If you’ve ever tried to build a gingerbread house, you probably know it’s a lot harder than it looks. And, no, we’re not talking about the ones you bake from scratch — we’re talking about the ones you can buy in a box from your local craft store. The frosting that comes in the box is never as sticky as it looks like it should be. The cookie pieces topple over before the frosting dries. Pieces of candy wind up all over your table and maybe even on the floor. But this holiday activity doesn’t have to be so difficult. With these tips on building the best gingerbread house you can, you’ll have a festive, candy-encrusted centerpiece to show off in no time.

Hershey's Chocolate Cookie Mini House Kit from Five Below.
--- Kristen Balderas
Hershey's Chocolate Cookie Mini House Kit from Five Below.

Organize your materials before you build

Boxed gingerbread house sets typically include candy and sugar decorations in tiny plastic wrappers, which means it’s easy for candy to go everywhere during the chaotic building process. Sidestep this by pouring the candies into small dishes before you build. Then you can set them aside to avoid messes until your work is fully dried and ready to be decorated.

Find something sturdy to be the base of your house

Not every gingerbread house kit comes with a piece of cardboard or a cookie to be the base, but building the house is infinitely easier with one. If baking your own cookie base is too challenging, wrap a piece of cardboard in aluminum foil to improvise. Gluing the edges of your gingerbread house to the base will keep it from slipping around as you add the roof. (Pro tip: Use a frosting tip on the larger side to glue the walls together before switching to a smaller one for decorating.)

A gingerbread house made with a kit from AC Moore.
--- Kristen Balderas
A gingerbread house made with a kit from AC Moore.

Decide whether you want to build or decorate first

Most instructions call for you to build the house and wait for it to dry before you move on to decorating, but if you’re pressed for time, you can decorate the individual gingerbread pieces before sticking them together with icing. You’ll have to be careful, but you’ll be able to get that Instagram-worthy picture in less time.

Another gingerbread house made with a kit from AC Moore.
--- Kristen Balderas
Another gingerbread house made with a kit from AC Moore.

Use props to make the building process easier

If your house walls and roof aren’t staying put, use cans or bottles to prop them up as they dry. It can also be easier to build in stages, like waiting to add the roof after the walls are completely dry. When a gingerbread house is fully dry, you should be able to apply a little force to the sides without anything slipping out of place.

A mini gingerbread village made with a kit from AC Moore.
--- Kristen Balderas
A mini gingerbread village made with a kit from AC Moore.

Buy additional decorations and frosting

If you really want to make your gingerbread house look better than your neighbor’s, you’ll probably need to head to the grocery store for additional candy and cookies for decorations. Frosted Shredded Wheat cereal pieces make for pretty snow-dusted roof shingles. Turning an ice cream cone upside down and frosting the outside green will give you a Christmas tree. Use Airhead Sour Belts to create a striped roof. Royal icing — a blend of meringue, powdered sugar, and water — is the preferred frosting of gingerbread house experts because it’s extra-sticky and dries glossy, perfect for those sugar icicles hanging off your gingerbread house roof.

Be patient

I know it’s hard to wait for the architectural frosting to fully dry before you start decorating, because — let’s be real — the fun part is gluing gumdrops and candies shaped like Christmas lights to the house with frosting. But the wait is worth it! Follow the instructions on the box and set the structure aside for a few hours after you’re done and the decorating process will be so much easier. Promise.

Meringue Powder Royal Icing

Makes enough to decorate 3 dozen cookies, or one gingerbread house

¼ cup meringue powder

½ cup cold water

1 pound confectioners sugar

  1. Add the meringue powder to cold water in a mixing bowl and beat at medium speed to soft peaks, 2 to 3 minutes.
  2. Add the sugar, one cup at a time, beating well after each,  for a total of 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Store in an airtight container until ready to use. Use to pipe decorative details onto a gingerbread house or cookies. 

— From The Flour Pot Cookie Book (Running Press, 2006)