Tips For Hosting The Very Best Holiday Cookie Exchange

A holiday cookie exchange party is the best kind of party — because you get to go home with dozens of different cookies, of course. But it's also a fun way to spend quality time with friends during the busy holiday season without having to do too much heavy lifting in the way of hosting. The vibe can be as casual as you want it to be, and the time commitment is far more flexible than your average cocktail party or holiday brunch.

Organizing a cookie exchange may seem somewhat daunting, but in reality, it's not that difficult, as long as you pay attention to some pertinent details and do a little advance planning and prep. And yes, there is some cookie exchange math involved, but we'll walk you through it all.

Whether you've always wanted to take part in a cookie swap or you're just looking for a new spin on your usual Christmas party, these tips for hosting the very best holiday cookie exchange will help you pull off the sweetest shindig you've ever attended. You might just start a delicious new annual tradition too.

Decide on your ideal guest list

The first step in planning a cookie exchange is deciding who to invite. The total number of guests is an important part of the process (more on that below), but this is also a case where taking personalities and preferences into account is more relevant than usual. Sure, you can organize a neighborhood cookie exchange and hope for the best, but you might be better off leaving less up to chance.

What does that mean, exactly? For one, choose people who like to bake (or at least are capable and willing to bake for a special occasion), and those who aren't known to make like snow and flake (because when one person fails to show up, it throws off the whole ratio) (via The Sweetest Part). Also, pick people who will be able to eat or otherwise make use of all the treats shared around.

Unless you can ensure a totally nut-free gathering, this isn't the best time to invite anyone with severe allergies. If you only know one vegan, maybe keep them off the guest list. Ditto your friend who is always dieting. If you're waffling, reach out ahead of invitation time to see if they'd be interested and okay with swapping treats they might not be able to eat. Some people will be happy to participate by bringing something to exchange and then giving their goodies away to friends and family afterward!

Now it's time to crunch some numbers.

Do your cookie exchange math

The number of guests you invite influences how many cookies each person should make, and by extension, how many cookies each guest will take home with them. So, how many people should you invite to a cookie exchange? And how many cookies should they each bake?

Most sources recommend a maximum of 10 or 12 people, with eight guests being close to ideal. Life coach and blogger Lauren Greutman recommends inviting more people than you actually plan to host, since it's highly likely that you'll see some cancellations. Per Pillsbury, "a good rule to follow is for every guest to bake a half dozen cookies per each attendee. So, if 10 people attend, each guest would bring five dozen cookies to share." That means everyone would take home up to six of each cookie type on offer.

McCormick, on the other hand, recommends a dozen cookies per person, giving your guests more to take home. Food blog Scattered Thoughts of a Crafty Mom says, "When the guest list starts getting closer to 10, six or eight cookies per person is a great number" to get to take home, and that way, you won't overload your guests. Similarly, Paperless Post says "six dozen cookies is a good max" to ask each person to make, regardless of guest list size.

Consider a cookie exchange theme

Some people are drawn to themes like moths to a flame. Others have an instinctual aversion. If it sounds like it would be super fun and maybe even help streamline the cookie selection process for you and your guests, by all means, choose a unifying theme for your party.

You could ask everyone to make globally-inspired international cookie recipes for an Around The World cookie party (via Curious Cuisiniere). You could also instate a Winter Wonderland theme and instruct everyone to take their cues from the wintry season (think snowflakes, snowmen, sparkling white sugar, ice-blue icing, tingly-cold peppermint, fluffy white coconut, and the like). A Glitz & Glam theme could mean pulling out your shiniest, shimmeriest decorations and having guests use all the edible glitter, sanding sugar, gold leaf, and luster dust they can find to bling out their baked goods.

Conversely, if a cookie swap theme sounds exhausting and sure to overcomplicate things, skip it! But you'll still have to determine your cookie exchange rules.

