Updated on 09.03.14

Homemade Gift Series #6: Meals in a Jar

Trent Hamm

How to Make Complete Meals in a Jar

A simple picture will probably explain things better than any introductory description could.

Finished jars

The jar on the left, obviously, is a “Rainbow Brownie” mix, to which you add just a couple liquid ingredients, pour into a pan, and bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. The one on the right is a soup mix, to which you add 6 cups of water (and, optionally, 1/2 lb. ground beef) and boil in a pot for 45 minutes (or in a crock pot for an afternoon).

The nice thing about jars like these is that you can easily mix the ingredients for yourself and keep them in a jar or a baggie for future use. They won’t look quite as pretty as these jars, but they’ll certainly be functional (see below).

Let’s take a peek at the contents of the two jars.

Soup Jar

Bean jar ingredients

In the picture above, we made a pint jar, which is a half-batch of what’s described below. That’s because we’re giving that jar to a couple with one very young child. If you want to give this to a larger family or want to ensure that the recipient has leftovers, make the full batch, as described below.

1/3 cup beef bullion granules
1/4 cup dried minced onion
1/2 cup dried split peas
1/2 cup twist macaroni
1/4 cup barley
2 cups dried lentils
1/3 cup long grain white rice
1 cup uncooked tri-color spiral pasta

Filling bean jar

We added these ingredients to a quart jar, going right down the list. As you can see above, Joe helped with this.

Bean jar

The finished soup jar has a nice pretty layered look to it, something very cute to put into the cupboard that’s also functional, too.

Bean jar and baggies

Of course, if you’d like, you can make the same mix for yourself and keep it in a baggie or a jar. We added all of these ingredients to a few baggies for our own use. A quick labeling with some identification of the contents and some instructions and we have some good meals ready to go for later this winter.

Brownie Jar

Brownie jar ingredients

We followed a similar procedure with the brownie jar. You’ll need the following ingredients (and a quart jar, of course).

1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup cocoa powder
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup pecans or chocolate chips or M&Ms

First, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together before putting them in the jar.

After that, you’re just going to be adding powdered ingredients to a quart jar. We started with the flour layer, then put the cocoa on top of that. At this point, spend some time to pack down the flour and cocoa mix with whatever you have on hand to push down on the powder; otherwise, you’ll run out of room before you can put in all of the mix-ins.

Put in the sugar next, then top it with the mix-ins (pecans or chocolate chips or M&Ms).

Finishing Steps

On the top of each jar, put an ordinary lid and a ring so that it can easily be opened later. We also put a sticker on the bottom of each jar listing the ingredients (in case recipients have allergies).

We also bought some bulk cloth at a fabric shop and cut it into large squares (5″ by 5″ or so), then tied this piece of cloth to the top of the jar with a ribbon.

Jar tags

To that ribbon, we also tied instruction tags. One side describes the item, the other side explains what needs to be done.

Here’s the text for the soup jar tag:

In large kettle, brown 1 lb. ground beef (optional). Remove tri-color pasta and reserve. Add rest to kettle with 12 cups water. Let come to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes. Add tri color pasta and simmer 15 minutes more.

Here’s the text for the brownie jar tag:

Preheat to 350 F. Grease 9″x13″ baking pan. Empty jar into large bowl and stir to blend. Mix in 1 cup melted butter, 3 eggs, and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Mix thoroughly. Spread in pan. Bake 25-30 minutes. Cool completely before cutting. Optional but recommended: replace 1 cup butter with 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup applesauce.

Finished jars

In the end, you’ve got some cute – and highly functional – gifts to share whenever you need them.

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  1. katy says:

    I have given soup mix in a jar to people before and it is always appreciated. Thanks for the reminder! I think I’ll do that again this year.

  2. Johanna says:

    I’d hope that you’d check with your intended recipients to see whether they have any allergies before giving them food as a gift.

    And do the white rice and macaroni really end up getting simmered for an hour? Isn’t that nasty?

  3. Another Elizabeth says:

    I’ve made similar recipes before for Christmas gifts and they always go over well.

