is why we think that it’s the perfect time to have an Alice in Wonderland-themed party. Send out fanciful Wonderland-themed invitations to friends, and make sure the children are there. Have your amazing Alice in Wonderland-inspired bookmarks from Elfster for party favors. And, don’t be late, for the Duchess will be savage.

EAT ME and DRINK ME: Refreshments for the Party

“First, however, she waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any farther. She felt a little nervous about this. ‘For it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether. I wonder what I should be like then?’ And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.”

an alice mug
Let your drink slosh about | Image courtesy Etsy seller ArtsyPumpkin

The first thing you’ll need, of course, is tea. You can’t have a Mad Tea Party without it. At the very least, you’ll want to have some unexpectedly delightful teacups (preferably with a saucer to catch the sloshings). Not every kid likes tea, though, and depending on the ages of your party guests you might not want to have hot liquids, but you can fill a teapot with anything. Just remember that if you’re in the spirit of things, it’ll get messy. After all, they’ll be toasting with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse.

For nibbles to eat, they mostly had cakes and crackers, and little English sweet things. You might not be able to get the exact kind, so cupcakes and cookies will do. Make sure, though, that you have EAT ME signs and DRINK ME tags on all the sweets and beverages.

If you’re having a party just for adults, consider serving Mock Turtle Soup. It’s an English dish that was cheaper than actual turtle soup, using sirloin, eggs, chicken broth, and a lot of seasoning. It’s pretty delicious, and simple to make. It’s themed, of course, because Alice meets an actual Mock Turtle, who tries to regale her with his tale of woe, although he’s constantly interrupted by a Griffin, much to sweet Alice’s intemperate annoyance.

You might feel bad about eating Mock Turtle Soup, but Alice herself said that she’s seen it “at Dinn…,” to which the Turtle responds that he doesn’t know where Dinn may be. All the better, perhaps.

Playtime for the Imagination: Lunatic Croquet and the Lobster Quadrille

“The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo.”

With all the madness and the fun (and the tea and cupcakes), the kids at the party should be pretty revved up. Here are a few activities for them:

Lunatic Croquet

This is probably the most famous scene in the book: the game of croquet with the Queen of Hearts. The mallets are flamingos and the balls are hedgehogs and the arches are the Queen’s playing cards, and they all scramble around to help the demented and distorted old head-chopper win the game. Alice thinks this is dreadfully unfair, but the lawless nature of it makes it perfect for kids.

lunatic croquet
Don’t use actual flamingos and hedgehogs | Image courtesy Etsy seller TinyRed

Get a good children’s deluxe croquet set, set it up in the yard, and let them go nuts (employing proper mallet safety, of course). There doesn’t need to be any rules. They should take delight in the thwacking. There are just too many rules everywhere for kids. They can’t go here and they shouldn’t see this and they certainly can’t watch that. Before they become adults, with our imaginations limited by customs and shoved into these costumes of grown-ups, let them play.

Lobster Quadrille

If that’s not enough, maybe it’s time to dance the Lobster Quadrille. That’s a dance the Mock Turtle teaches Alice, and it involves throwing lobsters in the sea, doing somersaults, and running around. There are also snails involved. You’re not really going to be able to do it. And that’s ok. The whole point is for the kids to just…join the dance. Have them make it up.

Let each kid create a short dance to teach to the other kids. It could be to the tune of the Lobster Quadrille (the Franz Ferdinand version or the classic one), or whatever tune pops into their wild and unfettered heads when you read them the lyrics.

“Will you walk a little faster,” said the whiting to the snail

“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail”

See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance

They are waiting on the shingle- will you come and join the dance

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you come and join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you come and join the dance?

Reading Keeps Childhood Alive

“A cat may look at a king,” Alice said. “I read that in a book somewhere, but I don’t remember where.”

Will you, won’t you? Won’t you join? That’s what National Read Across America Day is all about. It’s about having kids join a magical club, one where the only limit is imagination, and in the mind of a beautiful genius like Lewis Carroll, that means there are no limitations.

vintage lewis carroll book
Vintage Carroll | Image courtesy Etsy seller PrettyHappyVintage

So make sure that you have everyone gather round, and read from the book. Maybe the kids have seen the movies. Maybe even in your head, the ideas are dominated by the Tim Burton renditions or, more likely, the classic cartoon. And that’s fine. Those are both wonderful.

But something magical happens when you start reading, and it happens to young and old alike. His words, and her thoughts and feelings, create their own images in your head. You see Alice as every child, as your children, or as someone close to you. Or maybe you reach back and put your own childhood in there. Because that’s what it is. Alice is who we are when we allow ourselves to be children, and she’s who children are at their most ferociously curious, when asking why is less a question than a driving need. It’s a time when exploring the next room means finding the entire universe. Alice chased a rabbit, and found a new world. Every day should be like that for children.

Reading allows them to do that, which is why after all the running and sloshing, the heart of the party should be the book. You give them that impossible galaxy of childhood. And that’s something they’ll keep—forever. By sparking imagination with Carroll’s words, you can help make sure that the sweet longings of childhood are never fully extinguished, and carry with them throughout their long and lovely lives. Lewis Carroll says it best, as Alice’s sister reflects on the dream her younger sister told her:

“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”

Don’t forget your Alice-themed bookmarks or our Wonderland Gift Guide! How are you celebrating Read Across America Day? What’s your favorite book? Tell us on our Facebook page, on Twitter @Elfster, or on Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for inspired gifting ideas, browse our Lewis Carroll gift guide.