I am guilty of what some might call "registry aversion." I feel like I buy very nice gifts (not completely tooting my own horn, either; I have been told as much), and I take some measure of pride in putting quite a lot of thought into any gift large or small. I have now entered the age where many of my peers are producing offspring. Aside from feeling like a crippled old spinster maid, I am now having some serious gift anxiety. In the "pro" column for purchasing gifts off of baby registries: they want it (duh); they have selected their preferred color palette for dressing Wee One; these are things they do not already have. In the "con" column: the gifts feel unoriginal; they may not have thought of some useful things; they don't know what Wee One will like once zhe arrives. What if zhe rejects those spendy bottle nipples, or zhe is allergic to the $30 baby wash for sensitive bottoms that they asked for? I know from friends' experience that those are legitimate concerns. So, my dear Fancy, what is a safe zone to stay in for baby shower gifts? How do I walk the line between the hipster elephant with a moustache onesie and the bulk pack of Huggies?
Yours in confusion,
Anxious About Amazon
A girlfriend of mine mentioned that she knew she was entering into a weird phase of her life when she was invited to both a 4/20 celebration and a one-year-old's birthday party on the same weekend. Congratulations on reaching this strange segment of your late twenties and early thirties. It's a heady time.
Gift registries are a double-edged sword, but in most cases, the registry edge is decidedly sharper than the free-form one. My overall advice to most everyone in these situations is to stick to the list or send cash unless the people in question are very, very close friends. For some reason, we as a culture have decided that getting married and having babies are different than all other gift-giving occasions, and so the recipients of your generosity are permitted to hand you an itemized list detailing exactly what they want. When it's easy to give the happy couple/pregnant lady exactly what they want, making things easier for them in a time of major transition, you might as well do it, and save your energy for their 30th birthday or their kid's first communion or some other time when it's hard to know what to get. Suffice to say, I'm Team Registry in a big way, but I hear you: your question is how to plan and execute a thoughtful and well-received off-registry gift, not "Should I stick to the registry or buy everyone matching pink airsoft rifles?"
You make some fair points about how registries take a lot of the fun out of gift-giving for the giver, and I'm sensitive to that, because shopping for presents for others is one of the greatest joys there is. It's more than understandable if the idea of logging on to Target.com and clicking "gazillion pack of baby wipes" or "tissue box holder" fills you with dread, and there is a way to be a good, thoughtful, non-registry giver.
AAA, you mention that you don't have kids of your own, but I'm sure you've seen how tired new parents often seem, more so than even they anticipated being. A great gift for your nearest and dearest who are having their first is one of self-care, one of the first things to fall by the wayside when you're dealing with 3 A.M. feedings and constant diaper changes. Make a few things that freeze well and take it to them with a note that reads "Bake at 425 for 30 minutes and enjoy a few minutes on the couch." They'll remember you fondly when they're exhausted and hangry. A pricier but still lovely option could be to give them a gift card for something like a one-hour couples' massage (make sure you're clear on the expiration window!) and offer your services as babywatcher while they steal a few minutes of much-needed relaxation.
The "things you can eat and don't have to store" route also goes over big with newlyweds. Get a basket, and fill it with nice snacks you know they love and a bottle of champagne you can afford. Wrap it up nicely and have it delivered to their suite on the night of their wedding (people forget to eat during weddings. It's a thing), or the night of their rehearsal dinner, or to their home on the day they return from their honeymoon. Enclose a note that says, "To Rob, Congratulations on getting the girl of your dreams!" or "Angela and Nicole, may the best of your past be the worst of your future!" or whatever seems appropriate. To make this even more affordable, you could make things yourself—homemade brownies and some delicious trail mix go a long way. Unless your friends are total jerks, they will be really excited to have a present they can devour in their hour of need.
If you really, really must give them something that they can hold in their hands, I recommend a book. They're useful, pretty, and easy to return at a variety of places in many towns. For babies, I usually opt for three or four board books that are gender neutral, non-controversial classics— It Looked Like Spilt Milk, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon. For weddings, a cookbook is nice: I usually pick something like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or The Joy of Cooking, both of which are useful and informative regardless of what your ability level is. Most people either read to their kids and cook things or like to maintain the illusion that they do, so these are safe bets. If they already have them or hate Eric Carl, they aren't so obscure that the local Barnes and Noble won't take them back.
The last thing there is to say on this is not to overthink it. I'm sure you give perfect, appropriate, meaningful gifts, but if you have a swing and a miss every so often, your real friends won't even notice because they'll be so happy you wanted to come and share in this important moment in their lives.
Yours in Registry Aversion,
I'm organizing a group for a nice-ish dinner in a few weeks. It's a larger group of about a dozen, so we're going to handle things potluck style, and I want to make sure everyone is on the same page. What's the best way to tactfully let everyone know that their entrée or side dish should be a step above the normal drunk-brunch-in-the-park fare? It's a really laid-back group and I'd prefer to avoid being "that" host who overbearingly dictates who brings what precise dish or how much you should spend. I'd like to proactively prevent half the group bringing just chips and dip while the other half prepare coq au vin, you know?
The great puzzle of organizing a successful potluck is always knowing how to pull off something nice and low-key while not winding up with a buffet table of break-and-bake cookies and hummus. There are several ways to head this off at the pass, so take your pick.
The best way to set the tone for your party is with the invitation. The very existence of the invitation should indicate to your guests that this is going to be a step up from a casual afternoon watching football, drinking Natural Light, and scrounging for food. Indicating a theme ("Jazz Brunch") or dress code ("cocktail attire") can help guide everyone to the conclusion that they need to step up their game. I recently got an Evite like this, and part of the RSVP was to indicate what I would bring. I could see what the other attendees were bringing and plan accordingly.
Another solution is to assign out your needs from the get-go. Most people don't want to be a pain and are excited to come to your potluck, but if you don't give them direction, they're going to default to bringing a bottle of wine and some Sun Chips. When people call to RSVP, say, "I'm going to make pumpkin risotto, so the entree is handled. Would you please bring a side dish and cocktail napkins?" Everyone knows the expectation then, and if they flake, that's on them. Someone will flake, but if you have a big enough group, it's not a huge deal.
If you don't want to directly assign and invitations aren't your bag, you have a third option, which is a Google Doc (or something similar). Email everyone you're inviting and share a spreadsheet with them. In the body of the email, write something like, "please sign up for one food item and one paper good for Saturday's party." Make a column that reads, "Entree, Side, Side, Side, Salad, Dessert" and so forth, and another that lists plastic utensils, ice, cups, and the like. Everyone has been given their instructions, and it lets your guests choose their contributions according the their culinary and economic abilities. I've gone this route with things like bridal luncheons and baby showers time and time again, and it saves you a ton of hassle, especially when you're trying to figure out what still needs to get done.
I hope your party is a smashing success, and that it sets a high bar for future suppers with gracious company.
Yours in Chance Dining,
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.