Plan all your ground rules in advance

The point of any party is to have fun, but cookie exchange rules exist for good reason (via Cookie Exchange). One common rule is that all cookies must be homemade from scratch, since it's not fair for one person to pick up several dozen cookies at the store (or even upgrade boxed cookie mix) yet still get to enjoy the fruits of everyone else's labor when the rest of the group put in more work. If this sounds Grinchy, you can certainly make exceptions!

Some hosts require — or at least strongly encourage — that all cookies look reasonably festive, with a sprinkle of sugar or other holiday decoration of some kind. Others don't allow no-bake cookies or other "easy" treats — even cookie bars or brownies. Some even go so far as to dictate the minimum size of each cookie; Simply Gloria explains why that's not necessarily too strict. It's entirely up to you how granular you want to get, but clear guidelines will always be appreciated. On the flip side, the more of a Monica you are, the fewer friends might show up.

You should also decide how you want to handle potential baking emergencies. If someone burns every batch of their famous brown sugar bourbon Christmas cookies, must they swing by a boutique bakery and pick up replacements, or can they show up with a dozen clamshells of Lofthouse cookies and be just as welcome?

Give people plenty of time to prepare

Everyone will need an appropriate amount of time to plan for a cookie swap, including you — so you'll want to send your invitations out at least three to four weeks ahead of time. The closer you are to the desired date, the better an online invitation is, as it'll arrive faster than one sent via snail mail.

But when is the best time to throw a cookie exchange party? C&H Sugar says early December is a pretty good bet, "after Thanksgiving and before the really busy holiday season begins." However, others prefer to keep it closer to Christmas so the cookies stay as fresh as possible — especially important if you plan on using your cookie exchange goodies for dessert at your own holiday dinner.

Since Christmas cookie exchange parties usually only last a couple of hours at most, you can be pretty flexible as far as day and time. Depending on what's likely to be most convenient for you and your guests, you could schedule yours on a weekend afternoon or in the early evening after work. If you like to plan far in advance, Lauren Greutman recommends sending out a "save the date" card a couple of weeks prior to sending the actual invitations, so people can block off the time on their calendars well before they fill up with other events.

Make your invitations explicitly informative

Invitations can be snail-mailed, but online invites may be better since RSVPs tend to be quicker (so if two people are planning to make the same cookie, you'll know far enough in advance to ask one to switch to Plan B). You can find both paid and free online cookie exchange invitations from Paperless PostPunchbowl, Greenvelope, and Evite, or go with the old reliable private Facebook group or mass email.

In any case, as former Wilton vice president of public relations Nancy Siler told Love to Know, "communication is the key."

In addition to the party location, time, and date, be sure to tell people everything else they need to know, including how many cookies they should bake and whether cookies must conform to certain standards. You should also let them know whether guests should bring their own serving ware, or even pre-package cookies for taking home. This is also a good time to warn them about any special dietary concerns or allergies to be aware of. Guests should tell you what they plan to bake (standard procedure so you don't end up with 18 dozen sugar cookies). Also mention whether they should email their recipe ahead of time or bring recipe printouts, what kind of food and drinks you'll serve, and if there's a dress code.

For printed invitations, just list the basic details on the front with the full rules outlined on the back.

Make sure you have enough supplies and adequate surface space

Before inviting 20 people to your party, take another look at your cookie math and make sure you can actually accommodate all those treats (not to mention other essential supplies and the guests themselves).

Asking people to bring their own cookie plate, platter, or stand is totally fine, since many hosts don't own enough serving dishes to display several dozen cookies at once. If you're the kind of person who doesn't consider a disposable aluminum lasagna pan an acceptable serving vessel, make sure to note that in the invitation — or grit your teeth and appreciate the company and the cookies no matter what they're served in.

Our Happy Hive estimates that you need "a space of about 2.5 ft x 2.5 ft for each display" of cookies. Be prepared to break out a folding card table or two if you need more room, or to clear off your kitchen counters and any other available surfaces. It's smart to stock up on disposable plates or trays and foil, plastic wrap, and/or resealable bags for people who forget to bring containers.

