Alison: This is All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. Let's talk care packages. In the past seven weeks during my medical leave, I was on the receiving end of some awesome surprise packages. While I was off my feet, my friends were on it. I received a wild mix of some artisanal Swedish fish in flavors like sour elderberry and sweet wild raspberry, was courtesy of BonBon, the Swedish Candy Paradise. It has a store on the Upper East Side. The punchline to that care package, it came from a college friend of mine, Dr. Sondra Zabar. Yes, as in Zabar's. They have their own packages.
My college roommate was a very smart, accomplished woman, vice chancellor now at a prestigious university, who knows me very well. Sent me a box with Silly Putty, a grow-your-own Chia Pet lavender thingy, and a little megaphone to amplify my voice so there was no way my teenage son could not hear my voice. I've not seen the latter in a long time. I really appreciated those and I loved getting care packages, showed people really cared about me. It can be a great way to tell someone you're thinking about them but sometimes it's difficult to know exactly what to send, especially if you want to try to avoid items that are too spendy or cute and not useful.
Samantha Schoech of Wirecutter recently wrote an article on this, and as one person named Rich commented on the piece, I came across this in my inbox and immediately thought what a perfectly timed and practical article. "My eldest daughter just got started in her freshman year of college about five hours from home so thank you for your thoughtful advice. I immediately shared this with my wife. Although we may not like your choices, we do appreciate the intent, so thank you." Joining me now is Wirecutter gifts writer Samantha Schoech. Samantha, welcome to All Of It.
Samantha Schoech: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Alison: Listeners, we want to hear your experiences. If you've ever been on the receiving end of a great care package, call us and tell us what was in it. 212-433-9692, 212-433-WNYC. You can also text us at that number and reach out on social media @AllOfItWNYC. When you were feeling down, what really did it for you in a care package? 212-433-9692. If you send the care packages, how do you go about putting together? What are your must haves? What do you avoid? 212-433-9692, 212-433-WNYC. Samantha, as I said, you're actually quoted in the Wirecutter piece. I should correct that. When should one send a care package?
Samantha Schoech: First of all, your care package packages sound amazing. Your friends really did you right with those gifts. We usually think of kids away at college or boarding school or camp or someone going through a difficult time generally if they're ill. You can send a care package for any reason at all. I have a friend who is finally fulfilling her dream of becoming a nurse midwife at age 52. I just sent her a "welcome back to grad school" care package of fancy pencils and fancy paper, some good coffee, and a nice mug. There's really no parameters. You can always send a care package.
Alison: There's no time that's not appropriate?
Samantha Schoech: I would say that if someone is in the depths of grief, then gifts are probably not what they need at that moment and you'll always be the judge of that. I would say that if someone's going through a particularly difficult time of mourning or grief, maybe hold off on the gifts. Words are probably more useful at that time.
Alison: You've described putting together a care package as a balancing act. How so? What are we balancing here?
Samantha Schoech: Obviously, for the giver, you're balancing price and logistics. How many different places do you want to run around to to get these gifts? How much do you want to spend? How much do you want to spend on shipping? All of that stuff. In terms of putting it together, you're balancing what is appropriate for the moment, what you know about your recipient. Just some rules that I have about gift giving in general and care package giving in particular, one of which is no junk.
I'm really not a fan of things that are going to delight someone for a moment or two and then end up as landfill. If you want to give lots of little inexpensive things to delight someone, give candy, give teabags, give something that they'll use, a bottle of nail polish. Things that are gag gifts or joke gifts or things like that, they really have a delight factor of about one minute or less.
Alison: I got a themed care package also from one of the moms of one of the producers on the show and it was so cute. It had a beautiful handwritten note explaining partially the theme. They live in Maine and when we were in remote work, they used to call the corner of the house where Simon worked, WNYC North. She gave me a little Maine tote bag with lobsters and in it had a mug which was really nice to use, an L.L.Bean mug, and some lobster lollipops. What was interesting is I ended up using that little tote bag to carry things around from room to room because I couldn't carry that much. It ended up being both cute and really useful.
Samantha Schoech: Right. That's perfect. So cute, useful, and thoughtful, something that reminds people of something you share together like that, like Maine. That's perfect. It hits all of the buttons.
Alison: What are some other themes that make good care packages?
Samantha Schoech: A theme is just based on why you're sending it. Obviously, there's the typical get-well theme which might contain a favorite tea and a nice mug and some cozy socks, maybe some chicken soup, maybe a favorite book of poetry, all soothing elements which would be different if you were sending someone a celebratory gift or a care package which might include champagne glasses and a bottle of champagne or anything that felt celebratory and luxurious.
Alison: You have a category you call the keep-your-mind-occupied category, suggestions of things you can send people, a care package to keep their mind occupied. What could go in that?
Samantha Schoech: Again, it depends on the situation. If somebody is very ill and they don't have a lot of physical strength, you want to make sure that it's stuff that's just for keeping your mind occupied and maybe not necessarily your hands. If they have a little bit more mobility, colored pencils and adult coloring books are really great for that. Puzzle books are really great for that. Obviously, if they're readers, any sort of narrative fiction or nonfiction books. I love starting a care package with a book and creating a theme around that.
