10 Tips Toward Healthier Holiday Treats

The holidays.

A time for giving, gratitude, and eating, LOTS of eating. Whether we want the extra calories or not, indulgent desserts and rich appetizers will be greeting us at each gathering (even in the office kitchen!) between now and New Year’s. And it can be SO. HARD. TO. RESIST.

Sometimes a quote says it best:

“Strength is the ability to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands – and then eat just one of those pieces.” – Judith Viorst

Wise words. Thank you for sharing, Kim!

Thankfully there are plenty of steps we can take to avoid packing on the pounds, while still being able to enjoy our favorites. Here are just a few ways we can trim the calories and boost nutrition in your favorite holiday desserts, without trimming taste.

christmas tree snack

Thankfully we don’t have to live solely on veggies this holiday season. Enjoy your favorite treats while making a few recipe tweaks to save some calories without tasting a difference!

10 Tips Toward Healthier Holiday Treats

  1. Add protein!

    • Did you know that you can substitute plain Greek yogurt for more than just sour cream? Think butter, oil, mayo, cream cheese, heavy cream, creme fraiche or even milk.A couple of tips? Allow the yogurt to come to room temperature, pour off the liquid layer on top and get to know the conversion rates. While it may be a 1:1 swap for sour cream, mayo, and cream cheese, the others require a bit of finagling. If your recipe calls for one-cup of oil, use 3/4 cup Greek yogurt. One-cup butter? Avoid ruining the recipe entirely and start with 1/4 cup yogurt + 1/2 cup butter – you’re still saving over 800 calories! Oh, and if you choose to use Greek yogurt while cooking? Follow Trish Farano’s advice, the Test Kitchen Manager for Dierbergs School of Cooking in Missouri, temper the yogurt first. If you’re like me and are unfamiliar with the term, it simply means SLOWLY bring the yogurt to an equal temp as what you are cooking by adding tablespoon by tablespoon of your warm ingredients to the measured yogurt, mixing along the way, until it is heated. This will prevent it from curdling – as happened to me in my own attempt to lighten up our Beef Stroganoff! 

      Greek yogurt can do so much more than serve as the base for your breakfast parfait!

      Greek yogurt can do so much more than serve as the base for your breakfast parfait!

      For a less extreme swap, swap fat-free cream cheese for the full-fat version. According to Maddy Basler, RDN, CDN, of Real You Nutrition, after dabbling in recipe testing, she found that “when using full fat, 1/3 less fat, and fat free the fat free was overall chosen as the best! I have made it for Thanksgiving and my guests have chosen that over the other more “heavy” desserts!”

  2. Trim the sugar by one-third.

    • I promise. If your cookie recipe calls for one-cup of sugar and you only add 2/3 cup, no one will notice. Rather than attempting a huge cut the first time around, I have found this amount works out pretty well. If it’s still uber sweet, trim a bit more. Little by little, change is possible. For more great tips using Greek yogurt, click here for advice straight from Chobani!
  3. Use a “Seed Egg”! 

    • Okay, I realize this tip sounds loco. Let me explain.While I absolutely LOVE eggs (particularly those fortified with omega-3’s in thanks to a flaxseed filled diet for the hens) and have not thrown out a yolk in years (I can’t afford to miss out on the memory boosting choline, especially with a couple of early-risers in our home!), I also appreciate healthy fats. Therefore if a recipe calls for several eggs, as is the case in many baked goods (I once baked a smash cake made from coconut flour which called for TWELVE eggs!), why not mix things up with a seed-egg? How does this work? If you don’t already have flax or chia seeds in your kitchen (two I always stock as they are easy nutrient boosters for my boys!), pick some up. The flax seeds will need to be ground up so that your body can actually absorb the healthy omega-3 fats found within – a coffee grinder works perfect for the job (no need to grind the chia for normal eating, but it does work best for the egg replacement)!Next, place 1 TBSP ground flax or chia in a small bowl with 2.5 TBSP water. Stir and allow to thicken for about 5 minutes and VOILA!Of course, chia seeds are also perfect for these No Bake Cookies or a cup of Cinnamon Chia Pudding

      No-Bake Chocolate Chip Chia Cookies. The perfect grab-n-go breakfast!

