16 Tips For Throwing A Cookie Swap This Holiday Season

Office Christmas parties? No thanks. Obligatory family dinners with relatives you haven't seen since the same event last year? We'll skip those too. But a cookie swap? Count us in. 

For those unfamiliar with the best get-together of the holiday season, these curated events involve guests each bringing a batch of cookies to a party and trading, giving, and, best of all, tasting them. Unlike other holiday parties often thrown together last-minute with boxed wine, cheese fondue, and a bag of chips, organizing a cookie swap requires careful planning that starts well before the cookie-baking season begins. As a cookie swap enthusiast, I've thrown many of these exchanges before — some of which went much better than others. These are some of my best tips for planning, setting up, and baking for the most impressive cookie swap this holiday season, which will leave your guests full of cookies and memories from an event brimming with all things merry and bright.

Pick a theme for your event

"Christmas" or "holiday" is a broad decorating term that doesn't really come with a set description. As you're thinking about decorating for your cookie swap, you should consider what you want your decor to look like. You can go with a bright and shiny design with metallic tones, or stick with a more natural flair with pine cones, evergreen branches, and wreaths. Moreover, consider both the design of your space and your cookie table when choosing a theme for your event. You can play with the space by adding different tiers of cookie platters, and splitting up empty space with accents and decor pieces. 

If you want to take your swap in a more playful direction, you can also make it an ugly-sweater-themed party, or ask everyone to wear their favorite cozy Christmas pj's. Just be sure to include these details with your invitations!

Send your invitations out early

A cookie swap isn't a party that you can plan the day before. Realistically, you should plan for your cookie swap about a month before holding your event. Set a date that works for your schedule, and consider that the holidays are a busy time for people between shopping, gift-giving, and traveling. Therefore, giving people about a month's notice will allow everyone on your guest list to build your event into their schedule, stock up on their baking supplies, and pick a recipe or two to make. 

Luckily, there are many different options for sending out invitations that don't require waiting a few business days for them to be mailed out. Turn to paperless invitation software like Evite to help you make a beautiful invitation without any paper or stamps involved. You can also create a Facebook event to invite your friends. 

Plan your guest list

After picking your venue and designing your invitations, it's time to decide who you want to invite to your cookie swap. The number of people you plan on inviting will dictate what space you'll need to hold your swap, and how many cookies people plan on making. Most moderate-sized swaps welcome between six and 12 people to the party, but some families have larger swaps that can include upwards of 30 people. The more people, the more food and beverages you'll have to purchase, so keep this in mind when you're determining your guest list. 

You'll also need to decide if kids are invited to your cookie swap, and how you plan to entertain them, too. A cookie decorating station is always an excellent option to keep kids busy while their families socialize, but it may also lead to small children screaming and running around with sticky fingers. 

Make sure guests have enough containers

The primary purpose of a cookie swap is for everyone to master a sweet recipe or two, and come home with a fabulous array of cookies provided by other guests. The key to this function is to have boxes and other containers available for your guests to take their treats home. You can ask guests to each bring a container for their selection, but you should plan to provide a few extra boxes if folks forget. You can also get creative with elaborately decorated cookie tins. 

Besides containers, you'll also need to consider if you'll be supplying trays for displaying the cookies, or if you should ask guests to bring their own. If you want to control the aesthetics of your party, you might be more inclined to shop for cookie trays rather than have guests bring every possible size and color of Tupperware.

Add a seasonal beverage to enjoy

While cookies might be the star of your show, you should also plan to provide seasonal beverages for your cookie swap guests. For example, you can make a batch of hot chocolate and have a small station for decorating mugfuls with marshmallows and candy canes. Or, opt for some eggnog or mulled cider for an especially seasonal flair. 

If your party is for guests over 21, you can also get creative with holiday cocktails like Christmas punch made with orange juice, cranberry juice, spiced rum, and sparkling wine or Prosecco. Mix the concoction in a big bowl, add a serving ladle, and stock your punch station with glasses. If your cookie swap falls in the middle of the day, you may also consider setting up a mimosa bar with various flavors of juice, sparkling wine, and seltzer for folks seeking an alcohol-free experience. After all, you have to wash down the cookies somehow! 