    #2 Johanna, my recipe says to keep the pasta out (I actually packed it in a ziploc-type bag or a square of plastic wrap) before putting it in the top of my jars) and just add it for the last 20 minutes of the cooking time. I also like to use brown rice because it cooks longer.

  4. Dorothy says:

    I’ve made soup mix and given it MANY times. I agree that the macaroni will be overcooked, but in soup that’s probably OK. But I don’t use it. The rice is not a problem. When I make it I visit an Indian grocery store where I can find two colors of split peas (yellow and green) and two or three colors of lentils (including a small one that’s bright orange. I also use both brown and white rice. I use a total of two cups of grains and legumes in my jar.

    Also, I usually give the soup mix as a holiday gift. I include a 15 oz. can of tomatoes. I splurge on this and buy one with a pretty label usually from an Italian deli.

    And I suggest on the directions that the recipient add cut-up leftover meat to the soup. This makes the mix great forn using up leftover holiday roasts — turkey, ham, roast beef, leg of lamb, whatever!

  5. Jackie says:

    You could also use a vegetable bullion to make vegetarian-friendly soup.

  6. MJ says:

    I would LOVE more recipes like this. We have a pretty hectic life and being able to have the dry good premixed would totally encourage me to cook at home more often, knowing I could just dump the contents, measure some water, click start on the crock before I leave for work, and dinner would be done by the time I get home. LOVE my crockpot!

  7. Johanna says:

    Sorry to post another gripe, but I just don’t understand this as a gift.

    I mean, what’s the “gift”? You’re not saving them any time, since cooking from your mix takes just as long as cooking from scratch. You’re not saving them a substantial amount of effort. With these recipes, you’re not giving them any kind of inspired flavor or seasoning combinations. You’re not giving them premium ingredients. You’re not giving them ingredients that they’re not likely to have on hand anyway. (Surely, anyone who bakes often enough to own a brownie pan keeps flour, sugar, and baking powder in their kitchen, for example.)

    Maybe there are people who like getting things like this as gifts. But I don’t think I’d be one of them, even setting aside the fact that they both contain or call for ingredients that I don’t eat.

    And you probably didn’t mean it this way, but I can see somebody reading the “optional but recommended” part of the brownie recipe as an implied jab about their weight.

    I’ve really enjoyed some of the ideas earlier in this series, but this one falls flat to me. Sorry.

  8. Rachel says:

    I have given these in the past and will be doing so again this year, as back in April I began making my own vanilla and I’d like to make it part of a larger gift–namely, a jarred baking mix that calls for some of the vanilla I’m making. This should help make the homemade vanilla a more useful gift for those who do not bake often, provide them with a delicious recipe I have often been asked for in the past (for the jarred mix recipe), and more vanilla if they’d like to use it in the future to make the recipe again, or just to add it to iced coffee. For me, the point is to encourage and help those who do not bake very often to make something delicious and fresh, on THEIR timetable and when THEY’D like it, unlike making baked goods for them yourself at the holidays when let’s face it–a lot of these aren’t eaten in time before they go bad.

  9. holly says:

    On another site I saw the suggestion that people buy their mason type jars at resale, Salvation army, Goodwill type stores. This will also keep the out of pocket expenses in reason.

    Many people have obligatory neighbor, coworker, church or organization people that they need to give token gifts over the holiday season. This meets that need AND looks nice, caring and thoughtful.

  10. Andrea says:

    Also, regarding allergies: Of course Johanna is right that one should check on the recipients’ allergies before giving a food gift, but an ingredient label keeps everyone covered in case the recipient chooses to share the soup, cookies, brownies, etc., with friends, co-workers, or extended family members. It’s completely unreasonable to expect a gift-giver to research every food allergy of every person the recipient might share the gift with.

  11. Jean says:

    Bullion is gold or silver considered as so much metal; specifically : uncoined gold or silver in bars or ingots. Bouillon is soup broth.

    Otherwise a great idea.

  12. Interested Reader says:

    Johanna this is an obligation gift. Where people do a mass produced either home made or store bought gift for people they know slightly but still feel they have to get gifts for.

