THE HOLIDAY SEASON means sugary sweets and treatswill be everywhere. So if you’re craving some classic festive cookies and desserts, but still want to keep your diet clean this winter, then the solution is simple: Whip up some better-for-you snacks of your own.
Here are 10 of my favorite classic holiday desserts, which have been made healthier and lower-calorie than usual thanks to some clever swaps from registered dietitians.
1. Apple pecan bread pudding
This bread pudding features whole grain bread for extra fiber and is sweetened with applesauce instead of sugar. It’s loaded with real fruit from the diced apple and dried cranberries and healthy fats and fiber from the pecans. Compared to other nuts, pecans are highest in gamma-tocepherols, a type of vitamin E that could boost heart health.
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 Tbsp nutmeg
6 slices whole grain bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 sweet apple such as Gala, cored and diced
½ cup dried cranberries, unsweetened if possible
½ cup pecan pieces
- In a large bowl, combine the applesauce, almond milk, eggs and spices. Stir in the bread, apple, cranberries and pecans.
- Pour the ingredients into a baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow the bread to absorb all of the flavors.
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Bake your bread pudding for about 45 minutes or until it’s golden brown.
2. Healthy gingerbread men cookies
These gingerbread men are made healthier thanks to whole wheat flour and less sugar than the classic recipe. Plus you’re getting the benefits of ginger, cloves and nutmeg, spices that could help boost your immune system.
Makes 18 cookies (depending on the size of your cookie cutter)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp baking powder
¼ cup light molasses
2 Tbsp coconut oil
1 large egg, room temperature
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp liquid stevia
- In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients.
- Melt the coconut oil in the microwave and let it cool. In a large bowl, combine the oil and the other wet ingredients.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until just combined.
- Lay out a large piece of plastic wrap on your counter and put the dough in the middle. Flatten it out into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Cover with more plastic wrap and place in the fridge to chill for 1 hour or longer.
- Preheat your oven to 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Take your dough out of the fridge and keeping it in the plastic wrap, roll it until it’s ⅛” thick. Dust your cookie cutter with some flour and create your gingerbread men. Place them on the prepared baking sheets about 1/2” apart.
- Bake your cookies for 8 minutes. Let them cool for 5 minutes and then move them off the baking sheet to finish cooling down. Enjoy!
3. Blueberry protein cheesecake
The calorie- and fat-dense traditional cheesecake recipe is lightened up in this version by using some light cream cheese, nonfat yogurt and cottage cheese for extra protein. Topping your cheesecake with fresh blueberries means you’re getting plenty of antioxidants in your dessert. Plus they add an extra kick of vitamin C which can’t hurt during cold and flu season.
Recipe credit: Blueberry Council
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
3 Tbsp honey, divided
1 container (8 ounces) nonfat orange or tangerine yogurt
4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, from an 8-ounce package
¾ cup nonfat cottage cheese
1 Tbsp cornstarch
2 cups fresh blueberries
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- In a small bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs and 2 Tbsp of the honey. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate.
- With the back of a spoon, press mixture onto bottom and halfway up sides of plate.
- In a food processor container, place yogurt, cream cheese, cottage cheese and cornstarch. Whirl until smooth, about 1 minute.
- Add eggs to the mix, and whirl until blended.
- Pour about half of the cheese mixture onto the crust. Top with ½ cup of the blueberries. Cover with remaining cheese mixture.
- Bake until firm, about 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
- In a microwaveable dish, microwave the remaining 1 Tbsp honey just until liquefied, about 15 seconds.
- Add the remaining 1-½ cups blueberries. Toss to coat. Top pie with berries.
- Loosely cover pie. Refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours.
4. Almond flour cinnamon rolls
These healthy cinnamon rolls use almond flour as a base instead of refined white flour. This means they cause less of a blood sugar spike and have a rich nutty taste. The frosting swaps greek yogurt for butter for a lighter yet delicious cream cheese frosting!
Recipe credit: Kelli Shallal
3 cups almond flour (not meal)
¼ cup coconut flour
½ cup tapioca flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup melted butter or ghee*
1 cup pecans pieces (optional)
16 medjool dates
1 tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup maple syrup
5 ounces whole milk Greek vanilla yogurt
½ cup whipped cream cheese
2 cups powdered sugar
- Combine all ingredients for crust in a food processor. Once a dough forms, place it in a bowl in the freezer while you make the filling.
