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Cookie swaps make baking, socializing efficient

We live in a seaside town in South Africa, so folks return here year after year to enjoy the warm weather of the holiday season. With friends in town, eight kids at home and heaps of family visiting, it adds up to a lot of people to juggle.

Our solution? We host one big party — a cookie swap — so we can see everyone we know all at once. The beauty of a cookie swap party is that each family makes just one big batch to share, but at the end of the party, they leave with a wide variety of treats. Although many cookie swaps are adults-only affairs, we make sure there are crafts and games for all ages. Here are my tried-and-true ideas for a family event that leaves my kids excitedly planning the next one as soon as it’s over.


Each family brings two dozen cookies in a box or on a trap ready to be displayed. These are set aside for later. Consider putting up a sign saying “Please don’t snack on the cookies.” (One year, two grannies at our party quietly ate their way through a large portion of the swap cookies while everyone else was busy crafting.)

Artistic icebreaker

As your visitors arrive, invite them to decorate a card stock cookie shape, such as a bell, star or gingerbread man. Have a variety of coloring tools on hand (markers, crayons, gel pens) and include tacky glue and sequins, beads and pieces of ribbon, if you like. When the cookies are finished, tie or clip them onto a string for a garland. Our guests, especially the younger ones, always love seeing their artwork become instant party décor.

Set up a decorating station

The goodies on the swapping table are off-limits, but that doesn’t mean you should ban cookies from your event. Before the party, bake a batch of sugar cookies and set up a decorating station. Fill small bowls with sprinkles, tiny candies, colored sugar and dried cranberries. You also will want to put out some basic icing in a few colors, in bowls with spoons for spreading or in squeeze bottles for piping. We decorate our cookies on trays so the excess sprinkles are contained and can be reapplied. Have a place for the cookies to sit while the icing sets.

My favorite icing: Mix 1 tablespoon melted butter into 1 cup confectioners’ sugar. Add 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon boiling water and stir. If the icing is too thick, add water. Stir in food coloring, a drop or two at a time.

Snack strategy

Avoid cookie overload (and baking exhaustion) by serving simple snacks — popcorn, chips and dip, hot chocolate with a toppings bar.

Matched box

Have each family decorate a box for taking cookies home. We buy unfolded boxes from a local bakery supply store (major craft stores carry similar ones in the baking section). Put out a pile of stickers, markers, stamps, ink pads and glitter glue, and let guests customize them to their heart’s content.

Games galore

While the glue dries and the icing sets, try holding a cookie olympics. Our games include:

Pile up: Who can stack the highest tower of cookie cutters?

Cookie-spoon race: With a cookie balanced on a spoon, players must race to the other side of the room and back.

The delicious discus: Who can throw their cardboard cookie the farthest?

Pin the bow on the gingerbread man: A cookie-themed version of the classic challenge.

The hands-free cookie-eating race: My kids’ favorite. Players stand at a table and eat a cookie from a plate, no hands allowed. Whoever finishes first wins.

The grand finale

When everyone is nearly tired out, it’s time to gather around the cookie swap table, decorated boxes in hand. Have each family select two dozen cookies, so they leave with the same number they brought. They’re now ready to gather their crafts and head home, where, we hope, they’ll enjoy some milk and (more) cookies before calling it a night.