12/03/2012 11:14 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

The Gift of Giving

I did some holiday shopping on Black Friday, though made a point to go to only small businesses, including the corner bookstore and my favorite houseware store just a couple blocks from my home. When shopping online over the weekend, again I visited only small businesses' webstores, and happily received some nice discounts on par with those the big chains were offering.

I'm a cautious shopper by nature, but the holidays make me more so. As I'm not big on stuff, I tend to favor gifts people can and will use. And by "use" I mean "up," "often" or "over a lifetime."

So I'm a big giver of consumables, anything from homemade cookies, jams or dipping oils to a nice bottle of wine, a fruit of the month club subscription, even some nice bath soaps and lotions. (They also happen to be the gift I like best to receive... hint, hint)

Things you can share are high on my list as well. This includes games that can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, anytime, even when the power goes out. That's right. More than a few family "hurrications" (such as what followed Hurricane Sandy) were spent playing Chutes and Ladders, Scrabble, Chess, Pictionary...

... Basketball, kickball, stickball, catch, you name it. So be sure to put a few sports items on your list. They are sure to please.

Books can be shared too. Who said reading stories aloud should stop once your kids can read to themselves? Reading to each other can be a wonderful way to spend a stormy afternoon, and nothing beats books on tape when you've got a long car ride ahead of you.

Music of course is very shareable. If you are not sure your child's dream of being the tuba player in the school marching band will last, rent him one for a few months as a gift to see how he likes it. And cultivate his interest in music with tickets to the symphony or to hear a visiting chamber orchestra.

I like giving tickets to events. My mom loved the theatre, musical theatre most of all, and so each Christmas I'd give her tickets to see a Broadway show.

Classes make good gifts too. Both my 20-something sons are living on their own now, and so in addition to some basic kitchen supplies -- some new, some old that I am passing along -- I plan to give them each a few cooking lessons. The secret to good cooking is good preparation, so I am hoping to find an instructor who starts each session with them looking through recipes, marking items they should have in their pantry and shopping for all the ingredients they'll need to make a meal.

Possibly the most useful, shareable gift I can think of is a "Gift of Charity." During the holidays, I have often given gifts in someone's name to a charity of my choosing. But here is a better idea: Network for Good lets the gift recipient choose the charity.

It works like this: You purchase a charity gift card through Network for Good. Then, when you give the gift card to a friend or family member, he or she can "redeem" it as a donation to any one of the more than 1.2 million charities in the Network for Good's database. It's incredibly simple (cards of any size between $10 and $250 can be sent via postal mail, email, even fax) and very reasonable, as Network for Good charges just $5 as a handling fee per card.

It's also a great way to share the gift of giving, which is what the holidays are really all about, right? And in my book, it's a whole lot better than stuff.