Other supplies that are helpful to have in abundance include cookie labels to identify everyone's creations, cookie ballots if you'll be awarding prizes, and enough markers or pens for everyone to fill them out. Plenty of appetizer serving vessels, plates, utensils, cups, and napkins should be ready too.

Plan on serving snacks

Some people like to set aside a certain number of cookies for the group to enjoy during the gathering, while others don't. Whichever way you go, you should serve at least a few appetizers or other savory snacks. You can't go wrong with chips and crudites with dip, but for something a bit more festive, put together a holiday cheese wreath or Christmas tree charcuterie board (via Olivia's Cuisine and Ain't Too Proud to Meg). 

If you're hosting a cookie swap near brunch time, consider an easy but crowd-pleasing coffee cake and a savory breakfast casserole or large-format frittata, or even a bagel bar if you have enough space to set one up.

Regardless of the time of day you host your group, if your cookie exchange cookies are strictly for swapping and not for eating on the party premises, you might want to offer up a few desserts for any guest whose sweet tooth has been piqued by the presence of baked goods. Something simple is fine. Whether that's homemade 3-ingredient fudge or store-bought peppermint bark is up to you.

Don't forget drinks

No matter what kind of nibbles you set out, you'll need beverages to accompany them, and you don't have to go beyond the usual beer, wine, seltzer, and soda options. However, it's always nice to offer something a bit more special. It doesn't even have to involve much more effort.

For major holiday cheer, mix up a signature Christmas cocktail or holiday mocktail. Eggnog is classic for a reason, as is a big bowl of punch. Try cranberry mimosas for brunch bashes (where teetotalers can use sparkling cider instead of standard bubbly).

Hot drinks you can keep toasty in a Crock-Pot, like mulled wine, buttered rum, or spiced cider, are a warm welcome in from the cold. Overachievers might like to set up a hot chocolate bar with festive fixings like mini marshmallows, salted caramel, whipped cream, and candy cane stirring sticks (via Little Spice Jar). 

If everyone will be sampling each other's baked goodies during the cookie exchange, providing cold milk (including dairy-free options) is a great touch that even adults will appreciate.

Create a festive atmosphere

Chances are, you will have already decked the halls and walls and windows of your home before party time, but in addition to your usual holiday decor, you might also want to dress up the tables where all the cookies will be set out.

A simple patterned tablecloth will do the trick, plus maybe a few ornaments or festive objects strategically scattered on top. Remember to leave plenty of room for the actual cookie plates and platters. If you have amazing handwriting (or nice stencils), even plain brown craft paper can be turned into practical-but-pretty table covers; use white paper if you prefer, and in either case, add some stamped designs in red and green or silver and gold for Santa's seal of approval (via The SITS Girls).

You can find free printable banners and signs to hang around the space if you like, or even make your own from cardstock (add stenciled letters to spell out a message), or burlap for a more rustic look. Cue up your preferred holiday music playlist, turn on all the twinkling lights, and your scene is set.

Provide pretty packaging

This is absolutely optional, but it definitely adds an extra element of care — and flair — to your cookie swap. You can go all-out and buy cookie tins, printed holiday cookie boxes, or patterned cellophane bags in bulk, or you can dress up plainer packages with handmade touches, like these cookie exchange packaging ideas from Frog Prince Paperie. DIY paper poinsettias, custom-printed sticker labels, and clever boxes made from paper plates all can add a touch of whimsy to your exchange.

Even plain white bakery boxes — which are reasonably cheap and sturdy, and fit a lot of cookies — can be made more festive with colored tissue paper, paper doilies, holiday ribbons, and bows. Add washi tape, stamps, or stickers to the outside as you please. Lauren Greutman says that for really big groups who will be leaving with copious amounts of cookies, shirt boxes work well too. Joy the Baker likes having large cupcake liners on hand for separating different types of cookies within their boxes, tins, or Tupperware.

If you do choose to ask people to bring their own cookie containers, just keep some simple backup supplies on hand for anyone who forgets.