Serve light bites that aren't cookies

Have you ever tried to eat a dozen different types of cookies in a single sitting? It's rough on your palate, and sends you straight into a sugar crash afterward. 

To break up some of the monotony of your cookie swap, be sure to serve some light bites that aren't cookies at your event. This may look like a simple charcuterie board with cheese, meat, fruit, and nuts, or it could be finger food like herby pigs in a blanket or chips and dip. Regardless of the foods you're serving, be sure to keep small plates and napkins available for easy eating. 

Luckily, there's a formula to help determine how many appetizers you'll need for your holiday party. Plan for each person to eat about four to six bite-sized appetizers over the course of your event, while plenty of cookies will also be available for snacking. And be sure to select light and easy appetizers, since you don't want to spoil the main course (in this case, cookies). 

Ask in advance what cookies people are bringing

There's nothing worse than going to a cookie swap and realizing that everyone has made chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies. In order to host a good cookie swap, you need to think about the variety of cookies that will be served. Ask guests to send you their cookie selections ahead of time, and if multiple guests intend to bring the same kind of cookie, politely ask them to make something else, or give them a suggestion based on gaps in your current lineup. 

You might also set some rules about what kinds of cookies can be brought to the swap. You can forbid people from bringing store-bought or frozen-dough cookies to your party (not that we have anything against those Pillsbury sugar cookies), or ask folks to bring a cookie recipe that has been in their family for generations. However, this might intimidate novice bakers, and thus such requests need to be made tactfully. 

Make slice-and-bake cookies for easy baking

The morning of your cookie swap is not the time to go shopping and bake your most elaborate cookie recipe ever. If you're the host of the party, your primary concern needs to be setting up the venue before greeting and entertaining your guests, rather than spending all of your time baking. The easy remedy to this is slice-and-bake cookies, which you can make the night before and roll up into a log, so all you have to do is slice cookies off with a sharp knife and pop them on a baking sheet. 

These slice-and-bake cookies, also called icebox cookies or refrigerator cookies, are not applicable to every type of recipe. You should use a specifically indicated icebox-cookie recipe, or one that explicitly states that the dough can be rolled up and baked as needed. Once your icebox cookies are baked and cooled, you can add personal touches with sprinkles, icing, or powdered sugar. 

Make your dough in advance and freeze it

If you're baking a type of sugar cookie that doesn't do well with a slice-and-bake technique, you can try freezing your cookie dough instead. This method works best for drop cookies, including classic chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, and plain sugar cookies. Just make your cookie dough, follow the chilling instructions, and then plop the balls onto a sheet pan. Freeze the dough balls until they harden before transferring them to a freezer-safe container. If your cookie has a sugar coating on the outside, do not roll it in sugar before you freeze the dough, because the sweet crystals will be absorbed into the dough. Frozen cookie dough will last about two months in the freezer. 

There's also good news for folks without freezer space for bags and bags of raw cookie dough. You can bake your cookies ahead of time and then refrigerate them to ensure peak freshness. 

Offer the option to bring other desserts

Although the cookie swap is aptly named, there are tons of ways to incorporate other desserts that aren't cookies. Brownies can be easily transformed into seasonal sweets by including ingredients like drizzled chocolate and red and green M&M's, or slicing them into triangles to create edible little Christmas trees. You can also take a bite out of history with a fruitcake recipe filled with dried fruits and ginger. 

Other Christmas dessert recipes can be modified to make them handheld and perfect for serving at your party. For example, pastry enthusiasts can make cream puffs adorned with a sprinkle of powdered sugar on top, or create bite-sized layer cakes filled with jam and coated with decadent frosting. Although your cookie swap might quickly turn into a dessert swap, everyone will still leave with enough sweet treats to enjoy the holiday season. 

Be mindful of dietary restrictions

As a host, you will have to assume that some guests have dietary restrictions, inhibiting them from eating the entire selection of treats available at your party. To help anyone with such restrictions to navigate your party, be sure to label all of your treats with potential allergens, including eggs, dairy, peanuts, and tree nuts. Or, you can label applicable treats as gluten-free or vegan.

