By Heather Sweeney,

soldier opening care package

Care packages are the best way for loved ones to send a little piece of home to deployed service members. They’re also a fun way for families to stay connected while apart.

Unfortunately, collecting items to put into care packages can get expensive. But with some creativity and a little help from the discounts offered by your favorite stores, those care packages don’t have to make a huge dent in your budget. Here are 7 ideas to get you started:

1. Call the post office.

Before you can create a care package, you need shipping supplies. The United States Postal Service (USPS) offers a free “Military Care Kit” with the necessary supplies for sending packages overseas, including boxes, packing tape and customs forms. Just give them a call at 1-800-610-8734 and ask for the kit. Click here for details, and if you have any questions about what you can and can’t ship overseas, visit the USPS website.

2. Strike a pose.

What better way to send a little piece of home than to send pictures from home. Take pictures of the kids, the pets, the house, friends, anything you think your service member is missing.

How should you send them? You can send them the old-fashioned way by simply mailing prints of the pictures. If you plan to include a large number of photos, load them onto a USB flash drive. Join a photo-sharing site like Snapfish or Shutterfly and make a calendar. Or you can load images on a digital picture frame so they can be easily displayed and viewed like a slideshow.

Want the photos you send to be professionally done? Both JC Penney and Target offer military discounts at their portrait studios.

3. Bake goodies.

Now that they’ve seen home through pictures, give service members a taste of home by baking some homemade yummies. But keep in mind that not all baked goods will survive the transit time and temperature changes en route to the care package’s final destination.

One way to overcome that is by baking a cake in a jar. This is basically a mini cake made inside a jar that promises to still be moist and delicious by the time it arrives on the other end. Click here for the recipe.

Not a baker yourself? Cheryl’s Cookies and Brownies offers free shipping to APO/FPO addresses. Let them do the baking for you.

4. Pack non-perishables.

The best food to send is usually of the non-perishable variety, especially those snacks in cans or jars to prevent crushing. Beef jerky, tuna, trail mixes, Pringles, candy that won’t melt and well-packaged cookies and crackers are safe bets.

Plan to send a lot of care packages? Buy in bulk. Sam’s Club and BJ’s offer military savings.

5. Include necessities.

Service members may have the ability to get toiletries and other necessities, but it might not be their favorite brands. Head over to a drug store and load up on shampoo, body wash, hand sanitizer, deodorant, sunscreen, toothpaste, lip balm, foot powder, throat lozenges, baby wipes and gel insoles. While you’re there, put some Ziploc bags in your shopping cart to house any items that could leak.

6. Provide entertainment.

Service members can always use entertainment when they have a chance to enjoy some down time. Include books, magazines and crosswords puzzles. Go to your local exchange and use their price matching policy for new ear buds, DVDs and iTunes gift cards. And check out Jo-Ann Fabrics, Michaels and A.C. Moore for pens, notepads, stationary and envelopes, the perfect hint for them to write letters back to you.

7. Personalize the package.

Homemade artwork from the kids is always a big care package hit. Not only is it a morale boost for your service member, but it also helps the kids stay connected with the parent they’re missing. Don’t forget to decorate the inside of the box!

Stock up on art supplies at Jo-Ann Fabrics, Michaels and A.C. Moore. You can also use those discounts to make care packages more festive for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

If you’re a military spouse, are you sleeping in the last t-shirt he wore before he deployed because it smells like him? Well, he probably wants your scent close by too. Wear a shirt you know he likes on you or sleep on a pillowcase, then seal it in a Ziploc bag so he can get a whiff of home whenever he wants.

And to round out the sensory experiences, use that NEX price matching deal to buy an MP3 player and fill it with special music that will spark memories of home and special occasions.

Your loved one may be far away, but care packages help make that distance feel a little bit smaller.

What do you put in care packages?

More at