My oldest niece went off to college this fall, and the kids and I miss her very much. I never stayed in residence when I was in university, and it’s one of those things I kind of regret — and also think I may not have actually liked? #introvertsunite
I used to love reading novels about teenagers going away to school — The Girls of Canby Hall was one of my favorite series — so I was excited to be able to send my nieces care packages full of treats.
In the days of Canby Hall, parents were shipping off boxes full nut-laden cookies and brownies without a care in the world. But in 2015, we know that college campuses are a prime spot for severe allergic reactions. Kids are hanging around, sharing snacks, and having a good time — possibly not disclosing a serious food allergy, for fear of being a Debbie Downer — and suddenly there’s a life-or-death situation.
My niece doesn’t have any food allergies, but I have no idea about the other kids in her residence. So I always make sure I’m not mailing anything with hidden allergens — specifically, nuts — in case she shares her goodies with her new friends.
Do you have a niece, nephew, cousin, son, daughter, or family friend in college? Here’s how to ship them an allergy-friendly college care package that won’t break the bank …
1. Make friends with someone at the post office. When my niece first left for college, I knew basically nothing about mailing items except for (A) it’s always more expensive than I think, and (B) seriously, when did mailing a package become so expensive?!
The best thing I ever did was walk up to the counter on a quiet morning (there wasn’t anyone else in line, luckily) and lay it all out for the employee. I told her where my niece was going to school, and asked her about the cheapest way to mail her some baked goods. She was really friendly and gave me great advice.
If you’re mailing something very light, your best bet might be to box it up, have it weighed, and pay for shipping that way. But if you’re baking a hefty pan of brownies, the weight could make the cost skyrocket. You never know until you chat with someone in the shipping biz who knows their stuff, so ask questions before loading up a massive crate with shortbreads.
I hadn’t realized that you could get pre-paid shipping envelopes that you’re allowed to make as heavy as you’d like. Pay for one, take it home, stuff it as full as you can possibly get it — as long as it closes properly, you’re golden. The post office employee told me that it’s the best way to mail baked goods, because you can cram the envelope with recycled containers (yogurt tubs, boxes, etc.) to keep your cookies from getting crushed. Sold!
2. Start baking! With scary stories about college kids having reactions floating around the back of my head, there’s no way I’m ever going to mail peanut butter cookies or my famous peanut butter bars. I stick with chocolate chip cookies, frosted chocolate brownies (without nuts, of course), or snacky stuff like homemade caramel corn (again, without nuts).
It’s true that my baking usually contains butter (milk is one of the Top 8 allergens) and eggs (another Top 8 allergen), but I feel like those ingredients are pretty much expected in a cookie or pan or brownies — unlike nuts, which can sometimes be a super-sneaky ingredient that someone might assume isn’t there.
Pro tip: This is a good time to sliiiiightly underbake those cookies, especially if they’re going to be in the mail for a few days before they reach your hungry college student. (I’m the Queen of Underbaking Cookies, even when they’re not going in the mail, so maybe that’s just me … #doughkies)
3. Play around with your packaging. While your baked goodies are in the oven (or cooling), take a few minutes to figure out exactly how you’re going to fit them all in the shipping envelope or box. I always rummage around in the recycling bins and see which empty boxes or containers might fit.
A clean yogurt tub is great for cushioning smaller cookies, and snack boxes work well, too. I once sawed the top off of an empty orange juice jug, too, and stuffed cookies inside it to keep them from crumbling en route.
Experiment with stuffing your (empty) containers inside the shipping envelope until you’re found a winning fit. Hopefully you have mad Tetris skillz.
4. Load ’em up. Once the cookies are cooled, I like to fold little tinfoil “trays” and then slide each tray into its own Ziplock baggie. Then I stack the baggies inside of each box. This helps keep the cookies from getting crushed when the package is being tossed around in transit. Plus, it’s adorable — like a teeny tiny oven.
When I make brownies, I cut pieces of thick cardboard to wrap around them. They probably still get a bit squished, but eh, brownies always taste good.
5. Add a few finishing touches. Once I’ve got the main baked goods snugly inside the package, I stuff the empty space with random candies — after all, if it’s a prepaid envelope, it can be as heavy as you’d like. I also get the kids to color a few cheerful pictures for their big cousin, so she knows how much they miss her.
Sending a college are package doesn’t take a lot of time — or cost a lot of money, as long as you’re friendly with the post office staffers — but it’s really meaningful for the student on the other end. They may have a meal plan and plenty of $$$ for pizza and Cheetos, or they may be living off noodles and bagels. Either way, they will certainly appreciate a package of home-baked goodies arriving at their door. Trust me.
Oh right — and remember not to mail your package RIGHT before a holiday where the mail service is shut down! Oops.