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It’s December 1st and you know what that means……it’s the most wonderful time of the year!!! I absolutely loves this time of year ( I know who doesn’t) and there are two things that I love the most about the holidays……Christmas trees and baking cookies!
Some of my favorite childhood memories include decorating our Christmas tree and the delicious, homemade cookies my mom would bake. I could count on coming home to fresh-baked cookies at least once a week leading up to Christmas. This is a tradition I love to share with my boys an it is definitely the most sugar they get all year!
I’m not about to go ruining Christmas cookies by making them completely healthy or leaving out the sugar. That being said there are a few ingredient swaps that make all that cookie eating a little better for your family. Using better quality ingredients not only makes your cookies healthier, but most of these switches make a much richer and better tasting cookie.
Here are some simple changes you can make to make your Holiday baking a little healthier:
- Use Real Butter Instead Of Margarine
It’s no coincidence that I am listing this one first. If you make no other change to your baking please, please, please use real butter. The primary ingredient in margarine is vegetable oil along with emulsifiers, colorants and artificial ingredients. The vegetable oil is hydrogenated to make it solid and extend shelf life turning it into a trans fat. Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Margarine used to be touted as the healthier option than butter, but that was just a ploy by the food companies. The jig is up and we now know that saturated fats were never the problem. I could go on and on about butter vs. margarine but if you would like to know more just check out this article or this one. Oh and lets not forget the biggest reason that you should try baking with real butter……it tastes so much better!!! Only real butter can give that rich buttery flavor that every cookie needs!
Real butter is more expensive than margarine, but it is well worth the cost. Your health is worth it. Most stores sell a store brand of real butter and you can stock up when it’s on sale, it freezes great. If you can shop at a SAMS or Costco, they have the best prices.
- Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
Ever since I discovered baking with whole wheat pastry flour, I have rarely found the need to use white all-purpose flour. No one that has ever tried one of my whole wheat cookies has ever noticed that it was actually a whole grain cookie. That’s because whole wheat pastry flour is milled from soft white wheat, whereas regular wheat flour is milled from hard red wheat. They are not at all the same thing. When I first experimented with whole wheat flour, I purchased the hard wheat variety of whole wheat flour and the results were awful. Baked goods resulted in a dense, dry disaster. Then I discovered whole wheat pastry flour and tried again and I was so excited to discover that I could make a 100% whole grain baked good that was just as tasty as a baked good made with all-purpose flour.
Baking with whole wheat flour adds nutritional value to your cookie. Fiber and protein give those cookies a healthy boost. If you are going to eat a large dose of sugar, it is much better if that sugar is paired with protein, fiber and fat. This slows the absorption so that the food does not trigger a sugar/insulin rush.
My local grocery store carries whole wheat pastry flour, but I know sometimes it can be hard to find. Vitacost sells it for a reasonable price and so does Spouts grocery store.
It’s hard to avoid artificial coloring all of the time, but at home you can. Why dump a bottle of food coloring into your Christmas cookies or frosting, when it adds no flavor and can possibly be harmful? Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the risk. Did you know that artificial food dyes are made from petroleum? “These synthetic substances do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, co-author of the 58-page report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.”
There are plenty of ways to spruce up you holiday cookies without using artificial food dyes. Use fun shaped cookie cutters, sprinkle sugar on top, or purchase natural food dyes here.
- Use Pure Vanilla Extract
For me, the main reason to use pure vanilla instead of imitation vanilla is taste. I personally think it tastes so much better, but I also like to avoid any food “imitating” the real thing. Imitation vanilla usually lists corn syrup and artificial coloring in the ingredients and it’s always best to avoid those when possible.
- Try Baking With Coconut Oil
I’m sure by now you have heard about all the benefits of coconut oil. Well it just so happens that coconut oil is great for baking. You can substitute coconut oil for butter or shortening in any recipe. Just sub the same amount the recipe calls for. It gives baked goods a great texture similar to that of lard or shortening since it is solid at room temperature. I like to use half butter and half coconut oil in cookie recipes, this gives them great texture without losing the buttery flavor we all love. Just make sure to buy virgin coconut oil and not refined. It has become available at most grocery stores, even Wal-Mart carries a large jar. I buy mine at Costco for a great price but you can also purchase here for a very reasonable price.
- Add Oats
Oatmeal cookies are a favorite to many and they come with the added bonus of being healthy. Oats are one of the healthiest grains you can eat. If your child doesn’t like oatmeal, this can be a great way to sneak some in. Use old-fashioned rolled oats when baking to provide extra fiber and nutrition. If you are not a fan of traditional oatmeal cookies, try making oat flour by pulsing oats in a food processor or blender until fine. Then sub the oat flour for half of the flour the recipe calls for. This way you can’t even tell they are in the cookie.
- Use Natural Peanut butter
I love chewy peanut butter cookies! They are a favorite around here, but you want to make sure you are using natural peanut butter and not the stuff loaded with added sugar and hydrogenated oils. Your cookie recipes already calls for plenty of sugar and fat. Check out this post for more about why natural peanut butter is better.
Another simple way to add some nutrition to your cookies is to add any of the following to your recipe:
- Nuts-Boost the protein and healthy fats in your cookie.
- Unsweetened shredded coconut
- Dried fruits such as raisins or cranberries. Try to avoid dried fruits that have added sugar listed under the ingredients.
- Flax seeds-add a couple of tablespoons and boost you Omega-3 fatty acid consumption
That’s all for today! There are plenty of other ways you can make your holiday baking a little healthier, but after all this is a beginner’s guide and I don’t want to overwhelm you. If I had to choose two things on this list that I would really love for you to try it would be switching to real butter and using whole wheat pastry flour. Two simple things you can do right now to make all those sweet treats a bit better for your health and your waistline.
Be on the lookout for a healthier holiday cookie recipe in the next few days!
Happy Holiday Baking!!!