Tips for creating beautiful holiday treat boxes

Christmas cookies selection
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For the better half of the past decade, one of my favorite parts of the holiday season has been creating treat boxes for our friends, neighbors, and families. I don’t remember a lot of the gifts I received as a kid, but I do remember the couple annual homemade cookie packages we’d receive every Christmas. While I didn’t have a clue about baking then, I admired the care and time required to create something so special.

Once I started baking, I knew I wanted to start my own tradition of spreading cheer through edible gifts. If you want to do the same but don’t know where to start, have no fear! This post lays out all my best practices for creating beautiful treat boxes, stress-free. In this guide, you’ll find advise on:

  • Treat selection
  • Scheduling, including a suggested timeline
  • Packaging supplies
  • Storage
  • Shipping cookies
  • Bonus pro-tips
  • Recipes to get you started

Treat Selection

Variety

For the most interesting treat box, variety is king. I aim for 8-12 different treats; but even 4 to 6 varieties will dazzle. Variety can be visual — think different shapes, colors, and sizes. But also consider varieties of texture and flavor. For example, I aim for a range of chewy, crunchy, and melt-in-your-mouth buttery textures.

When it comes to flavors, I like including at least one treat in each of the following categories:

Think Beyond Cookies

In addition to cookies, I love adding chewy caramel candies, marshmallows, English toffee, peppermint bark, and even little packages of savoury crackers in my holiday treat boxes. An added bonus is that many confections last for several weeks when stored properly, so you can make these ahead of time.

Familiar vs. new recipes

I know how it is. Your favorite blogger or foodie magazine publishes a dozen new holiday recipes. You want to make All. The. Cookies.

If you are trying to make holiday treat boxes on a somewhat large scale (i.e. more than a dozen), I HIGHLY recommend making a test batch of any new recipe you want to include. There’s nothing more disappointing than having a flop right in the middle of production with no time, ingredients, or energy to replace it with something else. At the very least, bake one test cookie for new batches so you can determine the proper bake time and temperature for your oven. King Arthur Baking has an excellent article on how to effectively bake test cookies.

I usually make about 2/3 familiar favorites and 1/3 new recipes each year. If you do treat boxes year after year, eventually you’ll build up a varied repertoire of cookies that you can mix and match to keep things fresh for both you and your recipients.

Time and Energy

Are you swamped every December with barely any time to bake? That doesn’t mean you can’t pull off a beautiful treat box, but you’ll need to plan your baking schedule carefully and choose recipes that aren’t too time-consuming. For example, bar and drop cookies are faster to make than cutout or sandwich cookies.

Do you genuinely like decorating individual gingerbread men with royal icing or do you lose steam after the first cookie (*raises hand*). Go for treats that you actually enjoy making and add flair with simple flourishes like sparkling sugars, festive sprinkles, or dipped glazes.

In the end, creating these boxes is about bringing cheer to others. It’s hard to do that if you’re stressed and overcommitted, so take some time to plan a selection that’s appropriate given your time and skill. Have fun!

Scheduling

I give myself about a month to plan out and execute treat boxes. A slow and steady approach allows me to enjoy the process without getting stressed out. Here’s how I break it down:

  • 4 weeks out
    • Create recipient list
    • Make treat selection and calculate number of batches needed per recipe
    • Do test batches for new recipes
    • Inventory and shop for packaging supplies
    • Can start making and freezing cookie dough
  • 3 weeks out
    • Inventory and shop for ingredients
    • Continue making and freezing cookie dough
  • 2 weeks out
    • Make and package confections
    • Bake longer shelf-life cookies
    • Continue making and freezing cookie dough
  • 1 week out
    • Print any labels or lists to include inside boxes
    • Finish making all cookie dough (freeze or refrigerate per recipe instructions)
  • 1-2 days before delivery
    • Bake shorter shelf life cookies
  • 12-24 hours before delivery
    • Assemble packages

Storage

Once you’ve baked your treats, cool them completely before storing. Keep each type in a separate container. If you store everything together, dry-textured cookies will pull moisture from chewier cookies; and individual flavors will all start melding into each other (peppermint-flavored gingerbread, anyone?).