    People seem to think this is better than going out and buy a dozen of the same item to give out to everyone in the office or whatever. Personally I’d rather not get a gift than get one of these types of gifts.

    I like gift giving, but I like searching for a great gift for someone I know and knowing that I’m getting someone something they will truly enjoy and is really something from me (even if it’s store bought). Which is why I don’t do obligation gift giving.

  13. Michelle says:

    Johanna, I’ve received a few of these, and really enjoyed them. Often, it’s a soup I don’t usually make, or a dessert that I don’t have the recipe for. I’ve also gotten them in gift baskets that include the other ingredients, which is really nice. As someone who is a terrifically bad cook, I enjoy getting to try something new the “easy” way!

  14. rosa rugosa says:

    @Interested Reader: I’m with you on this one! But different people have different gift-giving traditions, so not every article here has to work for me to have value.

  15. lurker carl says:

    Give a container filled with the finished product rather than a jar of ingredients.

    We’ve received such gifts in the past, my wife no longer cares for them after a crop of mealworms hatched in a jar of oatmeal cookie mix.

  16. moom says:

    I don’t get this as a gift either.

  17. JJ says:

    I’m surprised so many people wouldn’t appreciate receiving a gift like this. I would be pleased that someone went to the effort of putting together a home-made gift for me. No, it isn’t the kind of thing you give your best friend. But if I received this from a neighbor down the street, the kind of person you say hi to but perhaps don’t know as well as you’d like to, I’d be awfully touched. I wouldn’t sneer at it just because I might be allergic to chocolate, or hate lentils, or because other people in the giver’s life will be getting the same thing. I’m sure it would strengthen the friendship.

    I suppose I think there’s a difference between an obligation and a voluntary, sincerely merry-christmakwanzakah holiday gift.

    Besides, no one got up in arms about the jams-and-jellies post, and that’s food too. Or did I just miss it?

  18. Leah says:

    enh, I’ve received these and think they’re nice. it’s kind of fun to try a new recipe. I’ve also bought things like this as fundraisers from various kids I know.

  19. Interested Reader says:

    I’m not a big jelly or jam eater, plus there’s some more time involved in making jam or jelly so I didn’t say anything.

    But I have gotten this type of a thing as a gift and it’s always felt like I’m getting it because the person feels they have to give a gift. I’m a coworker or part of a group and they “have” to give a gift and so this is just a way to get a bunch of names of the list.

    I will admit I’m very much an introvert and not a joiner of groups/organizations so I don’t have the kind of acquaintances that some people have. I know that with one of the times I got a gift like this I found out the giver was giving this to like 2 dozen other people. This was a coworker I spoke to just a couple times a week and never outside of work.

    It didn’t feel like “I’m giving this to you because I want to strengthen our acquaintanceship” it felt like “you’re a coworker, I’m supposed to give gifts to co workers so – here!”

  20. Todd says:

    You don’t have to actually use it. Just put it on your kitchen counter so it looks like you have friends. ;-) In fact, I have one from 1998 still on my counter collecting dust. (Well, I used to have friends…)

  21. George says:

    Wow, Johanna and moom and several others are just plain elitist about the gifts that they receive. If you get a gift like this, the person actually TOOK TIME to make it for you rather than trying to buy you off with baubles from a store. But then most people in this day and age would rather have gift cards, cash or the baubles rather than something made from the heart. Thank the Valar I don’t have to give you a gift.

    And Lurker Carl “Give a container filled with the finished product rather than a jar of ingredients.” The problem with this is that the holidays are already filled with food and sweets. The point to something like this is that they can make it during a time where there isn’t so much of that around, such as January or February. Giving a box of the finished product would most likely just not get used or would not be as appreciated.

    Personally, I would prefer something made from someone, such as this, to a bunch of crap from a store. But then I think that handmade gifts have value. Obviously some people here don’t.

    And hey, you don’t like it, DONT MAKE IT.

  22. Robin Crickman says:

    I found a cookbook at my public library called
    Make a Mix which had lots of recipes for things
    you could make of this sort. If the recipes here
    don’t appeal, something in that book might.