I have another friend who moved from the Bay Area to Wyoming and is very sad about the lack of really good Asian food. I live in San Francisco where we just have an embarrassment of riches of Asian markets. I sent her a Vietnamese cookbook and then I went to an Asian market and bought a lot of typical Vietnamese ingredients and sent that off to her. It wasn't a narrative book, but the theme centered around a book. In terms of keeping your mind occupied, I have to say I love that Silly Putty idea. It seems silly, but it's nice to have something to fidget with, I think.
Alison: 100%. Like I said, we lived together for two years. She saw what calms me down. Let's take a couple of calls. Let's talk to Annette from Manhattan. Hi, Annette.
Alison: You're on the air.
Annette: Yes, hi. I got a wonderful care package from my daughter one year. I was away on business, a very stressful time, lots of committee meetings that I was in charge of, and she sent me a box of chocolate-covered Mallomar, cooked crackers that I loved, a scented candle from the hotel room, and bath oil for relaxing baths.
Alison: That sounds like a very relaxing care package. Annette, thanks for calling in. Let's talk to Angela from Manhattan. Hi, Angela. Thanks for calling All Of It. You're on the air.
Angela: Hi. How're you doing?
Alison: Doing great.
Angela: Good. Good. The best care package of my life was from Chuck Palahniuk. I read a book, I think it was Invisible Monsters, and I actually wrote him a letter because I loved it so much, and I've never ever, ever done that before. He wrote back and he sent me a box with-- he made me a bracelet with my name on it, and then he put in one of those, I don't know, a little baby toy. I think it's a Beanie Baby, I'm not sure. It was like a little squishy toy, and then he wrote a letter and he put it in there.
Then there were all these other little things, an eraser, and then he packed it beautifully with this shredded newspaper. It was in this box and the box had a hinge on it. I opened it up because I couldn't really believe what it was. Then I repacked it because it was so special. I keep it in my desk and when I'm blue, I pull it out and I look at it because this total stranger was so thoughtful and did this nice thing for me.
Alison: Angela, thank you. Did not expect that call today.
Samantha Schoech: That's amazing.
Alison: My guest is Samantha Schoech. She's gifts writer at Wirecutter. We're talking about what makes a good care package. You can give us a call, 212-433-9692. 212-433-WNYC. What have you received in a care package that was terrific? Maybe you send care packages out or maybe you just need some advice on a care package. 212-433-9692. 212-433-WNYC. I'm going to read this text because this gets into one of your categories, Samantha. I don't know if this counts as a care package, but when I was at camp, my mom was great at packages and once smuggled me gum hidden in a tampon box. That's the funny part.
While convalescing as an adult, friends have sent me cozy blanket, slippers, and lots of trashy magazines, all very welcome. That's from Erica in Brooklyn. Yes, we've arrived at the comfy cozy part of gift-giving. You have a category that is full of things like slippers and candles. Tell me a little bit about why you should put in a gift bag that makes people feel comfy and cozy care package.
Samantha Schoech: Actually, this week is Wirecutter's cozy week, so if you go there, you'll find lots of ideas for cozy things. That's very often a theme, is comfort and coziness. I also review for Wirecutter gift care package services that will do the legwork for you. That's often the focus that they have, is this cozy comfort, really soft socks. Candles are always nice if people like scents. That's very common one. Masks, cooling eye masks.
Alison: Ooh, nice.
Samantha Schoech: Lotions, lip balms, bath oils, all of that kind of thing can really-- hot cocoa, chai tea mix. All of those things that have that fall-winter cozy feeling are really, really common care package items.
Alison: All right. Sort of a crass question. Let's say you're sending something like L.L.Bean slippers, that was one of yours. Do you send a gift receipt or no?
Samantha Schoech: It depends on how well you know your recipients, but I would say no. If it's a gift receipt, it doesn't have the price on it. That's a big item for a care package, honestly. Usually, the price point for different items. It depends on how many you're including, again, and what your budget is, but it runs anywhere from $10 to $25. You can get obviously ultra-luxury with this and spend as much as you want, but that's usually the price range of items that go in.
Alison: I got a text that says, "We came back from leaving our nine-year-old daughter at the hospital. We found a bag full of soups, veggie sticks, and other savory food. It was so thoughtful, we didn't have the mind to cook, so this was perfect and so unexpected. What a lovely care package to get." One of the things you put into your cozy mix was instant noodles. Is there a particular brand?
Samantha Schoech: Oh, yes. We have a whole instant noodle review and picks on Wirecutter. The brand that they included there in the story is our number one pick. We consulted all sorts of chefs to arrive at the best instant noodles. Food is wonderful and very classic and you can either combine non-perishables with other gifts in the same, but there's lots of services. You mentioned Zabar's that will send edible gift baskets and care packages for you with all sorts of themes from family dinner to get well to happy birthday.
Alison: Are there foods to avoid sending?