To keep everything as fresh as possible, I try to package treat boxes within 24 hours of delivery. Let your recipients know that the contents are best consumed ASAP!

treat boxes

Packaging

While there are a myriad ways to package your treats, I like using bakery-style window boxes. They’re professional-looking, budget-friendly, and available in various sizes. I buy mine from a local packaging company here in Toronto. Check your local baking supply store for options. If you go with any paper style box, lay down some tissue or parchment paper on the bottom to prevent grease stains.

Here are some other packaging materials I use every year:

  • Clear candy bags for confections or anything that needs an extra layer of protection. These come in many sizes.
  • Twisting wax paper for individually wrapping caramels or other sticky candies. A huge time saver!
  • Cupcake liners of different sizes to separate different treats. Get them in festive patterns to add some color!

I also like to include a list of all the cookies included (noting any that contain nuts or other allergens) so that people have an idea of what they’re getting.

Execution

The freezer is your friend

Most cookie doughs freeze well for several months, so you can actually prep many recipes well in advance. You can freeze some fully baked cookies, though avoid any with a sugar coating or glazes — those elements don’t hold up well in the freezer. In general, I prefer freezing unbaked dough vs. already baked goods. I try to bake off dough within two months for optimal freshness.

Whether you freeze your cookies baked or unbaked, keep them well wrapped and sealed, and label everything clearly. The biggest enemies of frozen goods are freezer burn and unwanted scents.

Create a game plan

Once you’ve selected what treats to include, determine the approximate order of when items should be prepared. Many recipes include shelf life and make ahead information; if not, google is your friend. I like make all my confections (marshmallows, caramels, toffee) first, as they have a longer shelf-life than cookies. Next come sturdy/drier cookies, such as shortbread and biscotti. Bake drop-style cookies last as they usually are at their peak for 3-5 days.

Assembly line

If you’re packaging up more than a couple boxes at a time, have each item prepped before doing your final assembly. Confections should be sealed up, and cookies can be portioned out and placed in cupcake liners. Put together one sample box to make sure everything fits the way you like, then use that as your guide for packaging all the other boxes.

Shipping cookies

While I don’t mail cookies, I’ve often flown across the country with packages of baked goods. My best advice is to pack your baked goods in airtight, sturdy, non-crushable boxes — tins are great. Wrap pairs of cookies like sandwiches in plastic wrap and use plenty of padding material so they can’t move. If the cookies can rattle around, they’ll probably break. Stick to sturdy cookies and bars. Here are a few excellent articles for more information on shipping cookies successfully:

Bonus Pro-Tips

If you’re changing a recipe’s batch size, write out the new ingredient quantities.

If you’re halving, doubling, or tripling a recipe, calculate and write out the new ingredient quantities before starting. Do not depend on your mental math in the moment. At some point you will forget you’re not making the recipe as written and ruin your batch of cookies by not properly scaling the sugar, raising agent, or flour. I SPEAK FROM EXPERIENCE.

On big baking days, bake recipes starting from low oven temp to high oven temp.

To maximize efficiency when baking multiple types of cookies, take a minute to check the oven temperatures for each recipe. Start with the cookies that require the lowest temperature, then work up to those with the highest oven temperature. As always, I recommend an oven thermometer to make ensure your oven is running true to dial. My favorite is the ThermoWorks Dot coupled with a high temperature probe and clip.

Take notes during and after assembly.

If you want to make treat boxes an annual tradition, your future self will appreciate your taking good notes about the process each year. Beyond a basic thumbs up or down for each new recipe, I like to include logistical details (i.e. Only include x number of cookies per tray or they’ll spread into each other! Cut marshmallows into an 8×10 grid so you have enough for everyone!) and links to products I found especially useful. Every year I learn something new and the entire process feels more efficient.

christmas cookies on sheet tray

Recipes to get you started

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