gift guide

The Best Gifts for People You Don’t Want to Shop For

Photo: HBO

We all have people in our lives who we need to buy holiday gifts for, but who we might not necessarily want to buy gifts for. Maybe it’s your overbearing boss or an in-law who isn’t your biggest fan. Sometimes it can even be a family member — a cousin or sibling you love, but who you’re less than inspired to shop for, whether it’s because they’re overly picky or have completely opposite tastes from you.

Since we’re experts at finding the best gifts for all types of people (from priests and nurses to astrologers and Deadheads), we’ve taken it upon ourselves to pick out presents for those especially challenging people on your list. Who knows, maybe a just-right gift can be the thing that finally helps you get along.

For the mother-in-law who criticizes your cooking

She can season your food to her heart’s content with this hand-harvested, crunchy finishing salt that comes in a very giftable glass jar with a cork top. If she fancies herself a serious home cook, impress her by casually mentioning it’s the same salt New York Times food editor Sam Sifton keeps at his desk.

For the teenage cousin who calls you “boomer” even though you’re 30

Oddly enough, both the teen girls and boys we surveyed about holiday gifts this year requested record players. Get your snarky cousin this suitcase-style one and tell them it’s a relic from the good old days.

For the sister who came to Thanksgiving with a three-page list of dietary restrictions

Since it’s likely hard for her to find food that meets her high standards, let her make her own with this juicer (the best-rated model on Amazon) that turns fruits and vegetables into healthy juices, free of the additives or ingredients she’s trying to avoid.

For the brother-in-law who won’t stop talking about Crossfit

With flavors like cinnamon, cocoa, and “fruity,” this low-carb cereal is reminiscent of childhood favorites but with no grains or gluten to mess with his gainz. The sweetness comes from allulose, a “rare sugar” (according to the brand) that isn’t metabolized by the body and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. It’s keto-friendly and high in protein to power his WODs (that’s “workout of the day” for the uninitiated).

For the uncle with opposing political views


You may never agree with him on immigration or health-care policy, but you can band together in the battle against zombies in this collaborative game. It’s recommended by board-game designer Will Sorrell, who likes how it “turns players into survivors of a zombie takeover, challenging them to find weapons, learn spells, and acquire skills, all while working together as one team.”

For the father-in-law who just wants to watch football and be left alone

The best pair of noise-cancelling headphones for the guy who knows silence is golden. He can stream the game’s audio through Bluetooth and tune out the shrieking grandkids or rowdy holiday table talk.

For the aunt who always smells of patchouli

If she’s been burning incense since her heady hippie days, it’ll be a hard habit to break, but you can gently steer her away from the cloying patchouli (that clashes with her already-overpowering perfume) with these cleansing palo santo sticks. Strategist editor Katy Schneider says it smells “faintly, yet powerfully, woodsy, like a spring hike after a rainstorm,” and is one of the few scents that doesn’t give her a headache. Next year you can try to help her with the perfume problem.

For the frenemy who’s somehow always on a tropical vacation

Her Instagram is a steady stream of beaches and yachts, but you can’t figure out how she has the time or money to keep jetting off to new locales. Jealousy won’t get you anywhere, so go for some good karma points and get her this carry-on-size travel steamer that’ll make sure her vacation ’fits look fresh even after hours on a plane.

For the sister-in-law who returns everything you buy her

This coffee pot, from Strategist-beloved Danish design brand Hay, is on our so-called List of Won’t-Returnables for two reasons: First, it’s sleek and design-y enough for even the most particular recipient; and second, it produces a coffee-snob-approved brew. According to Connie Blumhardt, publisher of Roast magazine, it contains a “micro-thin” stainless-steel filter to infuse coffee grounds into hot water, similar to how you would make tea in a teapot.

For the brother who can do no wrong in your parents’ eyes

They might think he’s perfect, but you know your brother’s no angel. Gift him a set of these bartender-approved double rocks glasses, and then sip old-fashioneds together after the rest of the family goes to sleep and reminisce about all the trouble the two of you used to get into. They have a cool, vintage style so they’ll look nice on his bar cart, too.

For the judgmental doorman

Fleishman Is in Trouble

Give him something to focus on instead of your late-night/early-morning comings and goings. One of the year’s most buzzed-about novels (it made our columnist Chris Black’s summer reading list), Fleishman Is in Trouble has plenty of drama (divorce, dating apps, money problems) to capture his attention.

For the boss who emails you all weekend

You can’t force your manager to chill out, but you can encourage it with this lavender-scented aromatherapy stick that writer Sara Gaynes Levy says is “like Ambien without the side effects.” A peacefully sleeping boss can’t send middle-of-the-night “Urgent!” emails after all. Make sure to tell him that you got it because he works so hard and you hope he’s getting enough sleep, so that he doesn’t spend too much time reading into things.

For the co-worker you don’t know at all but drew in Secret Santa

Who wouldn’t want a plant to brighten up their cubicle? Even if you have no idea about your co-worker’s gardening skills, the hearty ZZ plant can tolerate low-light environments and inconsistent watering. It’s low-maintenance enough to feel like a gift and not an assignment.

For the teacher who has it out for your kid

There’s a good chance it’s nothing personal and your kid’s teacher is likely just overworked and overtired. Kate, a music teacher in Boston, says “bath salts are always nice, [because] teachers work hard, and they work long hours, often arriving at school around 7 a.m. and staying up late at home marking tests and homework.” This soothing set will help them relax — and hopefully get you on their good side.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

The Best Gifts for People You Don’t Want to Shop For