  23. J.O. says:

    @ Todd


  24. Joyful says:

    Wow I can’t believe all the comments form those who wouldn’t appreciate that someone took the time to actually prepare a home made gift. I don’t care if this gift was given to me by someone I know casually or if my best friend gave it to me. Either way I would love to receive it. I would also like to make and gift this but if someone wouldn’t appreciate it, I would rather give them nothing.

  25. Joyful says:

    I should just clarify when I say, I would rather give… nothing. I personally feel that we have an abundance of riches in Canada and USA and we don’t actually appreciate things the way they do in developing countries or very poor places. Along that vein, I’ve given up giving gifts to friends and family for the most part. Instead I save what I can and send it to African orphans and widows. I have been to Africa and I have been in the homes of villagers and seen the hardships first hand. I also see that they don’t take much for granted and are grateful to receive a gift. Even in Africa though, it is better not to have hand outs but to give “hand ups” to those that are working hard to better themselves. If there is a widow or orphan though who really is starving that is another matter….it is important to feed, clothe and shelter them first.

  26. Looby says:

    I don’t think that the previous commenters who suggested this was not a gift they would give or particularly want to receive are “elitist”.
    I personally love homemade gifts and give and receive them happily every year, however I agree with Johanna that I am not sure who this sort of gift is for.

    I have friends that rarely set foot in a kitchen, they love when I or other mutual friends give them brownies or have them round for dinner, but they would not be thrilled by this gift, and I doubt they even have a brownie pan.

    I have other friends who love to cook and bake and I wouldn’t give this gift to them either as they could make far tastier and unusual versions themselves.

    So if this isn’t a gift for my friends who cook/bake and isn’t a gift for my friends who don’t cook or bake, I’m really not sure who I would give them to (like Johanna said).

    I don’t give “obligatory” gifts but if I did it would probably be something handmade (as most of my gifts are) but finished- the jams and jellies seem much better gifts for that purpose. I also would like to think that I am not on the receiving end of any obligatory gifts but I will see if Christmas brings me any “meals in a jar”!

  27. April411 says:

    I have friends that rarely set foot in a kitchen, they love when I or other mutual friends give them brownies or have them round for dinner, but they would not be thrilled by this gift, and I doubt they even have a brownie pan.

    Well they don’t need a “brownie pan” just a baking pan. I personally think these are cute and I wouldn’t mind recieving one.

  28. I’d love to receive a gift like this.

    And, I also think its a great way of knocking out quite a lot of those “hard to buy for” people on your gift list.

    Who wouldn’t like it??

  29. I’m torn on gifts like this only because so often I see these mixes languishing in people’s cabinets or on their counters for years and years.

    So, I guess I’d just say that these kind of things need to be given to people who will be likely to use them.

  30. lurker carl says:

    George@#21 – The intent was to bake the cookies in February but it became a jar of mealworm infested ingredients by mid-January. IF we had received baked cookies and wanted to preserve them for several months, they would have gone into the freezer.

    Here’s a tip if the ingredients are not sensitive to heat, sterilize it. That would knock out the mealworm problem.

  31. Melissa says:

    @JJ This is actually something I would give my best friend and she would LOVE it!!!! And I just might do that!! But I probably would not give it to my husbands picky step Grandmother. Thats the thing, pick and choose who you would give it to. Just like any other gift you would give to people you care about. I think they are beautiful, and the fact that the kids can help is priceless! I am actually very excited about this, and my mind is even thinking of different ideas……I saw somewhere, how to make homemade bath salts!! It would be fun to just put candy in a jar, and layer it all pretty! Or you could even use different kinds of glass……Thanks Trent got me all excited, now I have to go make a list:)

  32. Gretchen says:

    Is the gift from Trent or Trent’s kids?

    Big difference in my book, but they still wouldn’t get eaten my me, personally.

    I agree that these are obligatory-style gifts but I honesly can’t understand why Trent seems to such a gift giving need after all his talk of cutting down the gift list.

  33. Gretchen says:

    Also, I’m not sure even lentils need to cook for an hour.

