My Go-To Trick for No-Mess Cookie Decor with Kids

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Cookie decorating is supposed to be a joyous celebration of the holiday season — you’re making holiday memories plus gifts for friends, neighbors, and maybe a cookie plate for Santa too. Except cookie decorating with tiny, sugar-fueled, and sprinkled-eyed humans can be more frustrating and messy than we expect and leave us holiday harried parents more stressed than joyful.

This season I discovered a simple trick for decorating cookies with my kids that is practically mess-free, keeps them from spilling sprinkles everywhere, and limits their ability to lick the frosting bag. There’s a tiny bit of prep required on your part, but the results are both more fun and — dare I say — more beautiful.

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(Image credit: Meghan Splawn)

Don’t Decorate. Paint!

This is actually a trick that I learned in culinary school and plum forgot about until I recently saw a cookie shop selling “paint your own” holiday cookies. No need to buy cookies, though. Instead, decorate your sugar cookies with plain white royal icing and let them dry overnight.

When you’re ready to decorate, set each kid up with a palette of food coloring and a watercolor brush (food-safe decorating brushes would be ideal, but any brush you can reserve just for food works too). Then your little artists can paint their plain cookies with the food coloring. You can use gel food coloring or the inexpensive liquid drops and provide a little dish of water for diluting the color.

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(Image credit: Meghan Splawn)

Pro Tips for Painting Sugar Cookies

  • Make sure your royal icing has plenty of time to dry. We decorated these after just three hours and there were a few fingertip dents. Overnight drying is ideal.
  • Use as little water as possible. I know this can be a tall order when kids have a paint brush in hand, but too much water on your painter’s brush will melt the royal icing. Reserve those cookies for eating right away!
  • Let the cookies dry again before packaging them up. You can eat the cookies right away, but their surface will be tacky from the moisture of the food coloring and water, so let them dry for an hour before packing up or covering with plastic wrap.

Our Favorite Cookie and Icing Recipes to Get You Started

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