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How to Safely Mail Homemade Gifts

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: December 10, 2019

Reviewed: October 26, 2023

Woman tying a ribbon around a box to demonstrate mailing homemade food gifts.

Friends and loved ones who live far from home — such as college students or those serving in the military — enjoy receiving care packages. Often these contain homemade treats or other prepared foods.

Whether you are sending a package for the holidays, commemorating a special occasion or just showing that you care, keep food safety in mind when shipping care packages that contain food.

Why is this an issue? Foodborne pathogens grow faster between 40°F and 140°F, potentially doubling every 20 minutes, in what is often referred to as the temperature danger zone. So, take extra precautions to ensure recipients of your care package feel the love and not the effects of food poisoning when they receive their gift.

Send Non-Perishable Foods

Foods that don’t require refrigeration stay fresher longer and are safe to keep at room temperature, so they make great homemade food gifts and have a lower risk of causing food poisoning. Some examples include:

  • Dried beef, fruits, canned nuts, dehydrated soups and fruit drink mixes
  • Canned meat and fish, along with shelf-stable dips and cracker spreads. Remember, any cans that appear to be damaged, dented or swollen should be thrown away.
  • Dense and dry baked goods such as fruitcakes and biscotti
  • Chocolates, cookies, hard candies and homemade sweets, such as pralines and toffee
  • Condiments, including hot sauce and seasonings, but avoid sending breakable glass containers
  • Commercially packaged cakes, cookies and crackers, but ship them in airtight tins

While you don't need to worry about the temperature of non-refrigerated foods, you should protect the original packaging. Sturdy packaging helps keep food undamaged for the bumpy ride ahead.

Keep Perishables Cool

If you decide to ship perishable foods, they should be kept below 40°F during shipping. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, known as FSIS, recommends using a cold source, such as dry ice, to help keep food items cold. Additionally, packing items in an insulated cooler or with corrugated cardboard for insulation may help keep the contents cold longer. Keep in mind that precautions are needed when using dry ice so that it doesn’t come in contact with bare hands or the food that’s being shipped. It’s also a good idea to alert the recipient by writing “Contains Dry Ice” on the box.

To help minimize the time foods spend out of refrigeration, write “Keep Refrigerated” on the outside of any cold storage boxes before mailing them. Ship items that need refrigeration at the beginning of the week, so they aren’t sitting at the shipping facility over the weekend. Notify the person you’re sending the package to, so they know when it’s expected to arrive.

Inspect Upon Arrival

If you receive a shipment, immediately open any package marked "Keep Refrigerated" to check the temperature of the food items inside. Perishable food should arrive frozen or at least partially frozen with little ice crystals or below 40°F.

Use a food thermometer to test the perishable food when it arrives. If it's above 40°F, immediately notify the shipping company and do not eat the food.

Whether you're shipping the food item to a home, dorm room or workplace, alert the recipient that a gift is in the mail so somebody can receive it. Don't deliver it to an office unless it will arrive on a workday and your recipient has access to refrigerator space.

For more information about the safety of mail-order foods, consult "Mail Order Food Safety" from the FSIS.

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