Samantha Schoech: Again, this is just going to depend on preferences and allergies. If you know your recipient well then you'll know that. If you don't, then you want to avoid common allergens like nuts. Otherwise, obviously, you don't want to send soup yourself.
Alison: Yes. [laughs]
Samantha Schoech: If you're going to send soup, you want to use a third-party company to do that for you. Otherwise, I would say common allergens is something you want to avoid.
Alison: Here's one. Someone said a postpartum gift basket with disposable underwear, postpartum tea, nipple balm, ice packs, and electrolytes. That's very specific, but hey, to your point.
Samantha Schoech: That's another really classic time to send a gift package is postpartum to new moms. That one that you just described sounds totally perfect. Obviously, you have to know your recipient pretty well if you're going to send them nipple cream, but there are other slightly less intimate things you could send to a new mom or new parents. A lot of that falls into the comforting, soothing category, or things that they're going to need. New moms who are nursing need to drink tons of water, so a great water bottle is a perfect gift for that situation. A package of burp cloths. It doesn't have to be fancy. If you find something useful and thoughtful, that's perfect.
Alison: Let's talk to Norbert calling in from Rockland County. Hi, Norbert.
Norbert: Hi Alison. So good to hear you. This is a lively one today. I have two what I believe to be contributions. One was one I got probably 70 years ago, and the other was one I just gave or actually asked my wife to send to my sister in Seattle. Let me tell you about the first one. Interrupt at any time, Alison, it's your program, right?
Alison: Okay. Go for it, Norbert.
Norbert: Okay. In seventh grade, I had an acute appendicitis. They take me to St. Michael's Hospital in Newark where everybody was from. Doctor does a 12-inch incision, removes this thing that has exploded, and now I'm into three months of learning how to walk again. One of my good friend acquaintances, 12-year-old boys, friends for life not quite, gives me a copy of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's 17th century, the Englishman marooned on an island and learns how to survive. It was fantasy before fantasy hit the books, you know what I mean? I loved it and I lived with it because I knew I was alone.
Alison: Norbert, you told me I could dive in. I'm going to dive in. I love the sentiment about that. It was a memory from when you were a little kid. I do want to get a few more people in here. Someone texted, "I sent my daughter a box of fall leaves when she was going to school in California and missed autumn." That is a lovely one.
Samantha Schoech: That is a great one.
Alison: Yes. Let's talk to Jennifer on line six from South Orange. Hi, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Hi. I'm so glad that you're recovering from your donation. My daughter just turned 21 and she's a junior at the University of Michigan. She was going to have her own apartment for the first time. We, including my 12-year-old son, absolutely love to cook. Somehow cooking just never got into her by osmosis. She calls us every day. Anyway, so I did a whole cooking-themed birthday for her, and I called her girlfriend beforehand and I said, "Do you think this is a good idea?" and she said, "I love it." I found this simple online class and then I got her that heat, fat, acid book and then, two, one really nice pot and one really nice pan.
I thought and my husband thought that this was an amazing gift. She gets it. She's like, "You sent me a pot and a pan." I said, "It's a whole cooking-themed gift because you really want to learn how to cook." She did not like this gift at all. Her birthday was September 16th and we just went out this past weekend. We went to this very cute store in Ann Arbor and I found this Trader Joe's how to cook in college book, this Trader Joe's air fryer book.
There was a cute Michigan charcuterie board, a putty, a pair of socks for her and her girlfriend, a bath [unintelligible 00:18:47], and the little tote bag. She loved it. The nice pot and pan that I thought, "Oh, she'll take it into her adult life," she doesn't want any-- it's still sitting in a box with the little putty and [unintelligible 00:19:05]
Alison: That was Samantha's point. I'm going to dive in, Jennifer. That was Samantha's point, small is better sometimes than big grand gestures.
Samantha Schoech: Yes. With all gifts, you're going for delight. Oftentimes when you buy somebody something that's purely useful and really smart and pragmatic, it's not going to hit that delight button.
Alison: Got a text. I'm Trinidadian. I live in Brooklyn. My favorite uncle, Uncle Barry lives in Florida. He periodically sends me care packages of mangoes and sugarcane from his yard in Florida. Joy of my life. I'm in my early 50s. Makes me feel like a happy kid.
Samantha Schoech: That's amazing. I know our gift baskets guide on Wirecutter, there is a tropical fruit gift basket. If you are from a tropical place and you're missing that, they will send you fruit in the mail and it's incredible.
Alison: Text says, "Oatmeal raisin cookies homemade travel well baked by my mother and me. My kids are in college, so in most of their recent care packages, I sketched their college mascots on little note cards for them and I sent pictures from home of friends and family to put on their walls." I think a note's important to include, don't you?
Samantha Schoech: Yes. A care package is not a care package without a note. You want to express your feelings, but you also want to explain your thinking behind the care package. "I thought you could use this. Remember when we did this," that sort of thing. Many of the care package services will include a handwritten note to your specifications.
Alison: So many good suggestions. Thank you callers and folks who've texted in, and thank you to Samantha Schoech, gift writer at Wirecutter. Great care package suggestions today. Thanks, Samantha.
Samantha Schoech: Thanks for having me.
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