Saving Santa

Are we just too sweet? How many children leave a plate of cookies and a cup of hot cocoa for Santa? Sit back and think about that for a minute.

If Santa were to stop at your house and eat just one chocolate chip cookie and drink one cup of hot cocoa made from a mix with whole milk, he would be ingesting 333 calories at your house alone. Now consider how many plates of cookies and cups of hot cocoa he comes across in his travels.

Sadly, a very high percentage of the calories in the snack traditionally left out for Santa would be labeled “empty calories” by the USDA. That’s because those calories provide no vitamins or minerals. Empty calories come from the solid fats and added sugars in the foods and beverages we eat, like the solid fats in cookies, cakes, pizza, cheese, sausages, fatty meats, butter, and stick margarine and the sugars or sweeteners in soft drinks and other beverages like hot cocoa, as well as in candies, cakes, cookies, pies, and ice cream. It’s time we all start paying attention to all those cookies and sugary beverages before we put them in our mouths.

According to USDA’s Super Tracker Food-A-Pedia, Santa’s small cup of hot cocoa will likely contain 223 calories, with 62 coming from solid fats and 65 from added sugars. If his cocoa is decoratedwith something like mini marshmallows that’s adding a lot more empty calories. And how many people eat just one cookie? Especially when several are served to them?

I was curious to learn exactly how many calories were in some of the newest and most popular cookie recipes, so I took a little time the other day and flipped through all the holiday cooking and women’s magazines I could find locally. I found only one that actually listed nutritional information for any kind of cookies. That alone spoke volumes to me, especially because those “healthy” cookies in that one magazine contained what I though was a lot of calories. One of those recipes tallied in at well over 200 calories for a single small cookie.

Could it be that some magazines purposely don’t include nutritional information for indulgences like cookies because most of us just don’t want to think about how many calories are crammed into each tiny little cookie we eat?

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise us to eat less sugar and solid fats. Why? Because eating foods with little nutritional value is one of the main ways people consume more calories than they need. Plus, when we eat a lot of cookies and drink sweet beverages our bodies fill up with far more sugar than we can efficiently metabolize. We need to remember that those goodies are also generally loaded with excess fat. So what happens when we do indulge a bit too much? Before long we gain weight and become more likely to develop a host of related health problems.

So take a minute to think, not only about Santa, but also about all of the cookies floating around your world during the holidays.

Lots of people look forward to holiday cookie baking all year. Many of them bake with loved ones and make an event of it or they participate in cookie exchanges where everyone brings one kind of cookies and leaves with an assortment.

When cookie exchanges first began, I recall people were instructed to bring a dozen, or maybe two dozen, of one type of cookie and then they’d go home with an assortment of cookies, but still the same reasonable amount that they brought. Now I often hear about people bringing and taking home many, many dozens of cookies. What on earth do they do with that many cookies? Sure, they eat a lot of them, and then they take platters of cookies to their relatives, offices, and parties. I see many, many platters of cookies in my travels this time of year. More often than not, they look pretty stale. Ugh. If I’m going to waste any space in my stomach on empty calories, they better be fresh and exquisitely tasty calories. Actually, in my ideal world, those empty calories will also be warm and gooey. So, although I used to be one of those people who spent days making all kinds of cookies, in recent years, I decided to make only a couple of my family’s favorite cookies and I wait until one variety is gone before making another.

Instead of making cookies, hot cocoa and other sugary foods seem like “fun foods” it’s time to start thinking about ways to make more nutritious foods fun. Adults and kids alike enjoy being creative with food. That’s one reason why making and decorating cookies is so popular. Why not focus that same energy on preparing fun nutritious food?

There are so many cute ideas out there in books, magazines and on the internet. They’re especially fun to do with children. Make smiley faces with sliced bananas and raisins or cut fruit into fun shapes with cookie cutters, put them on skewers and make an edible bouquet, or arrange a platter of cut up vegetables to look like an animal. It’s just a matter or thinking differently about food and filling your family’s diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods, rather than loading them up with foods full of processed sugar, fat and starches.

That includes Santa. I bet he would be very grateful if we left him a more nourishing snack this year. Because he needs to have enough energy to complete everything he needs to do in a very short time, he’d probably prefer something different. Rather than face yet another cookie and cup of cocoa, he’d likely be happier to find a small portion of a high energy protein snack like nuts and a truly refreshing glass of water.

If you, or people you know, are struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, it’s putting healthy food within everyone’s reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.

And if you’d like more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information , call 716-664-9502 ext. 217 or visit our website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.

Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities.

If you’re looking for new recipes you can find lots of tasty ones at Choosemyplate.gov or by using the recipe finder tool on the USDA website. And if you’re looking for healthier cookie recipes, try one of these:

Banana Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup tub margarine

1 large egg

1 cup mashed ripe banana

1 3/4 cups uncooked oatmeal, quick cooking

3/4 cup raisins

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Mix flour, sugar and baking soda in a large bowl.

3. Add softened margarine. Mix with a fork until mixture looks crumbly.

4. In a separate bowl, beat egg. Add to the flour mixture and mix well.

5. Add the banana, oatmeal and raisins to the rest of the ingredients. Mix well.

6. Drop dough from a teaspoon onto a lightly greased baking sheet (about 2 inches apart). Bake for 12 minutes or until browned.

Yields about 4 dozen servings

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1 cookie (0.7 ounces) 60 Calories, 15 Calories from Fat, 1.5g Total Fat, 25% Calories from Fat, 0g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 5mg Cholesterol, 30mg Sodium, 10g Total Carbohydrate, 1g Dietary Fiber, 5g Sugars, 1g Protein, 2% Vitamin A, 0% Calcium, 0% Vitamin C, 2% Iron

Source: Cornell University Cooperative Extension New York City Nutrition & Health Programs Recipe Collection, 2006.

Carrot Cookies

Ingredients:

1 cup flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 cup oats

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 cups shredded carrots

1 cups raisins

cup applesauce

cup vegetable (or canola) oil

cup honey

Directions:

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, oats, cinnamon, carrots and raisins.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the applesauce, oil and honey.

4. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients.

5. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Makes 36 cookies.

6. Bake for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Enjoy!

Yields about 36 servings

Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1 cookie, 70 Calories, 15 Calories from Fat, 12g Total Fat, 21% Calories from Fat, 0g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 15mg Sodium, 14g Total Carbohydrate, 1g Dietary Fiber, 8g Sugars, 1g Protein, 15% Vitamin A, 2% Calcium, 2% Vitamin C, 2% Iron

Source: Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables Cookbook

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in The OBSERVER, Comments may be directed to lifestyles@observertoday.com