Cookies: Healthy Holiday Hacks from a Dietitian
Fall and winter holidays bring people together for joy, fun, traditions and … cookies! Anna Bougie, a dietitian at Sibley Memorial Hospital, offers tips for baking and enjoying cookies in moderation, plus recipes for holiday cookies with less fat and cholesterol, more fiber and great taste.
Ingredient Substitutions to Try
Many cookie recipes are based on refined white flour (which has less fiber than whole wheat), butter (a saturated fat) and sugar (which can cause spikes in blood sugar). Bougie says with a little creativity, you can make delicious cookies with some substitutions that add nutrients or reduce the amount of fat and sugar.
Be sure to label your cookies’ ingredients to alert anyone with food allergies.
- Different flours: Try substituting or mixing regular white flour with coconut or almond flour or flours made with amaranth, oat, whole wheat, spelt or other grains.
- Egg whites: You can lower cholesterol in a recipe by using two egg whites in place of each whole egg. “Egg white substitutes made with flax are another alternative,” Bougie notes.
- Fat alternatives:
- Greek yogurt: Plain Greek yogurt can take the place of half the amount of butter in a cookie recipe, and adds protein.
- Unsweetened apple sauce: For recipes that call for oil or melted butter, try replacing 20% to 50% with unsweetened applesauce.
- Unsweetened, pureed pumpkin: Use the same amount to substitute for oil; use ¾ of the amount for butter (e.g., if the recipe calls for 1 cup of butter, use ¾ cup of pumpkin) or use half butter, half pumpkin.
- Low-fat cream cheese can be used in the same amounts as regular cream cheese.
- Bananas can be substituted for butter: One medium banana is about equivalent to one stick (½ cup) of butter.
- Avocado: Use the same amount of mashed avocado as you would butter or canola oil.
- Sugar switches: You can reduce the amount of sugar by at least a few tablespoons in most cookie recipes. For sweet flavor, try adding fresh or dried fruit, or spices such as ginger and cinnamon.
Too Many Cookies? Try These Tips
“Most recipes make several dozen cookies,” Bougie says. “That’s a lot of the same thing. If you or your family has four or five holiday favorites, you could end up with too many cookies.
Here’s how you can avoid overeating or throwing away stale treats:
- Halve the recipe. Making fewer cookies of any one type enables you to make a variety without overbaking.
- Do a cookie swap. “Cookie swaps are great, because you end up with smaller numbers of more types of cookies,” Bougie says.
Surviving Gatherings Without Overeating Cookies
- Don’t be overly restrictive. “Everything in moderation is the be-all-end-all rule,” Bougie says. “Although that phrase is used a lot, it does apply for holiday cookies and food in general. You don’t want to restrict what you eat. Try everything that appeals to you, but in small amounts.”
- Prioritize your favorite treats. “If you know someone will be bringing a particular cookie (or other item) that’s a favorite you look forward to every holiday, you can ‘budget’ for that special treat by not filling up on lesser choices.”
Helping Kids Navigate Holiday Feasts
When you attend holiday gatherings with kids, they’re likely to make a beeline for the sweets. Bougie suggests encouraging kids to eat more nutritious foods before diving into the cookies, and the best way to do that may be to bring them yourself.
- Bring nutritious alternatives. “Protein, fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t always a ‘given’ at holiday parties, so I like to bring them myself to ensure there’s something nutritious for me and my family to eat,” Bougie says.
- Make sure kids don’t fill up on sweets alone. Bougie says having a goal for the child, such as a five-carrots-before-cookies guideline, can be helpful. Once kids have taken the edge off their appetites with vegetables, hummus, nuts, cheese, fresh fruit, jerky or other meat, one or two cookies is a sweet finish.
If you overdo the goodies, don’t keep yourself on the ‘naughty’ list
If your best plans for limiting cookies and sweets fall a little short of success, stay jolly! A few extra cookies and treats around the holidays are unlikely to permanently throw your healthy eating habits off course.
Better-for-You Cookie Recipes
Here are some of Bougie’s favorites, with clever swap-outs for delicious taste with nutritional benefits.
No-Bake Festive Energy Bites
Whole grains, protein and colorful candy bits make these treats perfect for staying fueled during the busy holiday season.
- 1 cup rolled oats
- ½ cup ground flaxseed
- ½ cup crunchy peanut butter
- ⅓ cup honey
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup mini candy-coated chocolate candies (pick color combinations to go with holiday themes)
- Stir all ingredients together in a bowl.