- Preheat oven to 350F. Line a cast iron pan or a 9-inch pie dish with parchment paper. (You don’t have to use parchment paper, but I always do because I hate scrubbing dishes.)
- Clean out the food processor (just wipe it clean) and then add Medjool dates, cinnamon, and maple syrup until a syrupy/pasty mixture forms.
- The longer you freeze the dough, the easier it will be to work with. I worked with 1/3 of the dough at a time which worked well. You’ll want to flatten it out to ¼ inch thick (kind of like in my fig newton bars) so that you have vertical sheets, then slather it with filling. If desired, you can also sprinkle the pecan pieces in the cinnamon rolls as well. Then, you will roll the dough into logs; the dough may break while you roll it, that’s okay just keep rolling.
- Slice the logs into 1-inch cinnamon rolls and place them in the pan. You can place them right up next to each other because they don’t have yeast they won’t rise.
- Repeat step four until you have used all the dough.
- Bake cinnamon rolls for 35-40 minutes or until the edges are golden brown.
- While your cinnamon rolls are baking, make the frosting by combining all the frosting ingredients until you get a frosting!
- If you plan to serve these immediately, go ahead and drizzle them with the frosting. However, because of the yogurt in the frosting, it doesn’t taste the best when heated. If you plan to reheat the cinnamon rolls, hold off on frosting them.
- Don’t forget to garnish with more peanuts if you’re using them.
5. 4-ingredient pretzel peanut butter bites
These tasty treats have only four ingredients: peanut butter, honey, dark chocolate and whole wheat pretzels for extra fiber. Peanut butter is rich in vitamin E as well as magnesium which is a cofactor in protein synthesis and muscle and nerve function. PB is also rich in potassium which is a key player in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction.
Recipe and Photo Credit: Madeline Basler
Makes 15 bites
1 cup peanut butter I use organic, creamy
1 cup whole wheat pretzels
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 cup melted dark chocolate
- Place the pretzels in a mini food processor and process until crumb size. Remove 1/2 cup.
- Add peanut butter and honey and process until smooth. Put into the freezer for 15 minutes or until firm.
- Roll the mixture into balls (about 1 Tbsp each). Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment and freeze about 1 hour.
- Roll the frozen balls in melted chocolate and roll in crushed pretzels. Freeze until firm.
- You can melt chocolate in microwave on low stirring every 30 seconds to ensure it does not burn.
6. Healthy ginger orange cranberry bread
This healthier take on the popular holiday quick bread is bursting with cranberries, citrus flavor, and a hint of ginger spice. Thanks to the natural sweetness in the citrus this bread uses no refined sugars and only 1/2 cup maple syrup. In place of butter, this recipe includes heart healthy olive oil instead. Enjoy with a protein-rich serving of nut butter and this cranberry bread is sure to keep you satisfied!
Recipe credit: Kathryn Pfeffer
1 cup whole white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup flaxseed meal
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tsp orange zest (about one orange)
Juice of one orange (about 1/4 cup, add 1/2 cup more orange juice if prefer softer bread)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup whole cranberries (thawed if frozen)
1/4 cup raw walnuts, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Set aside a greased or non-stick loaf pan (81/2 x 4 1/2″).
- Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, set aside.
- Combine the wet ingredients in a medium bowl, set aside.
- Transfer the wet ingredients to the larger bowl of dry mix and stir to combine. Do not overmix.
- Stir in the cranberries and walnuts. Pour the batter evenly into the pan.
- Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, using a clean knife check the middle for residue. If it remains clean the bread is done.
7. Pumpkin cheesecake mousse shooters
Smaller desserts mean you can eat more of them, right? When you make these cheesecakes in shot glasses they become even easier to down. And you can feel good about that, thanks to all the protein from the Greek yogurt and silken tofu. Plus the real pumpkin puree means you’re getting some beta-carotene in to counteract free radical damage. This is one of the few desserts you can sneak in as a post-workout snack!
Photo and recipe credit: Julie Harrington
6 honey graham crackers
4 oz. + 1 Tbsp vanilla Greek yogurt
1 cup pumpkin puree
4 oz. light cream cheese
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp maple syrup
½ cup silken tofu
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp vanilla extract
(optional) whipped topping
- Coarsely crush graham crackers with a food processor. (Or in a large zip-close bag with a rolling pin).
- Mix in 1 Tbsp Greek yogurt until well combined.
- Distribute graham cracker crumbs evenly into 8 small mason jars.
- In a food processor or blender, combine 4 oz. Greek yogurt, pumpkin puree, cream cheese, sugar, maple syrup, tofu, pumpkin pie spice, and vanilla extract. Blend until smooth.
