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Grocery stores have undergone a transformation of late. There are still the long rows of canned foods and packaged goods and pyramids of sale items to greet shoppers as they pass through the door, but consumer trends and changing tastes have many supermarkets adding more specialty ingredients to their shelves and areas in the store to rest, sit back and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea or even take a class on a food-related topic.

During the holiday season local stores are offering delicious prepared foods, creative tips, useful advice and loads of inspiration to get shoppers in a festive spirit.

To make holiday meal planning easier, New Leaf Community Markets is offering recipes, cooking tips and food and wine paring guides at their Holiday Solutions Table daily, from Dec. 8 – 30, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., at all New Leaf locations. Shoppers will also be able to place their orders from New Leaf’s holiday menu – prepared dishes that are thoughtfully prepared and tailored to customers’ needs. Folks can order anything from one side dish to a complete meal.

In addition to complimentary holiday wine tasting and food pairing every Friday from 5-7 p.m., New Leaf in Westside Santa Cruz is holding free special events to keep shoppers feeling good and in the festive spirit.

On Dec. 5, author Melissa Stone Santangelo will give out free samples and sign copies of her book, Spa-Cipes: The Spa Cookbook, while on Dec. 12, local nutrition consultant and educator, Sandi Rechenmacher will share immunity boosting tips with “mocktail” recipes and superfood shots. On Dec. 19, local purveyor, Guimauve Confections will teach kids (12 and under) how to make their own marshmallow snowmen, using all natural, preservative-free, hand-cut marshmallows.

While not free, New Leaf’s Classic Cookie Exchange is a bargain for those who want an assortment of holiday cookies, but not all the fuss and mess in the kitchen. Adults and kids of all ages help bake a bunch of healthy (gluten-free, dairy-free, low glycemic index) cookies and afterwards everyone swaps and gets to take home five or six types of cookies. Now that is the holiday spirit.

Whole Foods kicks off the holiday party season with their annual Winter Gala on Dec. 6, 9-11 p.m., at their Capitola store. Featuring live music, cocktails, wines, and yummy bites, the event is strictly for the 21 and overs, but at just $10 a head it is a delicious deal.

Earlier that evening, both the Capitola and Santa Cruz stores are hosting Alpine Cheese Night. Alpine-style cheeses are traditionally used in fondues – a perfect winter evening meal – and the free event includes cheese tasting, pairing suggestions and ideas for holiday parties.

Also at the Capitola store, kids can sign up for the holiday cookie decorating class on December 16. The class costs $10 per child and is for those 8 and over, but any age is welcome with parental supervision.

Whole Foods is also holding Community Days to support local organizations during the month of December. During Community Days five percent of sales go to recipient organizations, including Santa Cruz County Toys for Tots and the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County.

At Shopper’s Corner in midtown Santa Cruz, the festive spirit has permeated the rafters. The store is decked out in holiday regalia and the staff, renowned for their customer service is waiting to take customers’ orders for the store’s famous prime rib. The landmark store, serving locals since 1938, is the place to go to stock up on hard-to-get high-end wines and holiday liqueurs, including the French apple brandy, Calvados, for those cold winter evenings when only a hot spiced cider will do.

Gingerbread cookie photo courtesy of Shutterstock.