Children’s Present Ideas – Free or Frugal


Today I received a lovely email from a lady who plans to use my Kool-Aid play dough recipe to make gifts for her children. Christmas can be a tough time of year financially if you are providing for a family.  Whether it’s frugal gifts ideas, or things to keep the children occupied with over the holiday period, I hope you find something useful here.
Here’s an Australian play dough recipe (for those of us who don’t normally have access to Kool-Aid 🙂 )  You can make this before hand, or give the ingredients and recipe and let the children help.  It can be made in several different colours and stored in ziplock bags or wide mouth plastic jars or containers.  Add a plastic knife, some cookie cutters, toothpicks, scoops from the washing powder or infant formula, or anything else that will add value to the play experience.  If you have an empty box from refillable baby wipes, it makes a good home for the play dough accessories as the lid is easy for children to manage.
You can also make your own packet mixes for baking – Make up the dry part of a cake, biscuits, or scones; type out the recipe; attach a photo of the finished product on the front of the ziplock bag;  and the child who gets to unwrap that present also gets to BAKE it.
Collect a heap of fabric scraps (ask family members who sew for their off cuts of fabrics and trims, or cut up old clothes that are no longer needed and harvest the material and the buttons) and give each child a little packet with a needle, some thread, and a few spare buttons, and let them sew whatever they like – or borrow a child’s craft book from the library and copy a pattern, or download a craft pattern or simple doll’s dress pattern.
Gather the ingredients for a  science experiment – there’s heaps of little experiments like this crystal snowflake that are fun, but the ingredients are quite inexpensive.

crystal snowflake from Anne Helmenstine

For the little ones, a  plastic egg carton or an ice-cube tray, with bottles of food colouring and an eye dropper will give a pre-schooler hours of fun. (just add water.. 🙂 )
For the more adventurous, purchase some off cuts and seconds from the timber yard and try…
bird nesting box (if you research which birds live in your area, there are often plans to suit specific bird varieties)
a timber boat (or make a whole fleet!)
from Kids Konstruction Korner
Or collect odds from around the house,  and try this one from Martha Stewart:
There are many paper projects for both boys and girls available  as free downloads from the internet.  You have to watch that the printing costs don’t get out of hand if you find a big project, though.
A paper boat from the Toy Maker :
Pinwheels are great fun:
The Toymaker has heaps of cute, cute, cute paper toys to download, not the least of which is this pinwheel using a clever paperclip and buttons design.
Super cute design from Marilyn Scott-Waters
Another I couldn’t go past was this adorable bug box.  How tempting to print and make this to gift a packet of seeds for an aspiring gardener.
Flower seeds, or vegetable seeds, or herb seeds in such a dear little box would have to move you to run out and garden.  If you don’t have pots spare, the bottom half of a milk carton or 2 litre drink container with holes punched in the bottom would do the trick.
For the arty, Google your child’s favourite animal with “+ colouring page” and print out some pictures for them to colour, or browse the many free colouring page sites. There are some incredibly detailed pictures available, including famous art works made into colour pages.  Several sites also have paper dolls for download.
Put all the ingredients for these paper bag puppets from Martha Stewart’s craft pages into a bag, and print out pics of what they will look like with the instructions:
Older children may like to make a castle;
For girls, save little boxes from matches, jewellery, medicine, etc, as well as all sorts of plastic packaging, and off cuts of pretty paper and fabric, put them in a large plastic storer,  and let the children use them make their own dolls house from a large cardboard box, or a small book-case.
Download some audiobooks from Librivox (it’s free) on to CD’s  for car listening or bed time.  Google the cover art of the book and print out for your CD cover.
Check ebay, the book Depository, your local thrift store for cheap books.  Keep an eye on your local library for sales of excess stock.  Some books are still like new, but even some of the beat up ones can be treasures if you choose your author carefully.
This paper whistle would make cool stocking stuffer fun (you can use a coloured paper instead of plain to make it more festive).
You can make your own word search with your child’s favourite bands, animals, friends names, family members (this is also good fun to do for each member of the family to personalise home-made crackers)
Home made fudge/caramel wrapped in cellophane are delicious stocking fillers (pop in just before the event if you have ants!)  as is homemade popcorn with icing sugar or caramel popcorn in little zip lock bags.
If you have older boys you may consider a sleep-under-the-stars camp out.  Wrap up a tin of baked beans, or spam, or some other grossly yukky traditional camp food, and let it be known that it goes with a trip to somewhere out of town to sleep out and cook rough.  (Of course, December in Australia that would be a breeze, but if you’re on the other side of the world, I guess that could be a bit brisk!) Hand reels could work the same way for a fishing trip if you have a lake or river near by.
Happy holidays, folks!