      No-Bake Chocolate Chip Chia Cookies. The perfect grab-n-go breakfast!

  4. Add fruit.

    • Did you know that you can also swap an egg for a small banana? News to me! But I do enjoy swapping oil or butter for fruit. Incorporating fruit such as bananas, prunes, or applesauce, adds moisture and nutrition, without added sugars.  Try making this change in your next batch of muffins or cake, though think twice when swapping out the fat in cookies as it doesn’t always work out as well.While many low-fat bakers may suggest cutting all of the fat for a fruit puree, I’m not a fan. To me, the texture becomes far too close to that of a sponge. Meh! I prefer to start by cutting the fat in half and filling in the remaining half with your puree. This way you still have the mouth-feel we desire with true desserts, yet can enjoy them with half the guilt 😉 
  5. Boost the fiber with BEANS.

    • Yes, beans. I have whipped up many a batch of Black Bean Brownies and Chickpea Cookies and just let me tell you, the PRAISE! Everyone enjoys them – kids included! Many recipes swap the flour out entirely for a bean puree while others exchange it for the oil, either way, it is GOOD. In the case of the brownies, they become nearly fudge-like in thanks to the massive amount of moisture the black beans bring. Give it a go with our recipe for Chocolate Lentil Brownies pictured below. Two words: SO GOOD.

      Chocolate Lentil Brownies Anna Braverman

      Check out our recipe for Chocolate Lentil Brownies!

  6. Bring on the beta carotene!

    • Both pumpkin and butternut squash make for excellent substitutes for the extra oil (or even eggs) in your baked goods. Once again, start by going halfsies with the fat your recipe calls for and tweak from there. In some cases, you get away for the full swap, but don’t use make a 1:1 swap. If the recipe calls for 1 cup of oil, use 3/4 cup of puree.  These ingredients pair best with fall themed recipes with a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg, but also go undetectable in chocolate laden treats! 

      Whether you choose canned or fresh, both come packed with flavor and nutrition!

      Whether you choose canned or fresh, both come packed with flavor and nutrition!

  7. Add avocado!?

    • The All-Star of guacamole makes an excellent swap for butter. Who knew!? It also makes an excellent base for Dark Chocolate Pudding, a recipe I happen to rely on with a glass of red wine after many a LONG day home chasing toddlers 😉 147442784
  8. Make your grains WHOLE grains.

    • Bring on the B-vitamins and fiber by using whole grain flour! Whole wheat flour can boost vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and even healthy fats when used in place of all-purpose white flour. Though a 100% swap is not always ideal. I’ll admit, the texture can get a bit dry if you go all out and omit all of the white flour.BUT I have had great success when starting with a 50/5o swap, especially when using a White Whole Wheat Flour (essentially from an albino form of the wheat grain) as both taste and texture are more palatable to those unfamiliar with whole grains. 
  9. Right size your portion.

    • According to a recent study from Cornell University, we can lighten up our recipes all that we want, but what we really should focus on is PORTION CONTROL. Linn Steward, RD, a Culinary Nutrition Consultant, stands alongside Cornell on this advice. While she admits it may be a touchy subject for some, “the findings support portion control over restrictions on specific nutrients or even specific foods” and truly, this practice is far more manageable for most of us than going sugar-free for life. 
  10. Finally, try tofu.

    • Even my husband, who tends to shiver at the sound of tofu, was happy to dive into a slice of Chocolate Tofu Pie (very similar to this one). And the Peanut Butter Cup Pie from Janice + Liz at the MealMakeoverMoms was a big hit at my last Vegetarian Cooking Class! 


What tips and tricks have you found success with in your own Test Kitchen? 


Happy Holidays and Thanks for reading!

Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN

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