- Spoon pumpkin cheesecake mousse mixture into each jar over the graham cracker crust. Top with a dollop of whipped topping and sprinkle of cinnamon. Cover and refrigerate pumpkin cheesecake mousse until ready to serve.
8. Creamy chocolate truffles
These Chocolate Truffles are the perfect bite-size dessert made healthier with a secret (and super surprising) ingredient: pureed cauliflower. Trust me, it totally works. This recipe for creamy truffles is naturally gluten-free and vegan-friendly and counts as a veggie. What other dessert has that bragging right?
Recipe and photo by Dixya Bhattarai
1 cup plain cauliflower
1/2 Tbsp butter
Splash heavy cream
Pinch of salt
1 cup chocolate chips, I used dark
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
splash of vanilla extract
instant coffee, unsweetened cocoa powder, nuts
- Boil or steam the cauliflower florets until tender. Use a potato masher or a food
- processor to turn them into a mashed potato texture.
- Melt the butter and stir into the cauliflower. Add a splash of heavy cream and salt to season.
- Melt chocolate chips in a double broiler or use a microwave at 30 second intervals.
- Combine mashed cauliflower with melted chocolate, cocoa powder, and vanilla extract and mix well.
- Leave in the fridge for 30¬-45 minutes until the mixture firms up.
- Roll about a Tbsp of the cauliflower mixture into small balls.
- Roll balls into toppings of your choice. I mixed instant coffee powder + unsweetened cocoa
- Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
9. Whole wheat lemon cranberry scones
These delicious scones are made with wholesome ingredients and are free of any refined sugar. They feature whole wheat flour for added fiber and nutrients, are lightly sweetened with maple syrup, and call for Greek yogurt as opposed to the usual buttermilk in scones. Finally, they are packed with antioxidant-rich cranberries that provide the perfect amount of tartness!
Recipe and photo credit: Josten Fish
Makes 12 scones
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
2 3/4 cup Whole Wheat Flour I recommend white whole wheat for a lighter texture
4 Tsp baking powder
1/2 Tsp Salt
1/2 Tsp Baking Soda
1/2 Cup Butter
1 Lemon, Zested
1/2 Cup Maple Syrup
1 Cup Cranberries
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Mix together Greek yogurt and egg in a small bowl . Set aside.
- In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients: whole wheat flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
- Cut butter into mixture until the texture resembles coarse peas.
- Mix in in the zest of 1 lemon, maple syrup, cranberries.
- Add yogurt mixture and stir until a soft dough forms. Knead about 10 times. Form dough into two balls and pat into circles approximately 3/4-1″ thick.
- Cut each circle into 6 pieces using a pizza cutter. Place the scones on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned and cooked through.
10. Pumpkin date brownies
These Pumpkin Date Brownies are rich and fudgy, with a touch of pumpkin flavor that adds depth, but not so much that it’s overpowering. To make things even better, they’re higher in fiber and protein than your typical brownie, thanks to the black beans and pumpkin puree, with 6 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein each. That means there’s no sugar crash after eating these beauties. They’re also vegan (just be sure to use vegan chocolate chips) and only 177 calories. Why not have two?
Recipe credit: Basheerah Enahora
Makes 12 brownies
1 cup old fashion oats
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/3 cup medjool dates, soaked overnight
1/3 cup honey
15oz can black beans, rinsed
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
3 Tbsp coconut oil, melted
1/4 cup dark chocolate chunks
- Pre-heat oven to 350F/180C and grease a 9×9 brownie pan with coconut oil or non-stick spray.
- Blend the oats in a food processor until they form a “flour” consistency. Mix in the baking soda, sea salt and pumpkin pie spice with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula.
- Rinse the black beans very well and shake off the excess water.
- Add the beans, dates, vanilla extract, honey, cocoa powder, melted coconut oil and pumpkin puree to a food processor.
- Blend until all the ingredients are creamy and smooth and the oats are undetectable in the batter. Mix in the chocolate chunks with a big spoon or spatula.
- Place in pan and spread out with the back of a silicone spatula or slightly damp spoon. The batter will be quite thick.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, then remove from the oven and let the brownies cool for about 5 minutes in the pan before slicing and serving.
Note: Baking time will depend on your oven and altitude. My brownies are usually ready in about 22 minutes. Adjust baking time based on your oven and check on the brownies in 20 minutes to make sure they don’t burn.