Create keepsake cookie books

Another completely optional endeavor that will make you the undisputed Martha of your group is creating cookie exchange books containing all the recipes from your swap. If you secure everyone's recipes ahead of time, you can put them together in a few different ways for handing out at the party.

The most time-consuming method is to write them out by hand on recipe cards, then bind those into booklets with hole punches and ribbon. Slightly easier is to fill in online recipe cards and print out however many copies you need of each before stapling or stitching them together.

For a low-key digital option, use the recipe template in Google Docs. Once you've created a doc for each recipe, combine them in a single file to share with the group — this can also be done after the party and sent as a thank you for coming. If you go this route, remember to snap a photo of each cookie during the party so you can add it to the digital cookie book.

If you like the idea of compiling all the recipes but not actually doing all the work yourself, ask guests to bring enough printed copies of their recipes to send home with all the other attendees. If you want to outsource it in a more impressive manner (that will cost you a lot more), look into something like Mixbook.

Pick out other party favors

Perhaps the idea of handing out party favors at a cookie exchange strikes you as odd (Cue Don Draper voice: "That's what the cookies are for!"). If so, it's totally fine to skip this step.

However, if you can't resist providing a parting gift for guests — as an alternative to or in addition to a cookie book — one great option is to hand out cookie cutters with thank you tags attached. Mini cutters make cute ornaments in case the recipient doesn't need them for actual baking purposes. Other affordable ideas include hot chocolate on a stick, holiday oven mitts, cookie-flavored lip balm, fancy sprinkles for everyone's next cookie project, or even miniature succulents.

Of course, those who want to get crafty can make all manner of DIY party favors. Think hand-packaged hot cocoa mix, small bags of candied nuts, mason jar cocktails, homemade ornaments, sachets of stovetop potpourri, or One Little Project's Reese's Christmas trees, just for starters.

Consider playing games or offering other activities

Honestly, the only non-negotiable activity at a cookie exchange is exchanging cookies, so don't stress yourself out planning other pursuits if you just want to focus on chilling and chatting with your guests before everyone disperses with their goods.

For those who crave more options, though, there are many Christmas party games you can play, including some perfectly tailored to cookie swaps, like the "Can't Say Cookie" game (via Cookie Exchange). You can probably guess the main rule of that one, but the penalty imposed is up to you. This means that, yes, you can make it a drinking game if you want to.

If you've got a crafty bunch or if there will be kids to keep busy — and you have the extra space for it — you can provide materials and instructions for simple projects like decorating cookie plates with food-safe paint markers, decorating miniature wreaths, or making these adorable felt candy ornaments from Fleece Fun.

Make it a contest if your group is competitive

Making a cookie exchange into an official competition might be entirely too stressful for some, but it can also be fun to hand out awards (or at least give accolades). You can either bestow them yourself or be more democratic by providing ballots for all your guests to cast their votes. Obviously, this only works if everyone is sampling everyone else's cookies during the party.

In addition to the coveted "Best Cookie" top honor, you can create as many categories as you want. For example, "Most Insta-Worthy," "Best Backstory," "Most Unusual," and "Ugly Delicious" should all even out the playing field a little more. You can search for free ballots online, like this one from Imperial Sugar, or use them as a template for creating your own ballots on index cards before the party.

As for what's at stake, guests can do it simply for the glory, or you can give out actual prizes, which can be anything from simple paper badges to goodie bags, and maybe even a "Star Baker" apron for the top prize (via Imperial Sugar and Etsy).

Decide when and how the actual cookie exchange action occurs

If you ask your guests to bring pre-packaged cookies for everyone else in attendance, this part is fairly easy, but otherwise, you'll have to orchestrate the actual exchange portion of the proceedings. The best bet is to have this occur pretty much as soon as everyone has arrived, in case anyone needs to leave early. As guests come in, show them where to place their cookies, and let them know they're off-limits for the time being (or, if you have a separate table for serving the cookies to be eaten at the party, tell them how many to put there). Chat over snacks and drinks while you're waiting for everyone else to show up and settle in, and hope no one's running too late.

