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Nutrition: Choices abound for Santa's Christmas Eve snacks

In his worldwide tour, the globe-trotting Santa has the opportunity to enjoy many other tasty treats on Christmas Eve. (Getty Images)

In many homes, a key part of the Christmas Eve countdown is to leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa. While the history of this practice is a bit hazy, it's a sweet tradition passed on through generations of hopeful and believing children. I recall my own little son carefully assembling such a plate with an invitation for Santa to "help yourself and feel free to have seconds." I still have that note, tucked away with wistful memories.

In his worldwide tour, the globe-trotting Santa has the opportunity to enjoy many other tasty treats on Christmas Eve. Examples of the international cuisine:

Chile: Pan de Pascua, a sponge cake flavored with fruit, ginger and honey

Denmark: Risengrod, a bowl of rice pudding

Iceland: Laufabrauo, a leaf-thin bread with texture of a crispy wafer

Australia: Cookies and beer

Ireland: A Pint of Guinness

England: Sherry and mince pie

As a registered dietitian, it's my job to help people eat more healthfully. Cake and cookies? Puddings and pies? Beer? What shall I recommend? Yet, my first inclination is to leave well enough alone. After all, if goals for nutrition are about longevity, good health and happiness, Santa has it all wrapped up and tied with Christmas ribbon. He's been around for over a century, but has the strength and endurance of a much younger man: carries bags laden with toys, shimmies down and back up chimneys, works a "long winter's night" shift. And let's not forget the part about walking around roofs in the dark. Finally, no one can deny his perennial cheer and generosity. What's his secret?

But, if Santa were interested in making some lifestyle changes, as a health professional, my first step would be to assess his nutrition status. His BMI (body mass index) is likely on the high side, waist circumference broad, and intake of saturated fat and sugar quite alarming.

The only resemblance his diet has to the Plate Method (a healthy eating guide) is that cookies are, in fact, on a plate. And it would be easy to rationalize eating oatmeal raisin cookies for whole grains and fruit, or peanut butter blossom cookies for protein, but that's the stuff of Christmas dreams.

Intake of vegetables? Non-existent. The carrots that are sometimes provided are not for Santa. Nooo. They are for the reindeer, because, as one little girl solemnly explained to me, "reindeer need to see in the dark."

On the other hand, Santa's diet at other times of the year could be quite healthy. This would make Christmas Eve a once-in-awhile occasion of eating excessively, similar to a winter version of the State Fair. Level of fitness might be year-round also, through 10,000 steps a day during North Pole toy factory inspections; and he certainly could enlist one of the elves as a personal trainer.

If you do want to help Santa (or whoever is actually eating Santa's treats, fess up) here are a few suggestions. I'm leaning toward green and red colors, as these are Santa's favorites, and also festive.

• Red or green salsa and whole grain crackers

• Homemade pizza (try a cauliflower crust) with tomato sauce, cheese of choice, green olives, red and green bell peppers

• Mini fruit kabobs with watermelon chunks and kiwi slices

• Cherry tomatoes

• Pita bread cut in triangles to resemble Christmas trees; spread with guacamole

• Shrimp cocktail

• Celery sticks and peanut butter

• Sliced zucchini or cucumbers with hummus dip

• Yogurt with strawberries,

• Bright red and green apple slices (sprinkle with lemon juice to keep fresh)

• Tomato soup (reduced sodium, and in a thermal container for those cold flights in an open sleigh)

To garner bonus points on Santa's nice list, you would be smart to go the cookies and milk route. Set out the cookies and let Santa decide how much to eat.

For your edification, I pass on expert advice from the age 7-and-younger grandkids, Catherine and Adam. You should serve sugar or gingerbread cookies, with many in the shape of Santa. Here's another inside tip: chocolate is Santa's preferred flavor, so chocolate milk instead of white would also put you in good standing.

Importantly, don't forget to leave a non-food item such as a special card, note, or letter for Santa. Tell him thank you, and help him to sustain the spirit of Christmas throughout his long night of gift giving around the world.

Mary Zbaracki, MPH, RD, LD, CDE, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s. Contact her at dietitian@slhduluth.com.

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