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Columnist, Food

Say “healthy holiday food gift” and the knee-jerk response is probably “fruit basket.” Although an arrangement of whole fruit is a perfectly serviceable choice, it is not known to elicit the gasps of surprise and delight that a thoughtful giver aims for. Happily, there are plenty of healthy gifts that will. These ideas will not only bring a welcome respite from the flood of candy boxes and sausage-and-cheese sets this season, they are treats that pay tribute to the well-being of your friends and family in more personal and unexpected ways.

Based on the number of people walking around with a matcha latte in their hand at any given moment, chances are you have at least one matcha lover in your life. The specially grown and processed green tea, traditionally used in Japanese ceremonies, provides drinkers with a wealth of healthy compounds — polyphenols which may offer protection from many diseases and signs of aging, among other benefits. In part, that is because the leaves are consumed rather than steeped and discarded. Matcha leaves are ground into a fine powder, and the tea is prepared by whisking that powder into hot water. The tea can also be used as an ingredient in cooking, in which it imparts a glorious verdant color to baked goods and confections.

A container of premium-grade matcha, which runs about $20 for one to two ounces is a compelling present in itself, but you can build on that to create a gorgeous gift set by including a traditional wooden whisk and an artful ceramic drinking bowl. One online retailer that sells matcha in attractive tins as well as in lovely gift boxes is Mizuba Tea.

Spices

A gift of spices is a sensory delight — full of flavor and aroma — with health benefits including potent anti-inflammatory properties, in some cases. It’s also one that is practical and easily personalized. Less than $10 will buy you a small but thoughtful spice gift, and you can build a more extravagant assortment from there.

If you know someone who loves to bake, for example, you could create a gift box filled with warming, sweet spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, plus extracts such as vanilla and peppermint. If you have a friend who has expressed the desire to venture into, say, Indian cooking, you could get her a starter kit with cumin and coriander seed, turmeric, and some fun curry blends. I have ordered from Penzeys Spices many times and have always been pleased. I especially like the way they often include a lovely scattering of bay leaves in the box.

Take your gift to the next level by including a spice grinder, or give one as a gift on its own. I recently became infatuated with the $25 Kuhn Rikon Ratchet Spice Grinder, which comes with a detachable, sealable storage jar. (You can buy additional jars separately.)

Aged balsamic vinegar

Receiving a bottle of 25-year aged balsamic vinegar makes a lasting impact. I remember clearly when my dad gifted me one years ago. Holding its regal container was an experience in itself. The culinary equivalent of a Tiffany’s box, it announced something precious and valuable inside.

Traditional aged balsamic vinegar is not the acidic liquid you use in an everyday salad dressing. Rather, this “black gold” is used as a punctuating finishing drizzle. It lends a touch of sweetness without any added sugar, and makes healthy foods such as salads, roasted vegetables and fruit all the more compelling.

Balsamic vinegar is thick, like a syrup, with a nuanced, sweet-tangy taste that rings of its origins in the Modena or Reggio Emila region of Italy (to officially be considered a traditional balsamic vinegar, it must hail from one of those areas) and at least 12 years of aging in a sequence of barrels made of different woods. Real aged balsamic will say DOP (Designated Protection of Origin) on the label, and will have only one ingredient: grape must.

As with fine wine, the longer the vinegar is aged, the more expensive it will be, with the 25-year-old bottle running about $140 for 100 milliliters. (Sorry, Dad, I had to find out.) If that is more than you want to spend, you can also buy a well-produced, beautifully bottled, aged balsamic from Italy that will approximate the real deal. Those are labeled IGP, and run in the range of $12 to $40 for a 250-milliliter bottle. This seller has the same box my dad got for me, plus a variety of other options.

Local honey

Giving a jar of local honey as a holiday gift, even to someone living across the country, is a thoughtful treat that is more accessible than you might realize. Despite the hype, honey is only marginally healthier — with a trace amount of nutrients, antioxidants and a slightly lower glycemic index — than regular sugar. But because it is made by bees, pollinators that are important to the environment, supporting local honey producers benefits a region as a whole. The National Honey Board has a locator tool on its website that lets you easily connect with honey producers across the country. This way, even if you live in Virginia, you can send the gift of local honey to someone living in Idaho.

Avocados

I know, avocado is a fruit, and I promised you fruit-basket alternatives. But it’s not a fruit typically found in holiday collections, and I can’t help but notice all the fun avocado gift options on the market, thanks to our continuing obsession with all things avocado. That obsession is a good thing from a health perspective, because avocados are packed with nutrition — rich in healthy fats, potassium, folate, fiber and more.

For the avocado adorer in your life, you could easily pull together a basket with several fresh avocados, some fun tools such as an avocado saver and slicer, and maybe even a cute avocado-themed T- shirt. Or, you could give them the gift of avocados throughout the year with the Avocado of the Month Club. Talk about a fruit basket reboot!

Thanks to the Washington Post for the feature!