Minimum Effort Maximum Effect Festive Cake



This is cake is so easy, and so fast, it’s hard to believe it works: but it does!  There’s no soaking, chopping or messing about.  After lining the cake tin, prep time is about 6 minutes.

Here’s what you need:

  • 1 kilogram of whole fruit and nuts: I used apricots, sultanas, walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts, glace cherries, pitted dates and dried pineapple. Health food stores sell this in a pre-pack, or you can customize to suit your taste.
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 200gms castor sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Here’s how:

  1. Place fruit and nuts in large mixing bowl.
  2. Sift flour and baking powder into bowl, add sugar. sift-dry-ingredients-over-fruit-mix
  3. Add lightly beaten eggs, brandy and vanilla, mix well.add-wet-ingredients-and-mix
  4. At this point you could be forgiven for wondering how this will turn into a cake, but I assure you it works. Spoon into a greased and lined, 20cm cake tin; bake for 2 hours at 150c.spoon-into-lined-cake-tin

You’re done!


Celebration Fruit Cake

Leave a comment


It’s rich, fruity, moist,  and delicious!

Here’s what you need:

  • 500g (1lb) sultanas
  • 250g (8 oz) raisins
  • 25og (8oz) dates
  • 125g (4oz) currants
  • 125g (4oz) mixed peel
  • 200g glace cherries
  • 125g (4oz) glace ginger
  • 60g (2oz) glace pineapple
  • 60g (2oz) glace apricots
  • 250g (8oz) butter
  • I cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 5 eggs
  • 1/2 cup rum, brandy or sherry
  • 1 & 3/4 cups plain flour
  • 1/3 cup self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • handful of brazil nuts (optional, but I like them)
  • 2 tablespoons rum, brandy or sherry extra

Here’s how:

  1. Chop dates, ginger, pineapple, and apricots, and place in your largest bowl with raisins, peel, and  whole cherries.
  2. Pour alcohol over the fruit, mix well, cover and stand overnight.
  3. Line a deep 20cm (8 in.) square or deep 23cm round cake tin with three thicknesses of greaseproof paper, bringing paper 8cm (3in) above the edge of the tin.  ( I don’t have a deep cake dish, so I make two cakes from this mix using smaller dishes)
  4. Beat butter until soft; and sugar; beat only until combined.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  5. Add creamed mixture to fruit mixture; stir well. add-creamed-mix-to-fruit
  6. In a small bowl, sift dry ingredients together, then add to the wet fruit mix in stages; mixing well.add-dry-ingredients-in-stages2
  7. Spread evenly into prepared tin or tins, bake in a slow oven for 3 to 3 & 1/2 hours for one whole cake, 1 & 1/2 hours for two smaller cakes.
  8. When cooked, remove from oven; brush evenly with extra alcohol.  Cover with aluminum foil until cold.  Remove from tin, re-wrap, keeping airtight until required.


Truly Delightful Truffles



Perfect  after dinner with coffee  or as a gift for someone special, these handcrafted truffles are the epitome of chocolate indulgence.

You will need:

  • 400 grams of quality dark chocolate
  • 1 tbs butter
  • 1 x 400gm tin of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 x 200gm packet of crushed nuts
  • 125 grams roasted hazelnuts for centre (optional)*
  • 300 grams extra chocolate to coat (milk or dark, depending on preference)
  1. Melt chocolate by preferred method (over steam or in the microwave)
  2. Add butter and condensed milk, mix.add-condensed-milk
  3. Allow to chill until a manageable consistency.
  4. Form into balls (a 1/2 tbls measure is a perfect size) and press nut into centre.
  5. Roll in crushed nuts. roll-in-crushed-nuts
  6. Dip in melted chocolate, place on trays lined with baking paper.**                         two-spoons-to-coat-with-chocolate
  7. Place in the refrigerator to cool.

*To roast hazelnuts, place on a tray in medium oven (180) for about 10-15mins, shaking occasionally. Roll in clean cloth to remove skins.

** If working in warm conditions, place trays in freezer before starting work

The recipe was created by my sister, a worthy gastronome, and will make approximately 70 truffles.