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The stretch between college drop off and Thanksgiving, or even fall break, can feel like a long one. For parents looking to send a little love and still have money left over to pay spring tuition, we offer some inexpensive but always popular college care package items.

Don’t be discouraged if creating and sending a gift box conjures up visions of endless shopping, long lines at the post office, or scouring around for bubble wrap. Think 2016—order a few fun items for your college student and look for free shipping deals along the way.

The best care packages are filled with things parents know their own kids will love. We like to send a mix of fun, frivolous, delicious, and practical. If you want to make a creative masterpiece, just type “college care package” into the Pinterest search bar and feast your eyes. What kids tell us they appreciate most is the alert from the mailroom that they have a package, heading over to pick it up, and then unwrapping the special items selected just for them.

Finally, creating care packages doesn’t need to be a chore when it can be a party with fellow parents. College care package parties, where each parent brings a designated number of the same item and then, over a bottle of wine and a few laughs, the group assembles the packages for all of their kids, can be great fun.

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan are co-authors of Grown and Flown, where they write about all aspects of parenting kids 15-25 years old. Heffernan is also the author of three books, including the New York Times best seller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

1. Microwave cookware

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While cooking on campus can be difficult, microwaves are ubiquitous. So make sure your student chef is equipped with some proper gear. Corningware, for example, has a big 20-ounce cup with a vented lid that works like a miniature ceramic casserole dish, a large coffee mug, or a soup or oatmeal bowl. The lid traps enough steam for cooking but acts as a release to avoid blowing up dinner in the microwave.

2. Single-serve soups, mac-n-cheese, or oatmeal

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When kids get hungry in their dorm rooms at night, the options for a reasonably healthy mini-meal can be extremely limited—and regular midnight food runs can get expensive. It is easy to send along single-serve soups, mac-n-cheese, or cups of oatmeal that can be jazzed up with packs of raisins, nuts, or dried fruit. Take a look at these recipes for other meal-in-a-mug ideas for your college student. For a special dessert treat, create and package in ziplock bags the dry ingredients for this warm chocolate cake (microwaved in a mug by adding only water) that kids will love.

3. Stainless steel water bottle

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Over the course of a semester, refilling your own water bottle can lead to some big savings. Many of the stainless steel bottles available now will keep water cold on warm days and coffee or tea piping hot on cold ones. This can save your college kid money on morning coffee and afternoon workout hydration. S’well, the current trendy bottle, makes a slightly smaller and less expensive version call S’ip, but double-walled (to keep in temperature) stainless steel bottles can be found in all price ranges.

4. Toys!

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College kids are, well, still kids. We love to send them some inexpensive fun to share with roommates and friends, particularly around midterms and finals when tensions run high. Most of these toys are almost like party favors from their childhood, combining fun with nostalgia. A few we have sent are old-fashioned ball and paddles, tangle toys, light-up toys, mesh squishy balls, Slinkys, Frisbees, and over-the-door basketball hoops.

5. Gift cards

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Gift cards are usually a huge hit and, to make our lives that much easier, most can be delivered via email and for almost any dollar amount. Students love gift cards for coffee shops, frozen yogurt, bookstores (a big help toward textbooks), local eateries, or the on-campus student store.

6. Diffusers

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Let’s be blunt: Dorm rooms stink. Burning fragrant candles is dangerous and banned on many campuses, but diffusers are both pleasant and long lasting. Once cold weather arrives, windows are shut tight and the fresh air is gone from our kids’ rooms. Diffusers come in every scent including ones that make the dorm smell like a forest of Christmas trees and last all winter.

7. Holiday decorations

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College students love to celebrate EVERY holiday, and we love to send them the decorations to add to the festivities. Whether it’s strands of shiny beads for Mardi Gras, strings of lights for winter holidays (check on whether the dorm allows them), or plastic pumpkins full of candy, it’s fun to share in the celebration. Party City is well stocked with inexpensive items and often runs special offers for free ground shipping.

8. Long phone-charging cord

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College kids don’t like to be separated from their phones—even when they’re sleeping. Plus, the alarm on their phone is often the only thing that stands between them and snoozing through their first class. A 10-foot charging cord that allows them to simultaneously use and charge their phone anywhere in their room can be a big help.


9. Laundry pods

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… and other vital supplies your college student may run out of, such as cleaning wipes (for that filthy dorm room), moisturizer, hand cream, lip balm, razor blades, shaving cream, a favorite shampoo, and sunscreen.

10. Socks!

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Despite having left in September with everything you figured they needed, somehow during the school year, socks (not to mention underwear and undershirts) can suddenly be in short supply. Maybe it’s the large communal laundry rooms that are to blame. So pack up a few fresh pairs and maybe add some gloves, scarves, or hats, if those were left at home earlier.


11. Homemade baked goods

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Truth be told, nothing conveys love from home quite like something straight from our ovens to their dorms. Baked goods from home are the classic care package staple and one of the most appreciated. However, if you don’t have the talent for or interest in baking, seek out a bakery near campus and ask about delivery options. Local bakeries are likely to be able to deliver something to your exact specifications (in case there are allergies or it’s a birthday) and price point. If the store is walking distance from campus, your student can pick up at the bakery rather than the mail room. A number of national chains, including Insomnia Cookies (with 87 locations near college campuses), will deliver warm cookies and cold milk to your student’s dorm.

12. And of course, cash!

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College kids always seem short on funds, and letters from home (especially with money) are always appreciated. Make sure to share your student’s address with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends. One mom suggested to us that parents buy a book with beautiful pages or sayings and then rubber cement (because it rubs off completely) cash to the pages you want your kid to read. Win-win.


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