The frugal Mishloach Manot (Shalach Manot)

Purim is one of my favorite holidays. What's not to like? You read Megillat Esther with its fairytale ending, you eat really good food with family and/or friends at the Seudah, there are kids about colorful costumes, and most importantly, you get to see so many of your friends and neighbors via the mitzva of Mishloach Manot.

Halachically, you only need to provide 2 ready-to-eat portions of food to one person; but if you are lucky enough to have many friends and neighbors, you'll naturally want to spread the holiday cheer, and at the very least reciprocate the gifts of food you're given. This is where things could get rather pricey.

Also, if you're like many recipients of Mishlochei Manot, you end up with a ton of junk food that nobody could possibly eat in the short month before Pesach, and the surplus ends up in the garbage with the Chametz.

I don't think there's one good answer to this dilemma. Each family has to consider the number of people they'll likely be giving Mishloach Manot to, who these people are, their personal budget, and the approach prevalent in their community. So here are a few things to consider when preparing your offerings:

Candy vs. "real" food. Most Mishlochei Manot we receive contain candy or cake. While this certainly fulfills the mitzva and my kids love the sweet gooey stuff, us parents tend to appreciate the more nutritious elements - homemade rolls, packaged spreads, sushi and other edibles. We've even been known to incorporate these into our Purim seudah later in the day, as well as keeping the homemade Hamentaschen and cakes for dessert. If you give such foods, try and keep them Pareve, so others can do so as well.

As far as homemade vs. store bought goodies are concerned, financially it can be expensive or cheap, depending on what you're making and how many MMs you need to deliver. Homemade cakes and cookies deliver a great bang for your buck, so if your baking skills are well-honed, by all means, go for it. My kids argue every year over the cinnamon buns and brownies a certain neighbor makes every year for Purim, because they are just that good.

If you're giving to people with special food requirements, though, prepared packaged foods may be your best bet: no exposure to potential allergens as long as the package is closed, the hechsher is on the package, and the food can later be donated if it's not eaten. My kids prepare a large box each Purim and for years now, everything store bought that comes in a sealed package (Bamba/Bissli/Doritos, packaged cakes, bags of candy) is collected for soldiers.

Also consider the newish tradition of sending Purim cards from your favorite charity for people with special diets, strict kashrut requirements or allergies, instead of giving food. That may not satisfy the Halachic requirement, but you're sure to have other people to give food to, and people who may not appreciate an offer of food will be touched both by your well-wishes and your consideration.

Containers. While some people buy large baskets or bowls to pack their MM's in, Our family has traditionally  been fine with concentrating on the contents, packaging our offerings in hand-decorated plastic or paper plates, some cellophane wrap, and adding a funny computer-printed card on top adds a personal touch. Another nice Purim-ish way to package MM is to fold a paper plate in the manner of a Hamentasch after you've filled it with goodies, and staple or tape the edges.

That said , some of the more durable packages I've gotten via MM over the years have become very useful to me the whole year round, and I always remember and think kindly of those who gave them to me - such as the flat basket in which I keep our onions, from Mishloach Manot sent by the neighbors a few years ago. A useful container  - e.g., a basket, a glass or plastic bowl, or a jar with a lid, can be had very cheaply for NIS 3-5 in stock stores and many people will find them of use. Even decorative paper bags (with or without a Purim theme) can look quite lovely and be useful to the recipients - I've reused clean, pretty paper and plastic bags as gift wraps for during the year.

Recycling received food items to give to others: This is essentially the same controversy as the one about regifting. I think it's perfectly OK to take items from a closed package and reuse them in one you're giving, as long as you repackage them in a MM of your own design. I would avoid giving away homemade foodstuff you receive - it's kind of insulting to the giver, and you don't have the same quality assurance as with packaged items or food you make yourself.

Whichever way you choose to make your Mishloach Manot - have a happy Purim!

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