Archive for December, 2013

Start a New Tradition: New Year’s Eve at Home

Monday, December 30th, 2013

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New Year’s Eve is one of those high-expectations holidays. We all have visions of wearing some beautiful ensemble in a large glamorous setting, with the air full of glitter and a perfect midnight kiss over a champagne toast. Most years, I end up overthinking how to make a perfect evening at home, and then end up disappointed because I can’t recreate that ballroom in my living room. I have been totally missing the point.

The greatest things about any holiday are food, drink, and being with the people we care about. This year, if you don’t already have plans to head out, I challenge you to start a new tradition – New Year’s Eve at Home. It’s cheaper than going out and you don’t have to worry about driving home amongst those that had a little too much bubbly at the party.

With an at-home party, you can go one of two directions — “fancy pants” or “cool and casual.”

“Fancy Pants”
For those of you who still want to put on your party dress, the “fancy pants” night is for you. Pick a recipe that you want to try out, set the table with white linens and candles, and turn your living room into a makeshift dance floor. If you want to invite friends, make it a potluck and give each friend a course to bring. Don’t want to cook? Have everyone chip in and order a spread from your favorite local restaurant, or your nearby gourmet grocer. Stock up your bar cart and serve a signature champagne cocktail.

“Cool and Casual”
Want to wear your yoga pants and chill on a couch while enjoying food and merriment? The “cool and casual” party is for you. You can have your guests bring their favorite appetizers, or order a few pizzas. The key here is comfort. Buy (or print) hats, noisemakers, and some basic décor from your local party store, and make sure there are plenty of seats in your family room, so that everyone is comfy. Pop out the Apples to Apples game, challenge everyone to a game of charades, or watch your favorite movie.

No matter which party you host, please make sure that if your guests are drinking, that you secure a cab for them, or invite them to crash in your guest room.

This year Bryan and I will be going the “fancy pants” route, for two. We are planning on making beef wellington, truffle mac & cheese and chocolate mousse. I will be setting the table, making a mix of our favorite jazz songs on my iPod, and making a gin and champagne cocktail called the French 75.

What are your New Year’s Eve traditions? Are you more of a “Fancy Pants” or “Cool and Casual” type? Leave your comments below.

Happy New Year!

Our Favorite Champagne Cocktails

Friday, December 27th, 2013

I can’t believe Christmas is over! Soon, we’ll be counting down – 3..2..1..2014! You’ll need a festive, fizzy drink to toast the new year. As promised in last week’s post, I’m back to share a few of the Wilderness Girls favorite champagne cocktails. Make one the signature drink for your New Years Eve celebration, or set out a variety of fruits (pomegranate seeds, strawberries, raspberries, clementines) and let your guests design their own champagne cocktail.

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Jenny’s Pick: Peach Bellini

6 oz. Prosecco
3 oz. Frozen Peach Purée
Peach Slices (for garnish)

Combine prosecco and peach puree in a chilled champagne glass. Garnish with peach slices.

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Rachael’s Pick: Prosecco with Fruit
adapted from an Italian Bella Vita Recipe

6 oz. Prosecco
2-3 Clementine Slices
Pomegranate Seeds

Place clementine slices and pomegranate seeds in a champagne glass. Pour prosecco over fruit.

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Christina’s Pick: Brunch Punch

6 oz. Champagne
3 oz. Orange Juice
Splash Ginger Ale
Splash Grenadine
1 Maraschino Cherry (for garnish)

Pour champagne into mason jar; add orange juice and ginger ale. Slowly add grenadine and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Cheers!

Happy Boxing Day! Wait…What’s Boxing Day?

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

It is December 26th and my calendar says Boxing Day.

What in the world is Boxing Day and what is it doing on my calendar?

Boxing Day isn’t a holiday we celebrate in the US, but I had some ideas of what it might be about from TV. First, I remembered the old M*A*S*H episode where Colonel Potter made the officers and enlisted men swap roles for a day because that was the tradition of some British officers that happened to be staying with them at Christmas. (There are a lot of valuable life lessons to be learned from the Fighting 4077th, but that’s another post for another time.) Digging back a little further into the memory banks, I vaguely recalled something about taking boxes and giving alms to the poor on that day. This was promising. A day dedicated to forcing “The Man” to break a sweat for a change and taking time to care for people in need? Now this is my kind of holiday!