- Roll dough into 24 balls with your hands. Arrange balls on a baking sheet and freeze until set, about 1 hour.
Golden Sugar Cookies
Yogurt helps you cut some butter, and the combo of regular flour with whole wheat flour adds fiber and vitamins.
- 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ cup butter, softened
- ¼ cup nonfat plain yogurt
- ¾ cup white sugar
- 1 egg (or flax egg)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C). Stir flour, baking soda and baking powder together in a small bowl.
- In a large bowl, beat butter, yogurt and sugar with an electric mixer until smooth. Add egg, allowing it to blend into butter mixture. Beat in vanilla extract. Mix in flour mixture until just blended. Roll dough into walnut-sized balls and place 2-inches apart on ungreased baking sheets.
- Bake in preheated oven until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Let stand on baking sheet 2 minutes before removing to cool on wire racks.
Here’s a yummy wintertime cookie with no wheat flour and plenty of rich taste.
- 1 cup almond flour
- 3 tablespoons butter, softened
- 6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup chopped pecans
- Preheat oven to 325 F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or use a nonstick baking sheet.
- Mix almond flour, butter, 3 tablespoons of the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla and salt in a small bowl until a cohesive dough forms. It will seem a little dry at first, but just keep mixing. Once combined, mix in pecans. You can use your hands to help mix the pecans in if needed.
- Roll tablespoons of the dough into balls and place on baking sheet about 1-inch apart. Bake the cookies for 20 minutes, or until they start to turn light golden brown on the bottom.
- Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan for about five minutes. Transfer them to a rack to cool 10 minutes more. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar in a shallow bowl and roll each cookie until coated. Let cookies cool completely and enjoy.
Gluten-Free Almond Thumbprint Cookies
This take on the traditional holiday shortbread-and-jam cookie features healthy berries and non-gluten flour options, with Greek yogurt for less butter and more protein.
For the fruit filling
- 1½ cups frozen raspberries or mixed berries
- ½ cup pure maple syrup
- ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
For the almond cookies
- 2 cups almond flour
- 1 cup all-purpose or 1-for-1 gluten-free flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup pure maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons melted butter (sub coconut oil or vegan butter for vegan)
- 3 tablespoons Greek yogurt
- Make the fruit filling: Add the berries, maple syrup and cinnamon to a small saucepan. Cook on low heat for 10 to 12 minutes until the berries break down. Run the mixture through a mesh strainer into a clean bowl, mashing the berries with a spatula. Return the sauce to the same saucepan, then add the cornstarch and heat on low 2 more minutes until bubbly and thick. Remove from the heat and allow to cool while making the cookies. (This step can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to one week before making the cookies.)
- Make the cookies: Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- In a large bowl, mix the almond flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder and kosher salt in medium bowl.
- In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, melted butter and Greek yogurt. Mix in the dry ingredients and stir with a spatula until well combined.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Take about 1 tablespoon of the dough and roll it into small balls, about 12 per tray, 24 in all. Start with enough dough balls for one tray and refrigerate the dough balls for the second tray.
- Gently press your thumb into the center of the ball. (You can re-form the cookie with your fingers if it cracks a little.) Then add about ½ teaspoon of fruit filling into each thumbprint.
- Bake the first tray 13–15 minutes until browned on the bottom. Allow to cool on the tray for 5 minutes, then place on a baking rack to cool. Meanwhile, prepare and bake the second tray and allow it to cool (baking the trays separately allows for the most even bake).
- Store at room temperature for three days or refrigerated for one week. To freeze, place baked cookies in an airtight container and freeze for 2 to 3 minutes.
Soft Gingerbread Cookies
Applesauce and flax seed add fiber and texture to these holiday classics.
- 1 egg
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup molasses
- ¼ cup almond butter
- 4 tablespoons applesauce
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons allspice
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ cup flaxseed
- 1½ cup wheat flour
- In a medium bowl, add egg, brown sugar, molasses, almond butter and applesauce; vigorously whisk to thoroughly combine.
- To the wet ingredients, stir in ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice, kosher salt, baking soda, flaxseed and wheat flour until well combined. Turn out onto plastic wrap and form into a rough ball; cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour, or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350 F.
- Flour a flat surface and a rolling pin, then roll out the dough ¼-inch thick. Use a cookie cutter to cut out gingerbread men, about 25–35 total. Place gingerbread men on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.
- Bake about 8 minutes, until puffed and slightly firmed. Let rest on the pan for 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Store covered at room temperature for several days or freeze for several months.