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4 Healthier Sweets for Holiday Treats

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonOctober 24, 2015

‘Tis the season for tempting, decadent holiday treats — and with these baking tips and recipes, you can enjoy the sweet taste of the season without packing on pounds or worrying about your family’s health.

4 Healthier Treats for Holiday Sweets

The warmth of the oven and the smell of fresh-baked cookies are two sensations that seem to go hand in hand with the holiday season. One of my own favorite memories of childhood is the yearly baking of Christmas cookies, just me and my mom: rolling out the sugar cookie dough, making shapes with the festive cookie cutters I only saw during the holidays, waiting impatiently as the delectable smell of baking filled the house, and then decorating the cookies with colored icing and sprinkles.

Unfortunately, many of our favorite holiday indulgences make it all too easy to pack on the pounds. Sweet treats are ubiquitous, but these days, sugar is public enemy number one. Aging adults in particular need to careful to watch not only their weight but their sugar intake around the holidays.

Tips and Tricks for Healthy Holiday Baking

For more health-conscious holiday baking, there is a wide range of substitutions you can make in order to lessen the sugar and fat in your favorite recipes. It’s also relatively simple nowadays to adapt recipes to be gluten free or vegan. Here are some tips on healthier baking gleaned from around the web:

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  1. You can often reduce the sugar in a recipe by as much as a third without sacrificing the deliciousness of the result. You can also substitute about half of the sugar with pureed fruit: ABC News recommends bananas, pears, apples, mangoes, papayas and dried dates or figs pureed with water. If you still need to use some sweetener, try agave nectar: it’s got a lower glycemic index and you only need to use about half to three-fourths as much.
  2. Replace solid fats like butter and shortening with vegetable oil, coconut oil or canola oil. Substitute up to half of the oil with applesauce, canned pumpkin, or sweet potato puree for a healthy, tasty kick of fiber and vitamins. Another option: substitute each tablespoon of butter in a recipe with half a tablespoon of avocado.
  3. Instead of frosting, try sliced or pureed fruit, nonfat whipped topping or sifting a light coating of powdered sugar over the top.
  4. Swap in low-fat dairy products such as cream cheese and milk for the full-fat versions. (Most cooks recommend against nonfat dairy, as the consistency is not ideal for baking.)
  5. Rethink your flour: replace some of the white flour in your recipe with whole wheat flour, or white whole wheat flour. Try a 50-50 mix first to see how the texture turns out; whole wheat flour tends to be denser and coarser. If you are avoiding gluten, replace your wheat flour with a gluten-free flour such as garbanzo bean flour.
  6. Chocoholics can switch to using healthier dark chocolate, which contains antioxidants, or unsweetened cocoa powder.

4 Recipes for Healthier Holiday Treats

For some ideas on how to use healthier ingredients in your holiday baking, take a look at these four satisfyingly sweet yet tantalizingly tasty recipes from our favorite recipe sites.

Chocolate-Coconut Almond Bites (Gluten Free)


  • 30 almonds
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened flaked coconut
  • 8 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate chips


  1. Put a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast them until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sweetened condensed milk, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir in the coconut. The mixture will be thick. Put the mixture in the freezer for 30 minutes.
  3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the coconut mixture from the freezer. Scoop up 1 heaping teaspoon of the mixture, roll it into a ball in your hands, and put it on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining mixture. Rinse your hands if they get too sticky. Press your pinkie finger into each ball, creating a small indentation. Don’t worry if the bites crack, just press them back together. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
  4. Put a medium pot filled with 2 inches of water over medium heat. Bring the water to a simmer. Put the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl and put the bowl over the simmering water. Stir the chocolate until melted. Remove the pan from the heat, but keep the bowl over the hot water.
  5. Remove the bites from the fridge. Dollop about 1/2 teaspoon of melted chocolate into the center of each bite. Top with a roasted almond. You can also drizzle them with a bit of chocolate. Let cool for about 1 hour. (Refrigerate to speed the hardening process along.) Store in an airtight container, with parchment or wax paper between the layers, at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.

Learn more about these Chocolate-Coconut Almond Bites.