Enthusiastically I started to gather my thoughts for this post. I wanted to be sure to get everything about this day just right. Some internet research and a peep at Wikipedia soon revealed that I am not the only one who doesn’t fully understand Boxing Day. In fact, some of the people who observe Boxing Day can’t really say why it is a holiday. There are several origin myths but it is unequivocally NOT about making The Man do manual labor — in fact it is a bank holiday, so generally speaking, The Man probably has paid time off. And the part about making up care packages for those in need? Snopes.com burst my bubble by confirming that the holiday isn’t for boxing up all the stuff in the house you don’t need after a busy holiday season, either. In the countries where Boxing Day is celebrated it is mostly an extension of Christmas where people watch sports (Soccer! Not even boxing!?!) and go shopping at the after-Christmas sales.

Initially I was bummed by these discoveries, but then I realized that I’m the Mom and I can make up whatever traditions I want. That’s the awesome thing about parenting — Jacob and I are now the Family Tradition Masters. If we say Boxing Day is for serving others and giving forward from the bounty of the holidays then that’s that.

I hope each of you and your families are having a happy, healthy and blessed Christmas season. Did you forge any new traditions as you celebrated this year? Do you have any favorites you would like to share? The Wilderness Girls would love to hear all about the unique traditions your family shares. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some donations to gather.

I Pinned It, I Did It: Memory Jar

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

I am going to come clean with you about something. Two years ago I gave a Memory Jar as a Christmas gift for my wonderful hubs, Bryan. I pinned it, I did it, and it was an utter failure.

The Memory Jar is one of those pins that you see and think “This is so easy to put together. I am on it!” You are right. It is easy to put together. You just need a large jar, slips of paper, and a pen. I even went so far as to order a custom stamp with our monogram on it, and bought fancy-pants cards from a stationary store so that the slips would look pretty all jumbled in the jar.

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Christmas morning came, Bryan opened his gift, and loved the idea. We sat the jar, slips of paper, and a pen on our piano, and there it sat. When Christmas morning 2012 rolled around, we opened the jar, and a sad pile of four cards sat there. All written by yours truly. A far cry from the stuffed-to-the-brim version you see on Pinterest. It was fun to read the memories, all of which we had forgotten, and we swore that 2013 was going to be different.

We were right. This year there is not one single slip of paper in that jar. Zilch. Zero.

I am sharing this story because I think that oftentimes we, the blogging community, post these amazing and spectacular projects, and it may appear that we never fail. Well, guess what? We do. Sometimes spectacularly. I chalk this failure up to my delusion that memories would magically appear in that jar without much effort. Not surprisingly, I ended this year with an empty jar.

What do you do when something you really were excited about fails? You can do one of two things: admit defeat, or give it another try. I am going with the second option. The hubs and I had a talk, and that jar is going to go back on the piano (I put it in the cupboard around mid-November, because looking at it was bumming me out), and we are going to put at least one memory each week into it. That’s the plan, at least. If it doesn’t happen this year, we will finally admit defeat.

Wish us luck!

Holiday Stress Busters

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

This week I have eleven meetings at work, a potluck/gift exchange, a holiday party, a volunteer event, a doctor’s appointment and a knitting project that has to be done before Santa takes off from the North Pole on Christmas Eve. I have a great idea for a New Year’s Day blog post — you guys are gonna love it — but it isn’t going to write itself. I also need to go to the post office before it’s too late to ship my godson’s gift to Ohio and I only have a couple weeks left to submit the last of the medical receipts before I forfeit the last hundred bucks in my 2013 healthcare spending account. I think my driver’s side front tire has a slow leak and I really need a wheel alignment which is NOT the way anyone wants to spend their dollars in December.

My to-do list, while long, isn’t unique. I’d bet good money that yours looks similar. We all have more stuff to do than time to do it and when we add in Christmas festivities, no matter how fun they might be, it adds a layer of complexity to our already hectic lives. To help keep things in balance I gathered a little list of common sense stress busters that will help during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Schedule some down time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside some time to do nothing. If someone invites you to do something during your scheduled down time it is OK to say no. Christmas is supposed to be fun, but if you’re running at full speed from Halloween to Valentine ’s Day, you are probably not having that much fun.