Once everyone's cookies have been added to the cookie exchange arrangement, have your guests line up with their take-home containers in hand and go around the table, taking an allotted number of each cookie. If you'll be sampling cookies during the party and don't have room to separate them from the main swappable sweets display, just be sure to instruct guests to take only the number you specify so there are some left for tasting afterward.

When everyone has packed up their goodies to go, set them aside (on your bed with the coats if you have to) and let everyone know the remaining cookies are now fair game.

Add an extra element of giving

The holiday season is traditionally a time of generosity, and not just among close family and friends. You can fully embody the spirit of giving by asking guests to bring a little something else in addition to their cookies. Tessa Arias of Handle the Heat suggests requesting "gently used winter clothes or non-perishable food items to donate to a shelter or food bank."

Have guests place these in a designated area as they arrive and then drop them off yourself later on. Alternatively, you can collect monetary donations for a favorite charity or organization, or just ask guests to make a virtual donation of their own choosing. Aimée Wimbush-Borque of Simple Bites once sold raffle tickets to her cookie exchange guests and raised $500 for a good cause — but you could even simply carry a big platter of the cookies down to your nearest soup kitchen or shelter.

Consider a virtual cookie exchange

If you're concerned about whether it's safe to host a cookie exchange just yet, there's always the option to take it online — or to simply organize a socially distanced cookie swap.

Brooklyn Active Mama lays out three virtual cookie exchange options: organizing a group baking session over Zoom in which everyone makes one batch of cookies, putting together a cookie exchange by mail, or simply exchanging recipes online. For that last one, if your group is social media savvy, have everyone share photos and recipes with a custom hashtag at an appointed day and time.

The San Diego Union-Tribune writes that if everyone lives close enough and has reliable transportation, getting each person to pre-package their cookies for local drop-off is another good option (and you can offer to pick up and drop off all the cookies yourself). You can combine this with an online hangout in which everyone tries the cookies and votes on a favorite.

Weather permitting, an outdoor cookie exchange is another possibility. You can request that everyone pre-package their goodies in this case as well, or invest in a bunch of mini tongs to minimize direct handling of the communal cookies.

Choose your own cookies wisely

Which cookies you will bake for the cookie exchange is probably close to the last thing you'll think about, but it's an equally important decision. Since you're a full participant as well as the planner, look for a cookie that keeps well and doesn't take a ton of time and effort to assemble. A smart choice, as Walking on Sunshine suggests, is a dough that can be made ahead and frozen for a while, then baked off the day before the party.

The slice-and-bake pinwheel cookies in red and green from Bread Booze Bacon fit the bill and look super festive without requiring any additional decoration (though rolling the log in Christmas sprinkles or sanding sugar before slicing is a nice touch). You could also try Good Cheap Eats' snickerdoodle-esque spiced sugar cookies that you can form into balls and roll in colored sugar before freezing so they're all ready to bake.

These frosted Christmas cookies are also freezer-friendly, as is this gingerbread cookie recipe, and they both only require some simple finishing touches to make them ready for their close-up.

Know that you can put your own spin on it

If you love the exchange aspect of a cookie swap way more than you actually love baking (or just worry your dearest friends would sweat the assignment), make it a fully no-bake treat exchange instead. Rice crispy treats, no-bake cookies, and Oreo truffles can be just as festive — and delicious — as baked goods. They're also generally infinitely easier to prepare even for people who don't spend much time in the kitchen.

If the issue is that you don't even want to look at another sugary treat in a season of such sweet excess, follow Wine Enthusiast's lead and organize a holiday wine exchange, or do an all-savory appetizer swap party instead.

There is something to be said for the prospect of rolling in Christmas cookies at the end of a party instead of being left with nothing but crumbs. In spirit, a cookie exchange is really just an edible white elephant party with clearly outlined rules so everyone knows they can expect something good to take home — and, most of all, a great excuse to eat, drink, and make merry with your favorite people.