  34. Tally says:

    What’s wrong with you people? Free food! I’d love to get one of these jars. Then I can make brownies or soup without having to buy a whole kilo of flour/lentils that would rot in my cupboard from disuse. And they look so pretty! I think this is an incredibly thoughtful and neat gift.

  35. Interested Reader says:

    @Todd – was the remark “so it looks like you have friends” directed at me?

    I have friends. That I buy gifts for. Like I said, I like shopping for gifts and taking the time to get something the recipient would really like and want. If I don’t know a person well enough to know what they’d like as a gift then I don’t know them well enough to get them a gift.

    Also I don’t expect people I barely know to give me things or feel obligated to give me things.

    I’d much rather a person spend the time and money on their family or on charity or someone or something they truly care about and value.

  36. Interested Reader says:

    I will say this one of the bests gifts I got was from a coworker who paints a holiday picture every year. It takes her a couple months to do the painting and it’s really amazing.

    Then she makes prints and gives everyone a print.

    That gift I love and I framed it and hung it up. She’s done this for a long time and people who have worked with her have a whole series of prints that she’s done.

    I like it better as a gift because even though it’s a print it feels like a more personal gift.

  37. Looby says:

    @ April411- I’m not from the US and here baking pan refers to a long wide tray that is about 1cm deep and would be totally unsuitable for brownies.
    A brownie pan is usually a smaller square and about 2″ deep, and this is what I doubt my friends own.

  38. Amy says:

    I don’t think it is “elitist” to not want a gift that someone spent time and money on that you don’t want and will just either clutter up your house or be thrown away.

    It is a good idea for the right person if you find the right mix. But many, many people would not want it. There is nothing “wrong” with those people — I am one of them. Isn’t personal finance about avoiding spending extraneous time and money on things you don’t want and take up space? So why would you want your friends to waste their resources like that?

  39. kristine says:

    My sis-in-law is intimidated by the kitchen, and her husband gets nothing but bought meals, and it has taken a toll on their health. Something like this- easy to do, kinda healthy (replace the unhealthy white starches with whole wheat and brown rice), would be a good starting point for her. She might love it, or hate, it, but she will probably use it. And frankly, it might be more a gift for her husband!

    But unless specifically tailored to the person, it dies read as a mass-obligation gift for sure. Or a nice gift from a child. I do not indulge in obligation gifts.

    I would be much happier to get a small frozen homemade lazagna I could eat in January! Or frozen soup! Or just about anything that I only had to heat up, and not watch on the stove. 45 minutes is a long time.

  40. Kate says:

    If a close friend or family member gave this kind of gift to me I would love it…especially if it were given along with a donation to a worthy organization.

  41. jgonzales says:

    This is something I would do, even for some of my closer friends/family. I know a lot of people (and you probably do too) who make/eat a lot of convenience food, like canned soup and boxed baked good. This is the homemade version of convenience food, combining the easy of convenience food with the flavor of homemade. I think I’m going to do this for several family members this year (although with different recipes). Thanks for the reminder Trent!

  42. SP says:

    I typically am not a big fan of these gifts, but if I get one, I use it and appreciate the thought.

    Goodle “Single Serving Pie in a Jar”. I thought that was a cute idea. Yeah, it is just another sweet in a season of sweets, but it is small, and the only work required for the receiver is bringing the fork to their mouth. :)

  43. AniVee says:

    I think these are lovely gifts, especially if given by a child to someone the child knows and loves.

    They are also great gifts to someone who has eaten your soup or brownies or homemade pickles (Trent’s recipe is the greatest!) or rosemary & lemon cracked olives or anchovy peppers (my specialties) and loved them and perhaps even asked for the recipes.

    I really wouldn’t dare give them to “obligation gift” people in the office or whom I didn’t know very well UNLESS I had chatted with them at some time and knew that they were Food Mavens or Foodies or Adventurous Eaters. This would definitely fall flat with the Caviar-and-Champagne-at-the-Trendiest-New-Restaurant crowd.

  44. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I don’t think every gift is perfect for everyone. The purpose of this series is to put out a LOT of homemade gift ideas and let people choose which ones work for them and which ones do not.