Take it easy on the cookies and booze. Have a drink, have a cookie…heck, have 2 of each. Just don’t have six of either. Overindulging may feel harmless at the time but suffering a hangover or the dreaded cookie belly will only add to your stress level later.

Check out the neighborhood Christmas lights. I do this pretty regularly with my daughter. After dinner, we pile into the car and rock out to Christmas tunes while we scout the neighborhood for new light displays. When I’m feeling super-festive I pull some cookies from my Christmas cookie exchange out of the freezer and brew up a pot of hot cocoa. It takes time that I could be spending crossing off “to-do’s” but I find that it centers me and it creates memories for her. The to-do’s can wait till after her bed time and we are both better for it.

Get a pedicure. Sitting with your feet in warm bubbly water after a long day of shopping and chores is a real treat. Some spots will even treat you to a massage and hot towel. If you are short on time or cash, a manicure is about half the investment of either and it still makes you feel and look great.

Do a good deed. It is so true that service to others warms the heart. You don’t have to do something grandiose and, in my view, it is better if you do your good deeds in secret. The kind deed that nobody else knows you did is the most rewarding. Drop a gift at the Angel Tree. Shovel the neighbor’s snow when you’re doing yours. Feed someone’s parking meter. Whatever you pick — small or large — you will find that your mood lifts just as you uplifted someone else.

Check out what’s on Netflix. Indulge yourself with a little brain candy TV once in a while. Of course a two day Dexter marathon is not going to be helpful but if you’re thinking about checking out one or two episodes of the most recent Sons of Anarchy it really can’t hurt. Just be sure that your Netflix session doesn’t become an all-night Netflix bender.

Get some sleep. Schedule yourself some time to sleep. It does no good to run ragged from now till Christmas day to end up collapsing after the meal and sleeping through the evening festivities. I know you have clandestine operations to execute once the kids are in bed but set some reasonable guidelines about when you’re going to turn in and try to stick to them. Your body needs rest to keep you going strong till the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Just let go. This is probably my most important piece of advice. If you have an idea or project that you just can’t make time for, forget it. Let go. Say no. If you planned to decorate the yard like Clark W Griswold but couldn’t find the time, let it go. Taking that plate of cookies to the neighbor is still a kind thing to do on Dec 27th after the Christmas ruckus dies down. It’s OK. Focus your first efforts on doing the things you really want or need to do. Invest yourself in what you can do well and fully.

Don’t allow social media to set your standard. People post the best, prettiest, most ‘perfect’ parts of their lives but they conveniently leave out the parts where they’re fussing over parking spots at the mall, burning the Christmas cookies and freaking out over their Visa balance. Resist the urge to compare yourself to what you see on others’ social media pages. It is far too easy to get carried away by the picture perfect parties and exaggerated shelf-elf shenanigans and forget that whatever you do to celebrate the season is enough. If you’re enjoying yourself you can be sure you’re doing Christmas right.

Creative Ways to Wrap a Gift Card

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Gift cards and cash (or “the universal gift card,” as my dad calls it) are becoming more and more common to find under the tree or in your stocking during the holiday season. And why not? They are easy to find (most grocery stores have kiosks of cards from dozens of retailers), and, as long as you choose a store the recipient likes, you can avoid the “this is the wrong size/color/style” issue. I am a big fan of gift cards, and so is my family.

Because of this, I give a lot of gift cards around the holidays. But every year I face the same problem — how can I wrap a gift card so that it isn’t obvious that it’s a gift card? And most importantly, how can I do this without using a lot of packaging that will just end up in the trash, OR without spending a lot of money?

The first thing you want to do is think about your recipient and what they might use that could double as wrapping. In my situation, I have a baker, a cocktail enthusiast, and a coffee fanatic.

For the baker, I found a really cute $3 holiday potholder and snowman cookie cutter combo in the sale bins at Target. I used that to hold the gift card, and then used two sheets of tissue paper and some red ribbon to complete the wrap.

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When finished, you can place it under the tree, or, since it has a hook, you could even hang it in lieu of a stocking on the mantle.

