by Meredith L. Phillips
More than ever, we are looking for gift items to improve our home, health, and bank accounts. We want quality products that offer practical solutions for easier and healthier cooking. We want the tools to inexpensively repair and remodel our home. And, of course, we want some unnecessary but enjoyable gifts that just make us feel special. We want to offer our loved ones some simple upgrades, affordable indulgences, and those little luxuries they will not splurge on for themselves. And in the end, we want to tuck the tinsel away in a tidy little package until next season. We have poured over dozens of items this holiday season to come up with the best additions to your gift lists and a few items to make the holidays go a little smoother. Here are our favorites.
Harry & David's Cream of the Crop Royal Riviera Pears
Six pounds of fresh pears arrive safely boxed to prevent damage and randomly wrapped with tissue and foil for a beautiful gift presentation. Not only do these seven pears look juicy and delicious, but also the flesh is just right for eating with a spoon and large enough to share. Harry & David's varieties of fresh fruits and gourmet treats do not disappoint. We recommend ordering early but asking for delivery closer to the holiday. Order the 6-pound box at HarryandDavid.com for about $37.
Hamilton Beach toaster oven
Benefits of owning a toaster oven range from having a second oven during the busy holiday season to having a smaller, more efficient oven on hot summer days. These little wonders can hold a meal for the whole family or just a few appetizers. The Hamilton Beach toaster oven we tested includes a bake pan, broiler grid, and a removable crumb tray for ease of multiple uses. The "Stay On" setting and "30-minute timer with auto shut-off" provides a range of uses, from making multiple batches of snacks to walk-away use for baking. Roasting a whole chicken or pot roast, baking pizza or potatoes, or simply making garlic toast, the Hamilton Beach provides flexibility and convenience while saving space and energy. Fast cooking with little need for preheating is an economical and timesaving approach for busy cooks. We also recommend this unit for college students and others living in small spaces. Find these at Walmart and HamiltonBeach.com for about $50.
G&S OvenStuff toaster oven pans
Though smaller cake pans and loaf pans occasionally do well in a pinch, toaster oven pans are a handy help when using these compact ovens on a regular basis. We use the Hamilton Beach toaster oven with a set of toaster oven pans from G&S OvenStuff comprised of two personal pizza pans, a cookie/baking sheet, and a two-piece broiling and bake pan. Purchased from the Lakeside Collection catalog for just $10, this handy set of pans gives us more flexibility when using our economical toaster oven.
Le Creuset 3-Ply Stainless Steel Roasting Pan
During the holiday season, it can be a struggle to find all the pans we need for entertaining, especially those that can hold up year after year and still remain presentable at serving time. The beauty and quality of the Le Creuset 3-Ply Stainless Steel Roaster is impeccable. The 13 3/4" roaster features riveted steel handles and has a lifetime guarantee. The aluminum core provides even heating for roasts, lasagna, turkey, casseroles and more. The lustrous stainless finish goes from oven to table with a brilliant shine and cleans up effortlessly in the dishwasher. Though the price seems a bit steep at $149 from Cookware.com and ChefsResource.com, this pan is bound to outlast any other item in your kitchen, serving you for years to come.
Mr. Coffee Café Frappe
As a fan of the frozen, blended coffeehouse drinks, I have always wanted to find a low fat, low cost version that I can pick up a little closer to home. Sometimes, wishes come true. As a product tester, my job can get boring, but this item is as exciting to me now as the moment it arrived. The Mr. Coffee Café Frappe makes blended iced coffees the easy, affordable, and convenient way - in your own home! The coffee brews directly into the blender jar and when finished with brewing begins blending automatically. In three minutes, you have an icy and delicious 16 oz frappe, or two 8 oz drinks, if you are silly enough to share. You can make coffee frappes using decaf and soy or low-fat milk. Try a chai or green tea frappe for a new twist. Recipes include variations made with alcohol, tea, coffee, ice cream, fresh fruit, and more. One-button operation and easy cleanup make my morning rush that much more enjoyable. We love that the machine takes up very little counter space and has a sleek black color scheme. I have this machine at the top of my own list! Find the Mr. Coffee Café Frappe for $80 at Kohl's, Target, and Amazon.com.
OXO Pop-Up Containers
These premium storage containers stay tightly sealed so dry goods stay fresh much longer. Our tests show cookies staying fresh for two months without going stale. The airtight, stackable containers have a space-saving design with flared edges for easy pouring at the corners. Place lid on & push button to seal. Push again to open, and great freshness protection is that easy. Hand washing is required but is not difficult, as these are made for dry goods only. OXO containers may be used in the fridge and freezer, but extreme temperatures may compromise the seal. We use these in the pantry for flour, sugar, tea, pretzels, chips, spices, cereal, pasta, nuts, and cookies. These are also handy organizers for sewing, crafts, screws, nails, small toys, and more. Available in 11 sizes, the .3 to 3.4 quart square or rectangular containers may be purchased in 3-piece to 11-piece sets ranging in price from $39.99 to $99.99 at stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond and Organize.com.