Besides labeling, you should also include details on your invitations about any dietary restrictions, and encourage your guests to make treats that cater to a variety of eaters. And if no one steps up to the plate, consider making at least one type of cookie to accommodate these folks. One of our favorites is vegan gluten-free almond crinkle cookies, which taste excellent and align well with other types of holiday cookies. You can also make a simple gluten-free thumbprint cookie with almond flour, tahini, and honey. 

Ask guests to provide cookie recipes

Guests should depart your cookie swap with two things: a delectable selection of cookies to enjoy, and a few recipes for newly discovered cookies. Guests can bring paper copies of their recipes to the exchange, or you can take care of this by asking for recipes ahead of time and printing copies to put alongside cookie trays. You can also collect the recipes and send out a thank-you note to swap attendees with recipes attached. The latter method is less of a hassle for the organizer, but doesn't provide the feeling of holding a cookie recipe in your hands. Paper recipe cards also allow bakers the chance to add a personal touch to their offerings, and include specific instructions in their own handwriting. 

If asking your guests to provide recipe printouts, make sure that they include ingredients, directions, specific oven temperatures and baking times, and the amount of cookies produced by the recipe. This allows others to accurately replicate the recipe in their own kitchens. 

Determine the number of cookies you plan to bake

One of the biggest questions surrounding a cookie swap is deciding how many cookies to make. The exact number will depend on the size of your cookie swap, as well as the selection of cookies available. If everyone is baking a single recipe, assume that people will take about two to four small cookies between eating them at the event and taking them home. Therefore, most hosts will ask guests to bring between a dozen or two of their cookies to the swap. But if you invite upwards of 20 people, you may cap the maximum number of cookies at a dozen. After all, there's a ton to sample! 

To allow for maximum variety (and to save table space), you may also ask that guests bring small, bite-sized cookies rather than bakery-style oversized ones that can take up a whole dessert plate. 

Make it a competition

Cookie swaps don't just have to be about good cheer — they can also be the site of some stiff competition. You can have a fun contest for certain cookie superlatives, like "best decorated" or "most creative" or any laudatory category you choose. Have your cookie swap guests vote on the cookies, and celebrate winners with a gift card, bottle of wine, or gift basket. You can also introduce a variety of other competitions at your cookie swap, including for the best ugly sweater. 

Alternatively, make your cookie swap more intriguing by having guests guess the ingredients in each type of cookie, and presenting a small prize to the person whose guess is closest to an actual recipe. Or, create another mystery-solving game by having your guests drop their batch of cookies in the kitchen anonymously, before everyone votes on who they think brought each sweet treat to the party. 

Get adventurous with your recipes

We're not going to argue with the classic cookie-swap staples, including jam thumbprints, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, and snowball cookies ... but we are going to suggest that you try to make your cookie swap a bit more exciting by upgrading the old favorites with new ingredients, or introducing cookies that not many people have tasted before. For example, you can add some dried cherries or agave syrup to upgrade your chocolate chip cookies, making them a little more exciting for this holiday-season event.  

To help spawn some ideas for more novel sweets to swap, you can ask guests to bring cookies or desserts that are popular in their culture or region. This is bound to introduce new flavors and spices to your event. You might find a ton of different Italian cookies providing a seasonal taste of la dolce vita to your party, or you might even get the chance to try bizcochitos, New Mexico's state cookie

Add other Christmas activities to your party

Your cookie swap can be an occasion for other holiday events, too. If you're only inviting folks who are in the same friend group, you can encourage them to use the party as a gift swap, or host a white elephant exchange (Yankee swap, for the Northerners in the audience) for guests who might not know each other. If you plan on organizing one of these events, be sure to inform your guests beforehand so they bring gifts. It's a fun event to get the laughs going, and fill your home with holiday cheer and memories. 

You can also have folks tune into some favorite Christmas movies for a low-maintenance party idea. Once the hot chocolate flows and the cookies are crunching, your home will embody all things merry and bright. After all, spending time with loved ones and snacking on powdered-sugar-covered cookies is what the holiday season is all about.