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For the cocktail enthusiast, I found a small plastic shaker in the dollar bins at Target. I then got his favorite candy, M&Ms, a roll of cellophane wrap, and I found a four pack of ribbon in the same discount section.

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I put the gift card in the shaker, covered it with the candy, then wrapped the entire thing in cellophane and tied it with a ribbon. Easy-peasy.

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Finally, for my coffee fanatic, Target had letter mugs on sale for $5, so I picked a B mug, bought some holiday confetti in the dollar section, then used the same cellophane from the shaker purchase, plus another roll of $1 ribbon.

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I put the gift card in the mug, covered it with the confetti, wrapped it in cellophane and then tied it with the ribbon. If you had someone who liked tea, you could easily buy a set of tea bags and cover the gift card with tea instead of confetti. The combination possibilities are endless.

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Don’t be afraid of the time or expense you think creative wrapping will take. I was able to complete all three gifts in an afternoon, and spent less than $20. Just take your time, browse the aisles, or, if you really want to be sure you are spending wisely, head to your local dollar store and get everything there.

What tips do you have for creatively wrapping a gift card? Please share them in the comments below. Happy gifting!

Stock Your Holiday Bar Cart

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

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A few months ago as Rob and I were preparing for our pumpkin carving party, we headed out to BevMo with plans to stock our cute vintage bar cart. Before heading out, I searched the web for a recommended list of spirits and mixers that one should have on hand when hosting a party. Alcohol is spendy and I wanted to provide a variety of options to our guests without breaking the bank. Unfortunately I came up empty handed, unable to find a list that would help me shop smart. So, the shopping list included all of the ingredients we needed to make our signature cocktail (an apple cider margarita), along with a few spirits and mixers that I’d consider staples.

The pumpkin carving party was a success, with most guests sticking to our signature cocktail. When a couple folks decided to mix their own favorite drink, I was relieved to see that our little bar cart was stocked with everything they needed. In typical blogger fashion, I thought I’d share my shopping list which includes a selection of staple spirits, mixers and garnishes that will make a wide variety of drinks; along with a few tips to keep in mind when shopping for booze.

Stock Your Bar Cart Shopping List

Spirits
Gin
Vodka
Spiced Rum
Whiskey/Bourbon

Mixers
Tonic Water
Soda Water
Ginger Ale
Orange Juice
Cranberry Juice
Aromatic Bitters
Grenadine
Triple Sec

Garnishes
Lemons
Limes
Oranges
Maraschino Cherries
Green Olives

Tip #1: Select a signature cocktail or two for your party. Choose a drink that will pair well with the food you serve and it will be an easy choice for your guests. This will also make shopping much easier as you’ll spend most of your adult beverage budget on the ingredients needed to make one drink.

Tip #2: Don’t buy everything! You could quickly spend hundreds of dollars stocking your bar cart unless you keep it simple. Provide your guests with a variety of staples and they’ll be able to mix up a delicious drink. Your guests don’t want you to go broke providing unlimited options. And, if they have a soft spot for an obscure spirit encourage them to bring a bottle to share with the group. What a great conversation starter!

Tip #3: Keep a few cocktail recipe books on hand. Unless your friends are bartenders, you’ll probably have a few guests that don’t know the recipe for their favorite drink. This will also help them mix their own drink later in the evening.

Tip #4: Post the recipe for your signature cocktail(s) near your bar cart. You don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all night making drinks. Greet your guests with a pre-made signature cocktail, then let them have fun mixing one of their own.

Next week, I’ll be back to share the Wilderness Girls favorite champagne cocktails. A bubbly champagne cocktail is the perfect signature drink for your New Years Eve celebration!

Did I miss anything? Be sure to share your bar cart must haves (or the recipe for your favorite drink) in the comments below!

Kitchen Essentials with Chef Jacob: Dried Herbs

Monday, December 16th, 2013

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Over the years working in kitchens I have learned a few things that can be useful to cooks at home too. Having the right kitchen tools is akin to a mechanic having a well-stocked tool box. Sure, a good mechanic can do a lot with a roadside emergency kit, but in the garage, with the tools of the trade, it is a whole other thing. The same goes for chefs.