Paula Deen Signature Porcelain Non-Stick Cookware
Whether for gift giving or your own holiday entertaining, these red and black speckled porcelain enamel pans from Paula Deen are sure to put anyone in a festive mood. The even heating aluminum construction and easy to clean non-stick interior of the 12-piece set are a wonderful addition to any kitchen. Copper accents highlight the glass lids and the red, rubberized handles. This set is great for revamping a kitchen, providing a pan for almost every daily need. Lids are provided for the 1- and 2-quart saucepans, the 2.75-quart sauté pan, and the 6-quart stockpot. The perfectly coated 8" and 12" skillets allow pancakes or omelets to slide out without damage. Paula Deen's cookware has a limited lifetime warranty, but be sure to protect the non-stick surfaces by using the nylon slotted spatula and spoon set contained in the box. Though hand washing is recommended rather than dishwasher use, oven use is safe up to 350 degrees. We are sold on the appearance, performance, and durability, but we really love finding the Paula Deen recipes tucked inside the box! To get a fresh look for your own holiday kitchen or for that someone special, shop for this festive red 12-piece set at Walmart, Kohl's, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Sears for under $120.
Parking in a cramped or awkward garage can be stressful. Racor offers the ProPark as a simple-to-use guide and a useful gift idea. Just lay it in place, pull onto the mat, and when the perfect spot is achieved, use a marker to draw around the mat for relocating if needed. Though several parking attempts did manage to move the mat around a bit, it is easy to put back in a pre-marked spot. A safe way to affix this to the garage floor would make us feel a little more confident and would make this otherwise handy parking guide perfect. Weighing in at about 2 pounds, the mat measures 12" x 21". The ProPark is designed with a built-in handle for easy moving and hanging for storage when not in use. Purchase the Racor ProPark at Sears and Organize.com for about $20.
Ryobi One+ Super Combo Tool Set with Torque IV Drill
This rechargeable cordless tool set boasts a circular saw, reciprocating saw, drill, and flashlight, all powered by Lithium Ion batteries. All four tools in this set are lightweight and comfortable to grip. The circular saw features an easily changed carbon-tipped blade. The reciprocating saw provides accurate cuts and allows for blade changes without tools. The flashlight has an adjustable head for aiming a beam of light while holding or setting down for hands-free usage. The powerful drill has a convenient magnetic tray for holding bits and screws and features a keyless chuck for faster work. This set comes with two batteries and a charger with a handy 6-foot cord, two bits, three saw blades, and a handy carrying bag that holds it all. This 18-volt Ryobi Super Combo set gets our vote for an all-in-one gift for your favorite handy person. Pick it up at Home Depot for just $129.
Dremel Multi Max Oscillating Tool
Dremel has the perfect all-in-one tools for the tradesman or hobbyist. The small design of these Bosch power tools allows for access into almost any workspace and offers the compact nature of one tool with the versatility of many.
The Dremel Multi-Max oscillating tool is designed with the remodeler in mind. The Multi-Max comes with seven Quick Fit accessories for easy changing. Sand, grind, scrape, cut through wood and drywall, and remove grout with the 1.5 amp motor. Multi-Max comes with a 2-year warranty.
The Dremel 4000 rotary tool comes with 31 accessories for a higher level of versatility. Just like the Multi-Max, it too sands, cuts, and grinds, but the 4000 also sharpens, cleans, polishes, carves, and engraves. A cutting guide and a sanding/grinding guide are also included. Its powerful 1.6 amp motor is backed by a 5-year warranty.
Dremel's website features several tips for affordable home repair projects. Purchase the Dremel Multi-Max and Dremel 4000 at Amazon.com or Lowes for about $100 each.
Haier Portable Digital TV
The 7" LCD television from Haier offers impressive picture quality in a portable model. Light as a feather, this little TV comes with a DC power adapter and built-in rechargeable battery. Just attach the antenna and scan for local digital signals or easily attach the unit to a DVD player with the included AV cables. View in hand or use the easel-type stand. Front buttons offer an array of functions, and a tiny remote offers more menu options, including three language choices, closed captioning, and timers. After the switch to digital, we had given up on the convenience of portable TV's, but this flat-screen unit has picture and sound quality that rivals our full-sized model but in a feather-weight, take-along size. Find the Haier 7" Portable LCD Digital TV at Target, Macy's, and Walmart starting at $89.