    At the end of this series, we’re going to have a lot of homemade gifts. So far, most of them are things we would use ourselves, so if we end up not giving all of them away, we’ll have plenty of canned jellies and soap and soup mixes for the winter and spring.

  45. graytham says:

    I think these are great gifts- I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who don’t bake on a regular basis, but would have fun doing it once in a blue moon. This makes it so easy for them to whip up some homemade goodies without having to buy a whole bag of flour, baking powder, etc.

  46. kristine says:

    I agree that not every gift is perfect for everyone, and I think this is a terrific series.

    One thing that blows my mind, however, is the quantity of gifts you give. I don’t even know that many people!

    But perhaps, for those people close to you, a big basket with an assemblage of goodies would be a wonderful thing!

    Oh, and for the plain brown wrappers on the soap, you can get paper bags next time you shop, and cut those into strips. Free!

  47. Aerin says:

    I’m really bothered by the super-critical comments. Heaven forbid someone receive a gift that isn’t exactly what they want! If someone takes the time to make something and give it to you, the polite thing to do is say “thank you”. Think about the positive intent behind the gift and respond to that, instead of picking apart the gift itself. Do people really complain this bitterly about a nice gesture from a fellow human being?

    I’ve received a “cookie-in-a-jar” gift like this before, and enjoyed receiving it. First of all, I appreciated the thought behind the gift. I also enjoyed making the cookies, as they were a type of spice cookie I don’t normally make, and they used spices I don’t typically have on hand.

    One of the things I enjoy about gifts is trying things that are a little different than what I might pick for myself. Gifts are things your friends and family think you might like. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they miss the mark. Thanks to gifts I’ve read books by authors I didn’t already know, tried foods that were new to me, and heard music by bands I wasn’t familiar with. If I inisted on only receiving gifts of things I already know and like, I’d miss out on some wonderful stuff. And I love homemade gifts, because I appreciate the extra time and thought that goes into them.

    Really, should we just eliminate gift-giving altogether and pass around cash at holidays to ensure no one ever receives something not to their taste? Learning to graciously accept gifts is a skill we are supposed to learn as children!

  48. Interested Reader says:

    I realize I wasn’t clear in my original comment. I should have been clear that in my experience I’ve gotten this type of thing from people I barely know and felt was given under obligation.

    I didn’t mean to imply that was what Trent was doing.

    Instead of getting a gift from someone I’m not that familiar with I’d rather they spent the time, money, and effort on people closer to them.

  49. Karen says:

    I would love to get the soup one so might make it for myself. Your son is growing up. What a good little helper.

  50. Mary says:

    I make homemade candies for gifts during the holidays. I might spend 100 dollar total on ingredients, but I get 40/50 gifts out of it.

  51. partgypsy says:

    I like this idea. And having in the past been on strict food budgets for food, would not waste the food by not making it. But again, having a variety of gift ideas, can tailor the idea somewhat. Myself I feel like I know so many people on specific diets (miami diet, gluten free, low carb etc etc) I’m almost afraid to give people food gifts unless it is something like: good bottle of olive oil, high quality chocolate, or nuts. Unless someone has a nut allergy these items are almost always appreciated.

    ps your son is so cute!!!

  52. Maria says:

    Miss Manners is turning over in her grave. What happened to gracious gifting? I (the giver) should be thoughtful in my choice of WHAT and WHO I give to. I am NEVER obligated to give anything to anyone. and as for the receiver… if I have erred in my selection – Smile graciously, say thank you, display it prominently until I leave, then give it away or throw it away tomorrow.

    That said – I would never give food that I have handled to someone I don’t know well. I’m giving these to my brother who is a ‘light’ cook with a newborn. He might just find the time time to brown some beef and dump the jar in a kettle. The brownies? Nope… he never has fresh eggs.

  53. Maria says:

    Last minute – making a dozen of these – TWO CUPS OF LENTILS???? I believe you might have made a typo… perhaps you mean 1/2 cup of lentils…. 2 cups won’t fit in the jar.

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