Dried herbs are one of the most basic tools a chef uses to build flavor in dishes. Dried herbs get a bad rap with some foodies, who swear by using fresh herbs to flavor their favorite recipes. It’s true that fresh herbs can add a wow factor to your meal, but don’t be so quick to rule out your favorite herb’s dried counterpart. In addition to packing a large amount of flavor in a smaller portion, they’re economical, versatile and more accessible than most fresh herbs.

* Economical — Dried herbs are far less expensive than fresh and they last a lot longer. Fresh herbs are great too, but sometimes a little packet of fresh goes for more than $3 for a small package, and the leftovers die in your crisper drawer. That only has to happen one time to make dried a better deal.
* Versatile — Dried herbs hold up well to high heat and heavily acidic foods. If you use fresh herbs at the beginning of a dish that’s going to be sautéed, braised or simmered for a long time, the herbs will break down and can even become bitter. Dried herbs can take the heat and allow flavors to blend as the food cooks.
* Accessible — Dried herbs are always in season. There’s no such thing as not being able to get dried dill for your tatziki sauce in February. Dried herbs give us the opportunity to use the flavorings we want to use whenever we want to use them.

There are a couple of down sides to choosing dried herbs over fresh. The spice aisle has lots of really great things, but you have to buy a whole jar of the spice. If you need just a few bay leaves why should you have to pay for a whole bunch at once? You really want to buy just what you can use. There was a spice rack in Rachael’s grandmother’s kitchen that hung there for about thirty-five years, right above the stove where heat, moisture and time could have their way with the contents. The day it came off the wall for the last time some of those jars still had their original contents inside. Technically it is true that spices last a long time, but I wouldn’t have reached for that spice rack on a schoolyard triple-dog-dare.

How can you save money and avoid a “Mamaw’s spice rack” situation in your kitchen? Buy only what you need and will use, of course. Rachael likes trying new herbs, spices and blends from the bulk food section at the grocery. I’m a huge fan of Tampico spices sold in pouches in the Mexican food aisle. They’re high quality, inexpensive and sold in small enough packages that you can use them up and replace them before they ever have a chance to get old.

There you have it: dried herbs are a useful and important part of your kitchen arsenal. I’ll leave you with a few pro tips for making the most of your dried herbs.

Dried Herbs: Pro Tips

* Store ‘em right – seal ‘em tight! Dried herbs do best in airtight, light proof containers away from the heat of the oven moisture of the cook top.
* Use dried herbs at the start of a meal and fresh herbs to finish & garnish.
* Never dump dried herbs directly from the jar into the pan. Adding dried herbs by hand gives you the opportunity to crush them up to release the flavor and keeps the container away from the steamy pan to protect your herbs from moisture. This also protects from the cooking bloopers that can happen when you forget there’s no shaker-top on the spice jar and accidentally dump 4 tablespoons of herbs into your pan.
* Herbs can be toasted to bring out aromatic oils. To do this, add your herbs to a cold, dry pan and heat to medium while moving and swirling the herbs in the pan. You’ll know it is done when the herbs are fragrant. Important: If you decide to do this, you must watch your herbs like a hawk. No multi-tasking. No goofing off. Herbs can tell if you look away even for a moment and they will burn to spite you.

Do you have ideas for storing and using dried herbs? Maybe you have a favorite spice blend or local spot to get great spices. Continue the conversation by commenting below.

O Christmas Tree

Friday, December 13th, 2013

When it comes to Christmas, I’ve always been a traditional red & green kind of gal.

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This year I decided to do something a little different. I wanted to decorate a tree that would fit in well with the decor in our home and I knew that I wanted to buy a new tree, but struggled when trying to decide on a color and theme. I bounced back and forth between a retro themed pink tree filled with pink and blue vintage ornaments (like this) and a rustic, woodsy white tree filled with woodland creatures and metallic ornaments (like this). I chose a rustic, woodsy theme for my new white Christmas tree, mainly because I didn’t have time to search for affordable vintage ornaments and I knew that I could reuse a lot of the ornaments that I already had.