Durashot Tek4 Digital Camera
This digital camera from Ryobi, the tool experts is designed to take abuse. With 8MP and 3X optical zoom, this camera is safe for the jobsite and yet it takes good-quality photos fit for the family album. We recommend the Durashot for your most accident-prone gift recipient, as it is not only cushioned for falls but also is waterproof to three feet. The encased zoom lens is sealed to keep out dust and debris. Large, simple buttons make use easy for anyone, though the menu certainly is not short on options. This camera features a voice memo function to record extra information related to each photo. The lightning flash works up to 15 feet away. The 4V Lithium-Ion battery charges in five hours and lasts up to 800 photos per charge and up to 2000 charges per battery. The Durashot Tek4 digital camera bundle also contains a battery, charger, case, wrist strap, USB cable and 1 GB memory card. Durashot may be purchased for under $200 at Home Depot.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 & Premiere Elements 8
The latest photo editing software is now bundled with the latest video editing software, combining to become a perfect gift for the budding photographer or cinematographer in your family. The Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 and Premiere Elements 8 package goes beyond touching up a photo or burning DVD's of your latest home movies. This new bundle is also a great tool for creating holiday gifts, from slideshows to videos, keeping friends and family up to date in a modern way that the traditional annual newsletter cannot. Adobe offers a central hub to manage, edit, and store all your photo and video files, providing tutorials, templates, themes, special effects, and online sharing albums to help turn your memories into masterpieces. Online storage of up to 2GB is included with the bundle, so your precious photos and media are protected and accessible online. Amazon.com: $124. OfficeMax.com: $135. Preserving your most precious memories: Priceless.
Hallmark DVD Greetings and Digital Scrapbook
We rely on Hallmark for ways to express our sincerest feelings all year long, but they continue to find newer and better ways every holiday season. Hallmark's latest innovations include the DVD Greeting card and the Digital Scrapbook. These new formats give us a new way to share holiday greetings and family photos with those we love.
The DVD Greeting card includes a code for accessing a Hallmark website with templates for personalizing a special greeting with music and your own photos and message. When the design is perfect for your recipient, the customizable DVD can be burned and inserted into the accompanying greeting card. The DVD becomes a keepsake to watch for years on any DVD player.
The Digital Scrapbook comes in the form of a unique USB drive from Hallmark that contains the necessary software for creating a personal slideshow by a similar code entry and template format. Photos, messages, and music may be added to the pre-designed slides and saved to the USB. Then just plug the USB into a digital photo frame, computer, photo printer, or anything else with a USB drive, for viewing, printing, or burning to a CD for viewing on a DVD player. You can even upload your photo greetings to share via email or the web.
DVD Greetings are available in nine individual card designs and three boxed designs for $9.95 each or $19.95 for boxes. Digital Scrapbooks are available in five themes priced at $19.95 each. Both formats are compatible with PC and Mac computers and available at Hallmark Gold Crown stores.
Though not truly a gift idea, these handy helpers are a must-have this holiday season. When the tinsel and bows seem to get more unruly each year, it is time to get organized with Rubbermaid. Tree Keepers and Wreath Keepers are available from Amazon.com for about $7 each. The bright red, zippered bags hold Christmas trees or lawn ornaments up to 7.5 feet tall and wreaths up to 30 inches around, protecting your greenery during the off-season. To get paper, gift bags, and bows in order, get a Rubbermaid wrapping paper zippered bag, with pockets to hold bows, ribbon, tags and more. This handy duffel zips and stores under a bed. The red canvas collapsible storage cube from Rubbermaid organizes and protects up to 24 of your most cherished ornaments for around $11. Find these solutions at Amazon.com and where holiday decor and storage is sold.
