Tips for hosting a delicious allergy-friendly cookie exchange, plus recipe ideas and a helpful make-ahead checklist to help you get organized.

In our house, Christmas is a big deal. We buy new Christmas ornaments wherever we travel. We turn on the carols before the Thanksgiving turkey is out of the oven (sometimes sooner, if I'm being honest). We love Christmas so much that my husband and I got engaged at a Christmas-tree farm, literally in the snow underneath the tree we were about to cut down.

One of the things I look forward to the most about the holidays is my annual cookie swap. It's one of the few times a year I'll invite all of my girlfriends over for an evening of catching up and cookie tasting.

Everyone's version of a cookie exchange is a little different. My version has always included a taste test where everyone votes for their favorite cookie and the winning baker gets a prize. Somewhere along the line, things have gotten a little more interesting. Two of my vegan friends started coming to my swap. Another friend was avoiding dairy because she was breastfeeding and her baby couldn't tolerate it. Then I had two kids, one with nut allergies and another who is allergic to eggs. One year, I sent all of the cookies home with friends because I knew that my kids couldn't eat them. For a family who loves the holidays so much, it was ... a little sad.

I decided to do something a little drastic: I hosted a vegan cookie swap. I was nervous that some friends might revolt. But it turned out, everyone was ready to embrace the challenge. They enjoyed finding new Christmas cookie recipes to try-or tweaking old classics with vegan ingredient substitutes. We were all surprised at the delicious variety. But best of all: everyone could participate in the swap and the taste test. Which is really the whole point: getting together and sharing a delicious experience. (Plus, my kids got to enjoy them too.)

Gluten-Free Snomwan Meringue Cookies

How to Throw a Cookie Swap: The Rules

If you've never hosted a cookie exchange, here are some suggested guidelines to follow. Feel free to tweak and make it your own. You'll want to include these guidelines in your invitation:

  1. Everyone should bring enough cookies so that there are enough for each guest to have at least one, plus a few extra for the tasting during the party. Once you've nailed down your guest list, specify in the invite how many cookies to bring (e.g. 1-2 dozen)
  2.  If you are hosting an allergy-friendly swap (see below), make sure to outline those parameters clearly in the invitation.
  3. Guests will need a container to bring home their cookies. You can either have them use the same one that they brought their cookies in, or provide festive containers or bags for them to take home as a party favor.
  4. At my cookie swaps, I have a rule that you must leave with as many cookies as you came with. That ensures that the host is not left with tons and tons of sweets.
vegan gingerbread people cookies

Pictured Recipe: Vegan Gingerbread Cookies

Tips for an Allergy-Safe Exchange

When you invite your guests, find out if anyone has allergies or dietary requests. If a guest has a food allergy or special diet, let them know that you want to accommodate them as much as possible. Take the time to understand your guests' needs. Is it a food allergy or a preference? What does vegan actually mean? What exactly is a tree nut?

Avoid cross-contamination. For food allergies, cross-contamination is a big concern. That means that if you have a friend with celiac disease, she can't eat gluten-free cookies that are on the same tray as cookies made with wheat flour or she'll get really sick. For guests with food allergies, it could trigger an allergic reaction. You'll need to make sure to keep "safe" cookies completely separate from everything else. You might also suggest that guests be careful to avoid cross-contamination when they're baking and bake on parchment paper to be safe.

Include recipe cards. Swap your cookies along with a recipe card so your friends can enjoy these cookies all year long. Not only does it provide a nice keepsake, but it allows guests to know all of the ingredients in each cookie.

Try to be inclusive. But keep in mind that for someone managing a food allergy, a potluck situation poses a lot of unknown, unsafe variables. Friends with allergies may choose not to participate in the swap, but they will still really appreciate your efforts. Make sure they still feel welcome to come anyway. They can have a drink and enjoy the company-even though they can't eat all of the sweets.

Watch: How to Make Meringues

Cookie Swap Party Planning Checklist

4 Weeks Ahead

  • Make a guest list.
  • Select a date and time and email "Save the Dates." Ask your guests about any food allergies or dietary considerations.
  • Start collecting recipes; shop for cookie-packaging items.

3 Weeks Ahead

  • Decide which cookies you're going to make for the swap.
  • Shop for nonperishable ingredients and supplies, like cookie cutters.
  • Make any cookie doughs that freeze well: For dough that's shaped into balls, place unbaked dough balls onto parchment-lined baking sheets and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the balls to sealable bags to free up space. For cut-out cookies, cut out and freeze unbaked cookies airtight on a baking sheet ­layered between parchment or wax paper.

2 Weeks Ahead

  • Send "evites." Request guests to bring a certain number of cookies to swap (up to 1 dozen per guest is common); include a cookie sign-up sheet to help encourage variety. Make sure you let guests know if there are any recipe guidelines or allergies to consider.
  • Plan to give. If desired, ask guests to bring additional cookies to donate to a community center, bake-sale fundraiser or shelter.

1 Week Ahead

  • Decorate cookie containers for gift giving and/or unique presentations.
  • Shop for beverages. (Hot cider in the slow cooker is an easy, festive choice.)
  • Make a holiday-music playlist.

3 days ahead

  • Set up a beverage and healthy snack station. Plan to offer guests a variety of beverages and a selection of healthy snacks.

2 days ahead

  1. Defrost frozen cookie dough in the refrigerator, if necessary.
  2. Prepare cookie fillings or glazes.

The day before

  • Bake and assemble cookies.

Party Day!

  • Relax and have fun.
  • Share with those in need. Deliver platters of cookies to the organization(s) you've contacted.

 Cookie Swap Recipe Ideas

Nutty Chocolate-Dipped Macaroons: These sweet peanut butter-flavored meringue cookies are perfect for special occasions. Dipped in melted chocolate and full of crunchy peanuts, they can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or in the freezer for up to three months.

Cranberry Crumble Bars: These cranberry-orange bars freeze well. Make a batch on a free afternoon and pop them in the freezer so you'll always have a healthy dessert on hand when company calls.

Stained Glass Sugar Cookies: You won't believe how easy it is to make these seriously impressive cookies. Crushed hard candy melts in the center of these festive sugar cookies, making a gorgeous stained-glass effect. Use any shape cookie cutter you like, just make sure you have two--a big one for each cookie, and a slightly smaller one for the hole in the middle.

Vegan Gingerbread Cookies: Coconut oil stands in for butter in this dairy-free, eggless cookie recipe for completely mouthwatering gingerbread cut-outs. Decorate cookies with a simple vegan icing or sanding sugar.

Gluten-Free Gingerbread Cookies: Gluten-free flour stands in for regular flour in these crisp, festive cut-out cookies that taste amazing. To decorate, dust cookies with sanding sugar before you bake them or drizzle and pipe on royal icing once they've cooled.

More Cookie Swap Inspiration

Some original contributions by Claire Perez.