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The tree is from Treetopia, it’s their pre-lit 6′ Winter White Christmas tree. I made the garland using jute rope and strips of burlap. I Iove a full tree, so I added lots of gold, silver, white and chocolate brown bulbs and then filled in with silver icicles, wooden nutcrackers, snowflakes and fuzzy woodland creatures. Many of the ornaments came from Target; and I also picked up a few boxes of glass bulb ornaments from Michaels. The tree is filled with lots of ornaments that I’ve had for years. There’s a silver reindeer hanging out underneath the tree along with a vintage leather suitcase to keep the presents up and away from the puppies.

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I do wish I’d purchased a taller tree. The six foot tree is dwarfed by our 9′ ceilings. I knew it was too small after we’d unpacked the tree and set it up in the living room. Determined to find a creative solution that would add height to the tree, I decided to covert a tree stump into a tree stand. We purchased a stump off Craigslist for less than ten dollars. Then, Rob cut the stump down to a height of about fifteen inches and drilled a hole into the center using a spade bit. I love the new stand like crazy.

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I’m a little obsessed with our new tree; it’s still cozy but fits well with our decor, and it’s not fussy one bit. Mission accomplished.

The Four R’s of Gift Wrapping

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

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Tis’ the season for sharing. It’s also the season for giving gifts and that means gift wrap. Lots of gift wrap. Tons and tons of gift wrap. Americans generate an additional 5 million tons of waste during the holidays, and according to the Clean Air Council four million tons of this is wrapping paper and shopping bags. Fortunately there are fun and festive ways you can make a difference by generating less waste. Just remember the 4 Rs of Sustainability — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rethink — this holiday season.

Reduce
Using less wrap and ribbons to decorate your packages means that there is less to throw away later. Consider a simpler wrap or even a plain paper wrap decorated with gift-themed accessories. For the pet lover on your list, wrap a funny book about dogs with plain recyclable paper and sub out ribbons for a fairly traded or hemp dog collar.

Reuse
Wrapping paper can be so much more than the snowman-print stuff on the roll. Get creative and try making your own custom wrappers using what you have on hand. Last week’s newspapers, old magazines or brown paper cut from grocery bags make a perfect beginning for an artful wrapper.

If your child is a particularly prolific artist, lesser works that don’t make the fridge make distinctive gift wrap. One caveat: don’t forget to get the artist’s permission first. There is nothing less holly-jolly than an affronted artist’s attempt to reclaim the wrap from the gift you just presented to great-grandma.

Most of us have a few decorative gift bags hanging around from gifts we received in prior years. If so, these can and should be reused. They’re not typically recyclable because of the metallic bits and coated paper but they are so durable that as long as it doesn’t get too mangled by an overzealous recipient, a decorative gift bag can have a useful life of many years.

Recycle
If you choose traditional wrapping paper, try to select one containing recycled content. Then, when the festivities are over, recycle what you can but proceed with caution. It is important to check your community’s recycling guidelines; follow this link to see the Phoenix guidelines as an example. When you check the requirements first, you can be sure what you put in the bin will not cause more damage than good. Glossy and metallic papers are usually not recyclable and tape can interfere with recycling equipment. Cellophane and plastic films are rarely recyclable in curbside bins. If your community doesn’t list something as an acceptable material and you can’t find a way to reuse it, it is better to landfill a wad of wrapping paper than contaminate an entire load of recycling and break the equipment.

Rethink
Skip the box and paper altogether in favor of gift baskets, a reusable shopping tote or furoshiki, which is the Japanese style of wrapping gifts in fabric. There’s a perfect furoshiki tutorial on the Etsy blog. Packaging homemade treasures in a reusable bag makes a gift-within-a-gift. Your favorite culinarian will appreciate a bamboo salt box and fancy salt wrapped in a useful tea towel.

Consider giving gifts that don’t require wrapping. The gift of an experience, service or charitable donation not only reduces the wrapping paper burden but dampens the out-of-control consumption that can so easily carry us away at this time of year.

In the end, no matter what you give or how you wrap it, it will be good. When it comes to sustainability, it really is the thought that counts. When we think about our options, we have the option to make subtle smart changes. Those small changes combine to make a big difference – a cleaner, safer, healthier Earth. That’s the best holiday gift, no matter how you wrap it.

What are some of your ideas for “greening” the holidays? The Wilderness Girls love your tips and tricks, so please post them in the comments below.