Sunbeam Programmable Bread Maker
Though fresh bread is wonderful to eat (not to mention smell while baking), some of us are a bit skittish about trying to make it ourselves. By simply adding the ingredients to the baking pan, setting it inside the machine, closing the lid, and pushing a button for the type, size, and color we want, this machine gives us perfect results with hardly any effort! The Sunbeam Breadmaker 5891 has 12 functions, including several specialty breadmaking settings, "dough" or "bake only" options, and cake- or jam-making settings. The 1.5 or 2-pound loaf option helps to make just the right sized loaf, but we are more impressed with the color setting, which allows us to choose a light, medium, or dark crust. Two "Express" settings are available for faster baking, though other options, such as crust color is unchangeable when using these functions. The LCD digital display is clear and easy to read. A large viewing window allows a peek during the kneading process, though we notice it steams over during baking. A lift of the lid gets us a quick look without disturbing the progress. We appreciate the 13-hour delay setting, great for those of us who like to toss in the ingredients before work and come home to a freshly baked loaf at dinnertime. We also love the non-stick pan, which allows for easy removal and clean-up after baking. The Sunbeam manual contains dozens of helpful tips and 12 simple bread recipes to ensure a perfect loaf, as well as glaze and spread recipes to compliment different types of bread. Our favorite tip? Always put ingredients into the pan in the order recommended. We find the best recipes are those that help us provide our families with a healthy and low-cost loaf of fresh bread. This machine allows for the use of natural ingredients, whole grains, and no preservatives. We think the French bread is wonderful and estimate the cost of ingredients to be around $1 per 2-pound loaf, plus the cost of using the machine. Healthy, affordable, and great taste - could we ask for more? Find the Sunbeam Breadmaker 5891 at Walmart and Amazon.com for just under $55.
Wusthof Classic Knife Sets
The German engineering behind Wusthof forged high carbon steel knives has set the standard for cutlery for almost 200 years. Weighted bolsters between the handle and blade give a balanced feel for ease of use, and the tempered blades offer a lifetime of strength and durability. These high-quality sets are wonderful gifts to give or receive and are available at Amazon.com and Cooking.com.
The Classic Bread Knife and Board set features an 8-inch bread knife with a serrated edge that offers an ease of cutting through soft or crusty bread without distorting the shape of the loaf. The hardwood cutting board allows for easy slicing without dulling of the blade or damage to the board. Purchase Wusthof Bread and Board sets for around $70.
The Wusthof Classic Ikon Carving Set features an 8-inch blade with a scalloped edge made to carve, rather than tear, meat. A 6-inch curved fork is included for superior control whether you are carving a holiday bird or a weeknight pot roast. The Classic Ikon Carving Set may be purchased for $180.
Bubalina Natural & Organic Bath & Body Products
Bubalina is a natural and organic line of aromatherapy body washes, sugar scrubs, lotions, and body butters. These products created by an aesthetician are used in high-end spas as indulgent treatments and are now available to the public in relaxing and rejuvenating scents such as Blueberry, Cucumber Melon, Tuberose, and Mandarin Vanilla Spice. Extra relaxation comes from knowing that the packaging is made from recycled materials and the inks are vegetable-based. Treat someone special to the perfect stocking stuffer from BubalinaBeauty.com for $26 to $28 each.
Yankee Candle gifts
Your favorite candle scents are released as you put together the majestic scenes of these new Yankee Candle puzzles. The jigsaw puzzle pieces reflect the familiar candle jar shape, while the scents compliment the completed puzzle scenes. The puzzles come in both holiday and everyday scenes and scents, such as Christmas Eve and Clean Cotton. At just $8 each from Walmart, these 300-piece puzzles from Hasbro and Milton Bradley are a great gift idea for Yankee Candle lovers.
We love the new holiday scents from Yankee Candle. Try a large jar candle in Snow Berry, Christmas Cupcake, or North Pole (a sweet, yet minty concoction), which are estimated to last 100 - 150 hours each. Scented diffuser reed sets are offered in new holiday fragrances, also. Try the Mistletoe or the Sparkling Snow, two flameless options that give off light scents throughout the day and provide attractive touches to your decor. Find these at YankeeCandle.com, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and other retailers. Large jar candles cost about $25 each, and reed diffusers cost $20.
A Missouri owned and operated company, Farmer's Apothecary offers natural, high quality bath and beauty products that are just right for sensitive skin. We find the scents and formulas almost good enough to eat. Most Farmer's products are also vegan. We love the bar soaps in varieties such as Oatmeal & Honey Glycerin Bar with real oatmeal for itchy skin relief and Pear Berry Salt bar with Dead Sea salt for exfoliation. The Coffee Bar features four vegetable-based oils, including hazelnut, coconut, soybean, and almond. (Those who have veered away from bars in favor of body washes to avoid spending so much time scrubbing the shower can take comfort. Vegetable-based soaps are less likely to leave behind soap scum build-up.) Our favorite bar is the olive oil-based Lemonade Castile, with its uplifting, clean and fresh scent. For a jazzy alternative to bubble baths, stuff someone's stocking with the Fizzy Bath Bomb in Banana Cream Pie. Apothecary's Dirt Soap is a unique item for hunters, made to mask the human scent while wandering through the woods. Farmer's Apothecary, based in Trenton, Missouri, offers a little something special for everyone, including lip balms, lotions, hand-poured candles, and sugar scrubs. Go to FarmersApothecary.com for stocking stuffers and awesome gifts starting at only $2.