Spiced Apple Cake (Vegan, Gluten Free)


  • 3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored
  • 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
  • 1/2 cup plus 4 tablespoons unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/2 cup light agave syrup
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/2 cup raw, unsalted walnut pieces
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup almond meal
  • 1 cup brown rice flour
  • 1/4 cup light or dark light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round springform pan with canola oil spray.
  2. Chop 2 1/2 of the three peeled apples into 1/4-inch pieces. Cut the remaining half of the apple into paper-thin half-moon slices and reserve for topping the cake, if desired.
  3. Combine the ground flaxseed with the 4 tablespoons of the almond milk in a large bowl and mix well, then add the chopped apples, agave syrup, canola oil, vanilla extract, applesauce and the remaining 1/2 cup of almond milk; mix well.
  4. Combine the walnuts, raisins, almond meal, brown rice flour, brown sugar, sea salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg in a separate bowl.
  5. Slowly stir the walnut mixture into the apple mixture; once they are well incorporated, pour into the pan. Bake for 40 minutes, then, if using, carefully arrange the reserved apple slices in a fanned-out pattern on top of the cake. Bake for 5-10 minutes, until the cake does not wobble at the center when gently shaken and the edges have started to brown and pull away from the sides of the pan.
  6. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes before releasing it from the springform pan.

Learn more about this Spiced Apple Cake.

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap-Walnut Crust


  • 4 ounces gingersnap cookies (18-20 1 3/4-inch cookies)
  • 1 cup walnut halves, divided
  • 4 teaspoons walnut oil or canola oil
  • 12 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 16-ounce container nonfat cottage cheese
  • 1 15-ounce can unseasoned pumpkin puree


  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Coat a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray. Tightly wrap the outside of the pan bottom and sides with heavy-duty foil to help keep the water bath from leaking into the cake. Put a kettle of water on to boil for the water bath.
  2. Grind cookies and 1/3 cup walnuts to a fine meal in a food processor. Drizzle in oil and process, scraping the sides as needed, until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Press the crumb mixture firmly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Place the pan in a roasting pan and set aside. Clean the food processor.
  3. Beat cream cheese, granulated sugar, brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-low speed until the spice is incorporated. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until completely smooth, scraping down the sides occasionally. Beat in eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides occasionally. Beat in vanilla.
  4. Process cottage cheese in the food processor until completely smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides once. Gradually beat the cottage cheese and pumpkin puree into the cream cheese mixture on medium speed. Scrape down the sides and beat a final time to make sure no streaks remain. Pour the batter into the crust.
  5. Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to come 1 inch up the side of the springform pan to create a hot water bath for the cake. Carefully transfer the roasting pan to the oven. Bake the cheesecake in the center of the oven until it’s set around the edges but the center still jiggles slightly, 1 1/2-1 3/4 hours.
  6. Remove the roasting pan from the oven. Let the cake cool in the water bath until the water is room temperature. Coarsely chop the remaining 2/3 cup walnuts. Toast them in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove the pan from the water bath. Remove the foil. Place the nuts decoratively around the edge of the cheesecake. (Alternatively, turn the nuts into Candied Walnuts and decorate just before serving; see Variation.) Refrigerate, uncovered, until very cold, at least 4 hours. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight if desired.
  7. To serve, remove the sides of the pan. Transfer the cheesecake to a cake stand, if desired.

Learn more about this Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap-Walnut Crust.

White Chocolate Holiday Bark


  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut
  • 1 cup oven-toasted rice cereal
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 1/2 pounds good-quality white chocolate, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil


  1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. Spread the sliced almonds and the unsweetened coconut in an even layer on the baking sheet. Toast 5—8 minutes or until coconut just begins to brown. Remove baking sheet from the oven, and let cool.
  3. In a large bowl, combine almonds, coconut, rice cereal and dried cranberries. Reserve about 1/4 cup of the mixture, and set aside.
  4. Place chopped white chocolate and 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a large heatproof bowl, and set over a medium saucepan of simmering water. Stir with a spatula until the chocolate is completely melted.
  5. Remove the chocolate from heat and fold in the almond mixture. Spread mixture evenly on parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle on the reserved 1/4 cup topping. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until the chocolate has completely set. Break the bark into small pieces, and serve.

Learn more about this White Chocolate Holiday Bark.

If these options don’t cover it, and there’s a traditional recipe you just can’t get out of making every year, don’t forget to make use of our baking tips and substitutions. Your family might not even notice the change — or they might end up enjoying it even more.

What’s your favorite healthy baking substitution? What are your family’s holiday cooking traditions? Share your stories in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
Sarah Stevenson
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