When it comes to eating healthfully, most people wonder where sweets fit in, especially if they are overweight or on a diet. Desserts, chips, junk food, and most sweets are usually the first to go when slashing calories.
Not so fast, say the experts.
Whether your family prefers dessert after dinner or an afternoon treat, sweets can be part of a balanced diet as long as you pay attention to portion sizes and choose healthier treats.
If you control the quantity, you can satisfy your sweet tooth or salty craving every day. “Everyone should allow themselves a daily treat because there is no reason why a 100- or 200-calorie snack can’t fit into a healthy diet” says Nashville’s nutrition expert, Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD.
When you want more than a special treat that has a few hundred calories, earn it by being more physically active, say the experts.
WebMD consulted nutrition experts for eight ways to fit sweets and treats into a balanced diet.
1. Stock Up With Healthy Choices
Don’t just count calories. Instead, try to make every calorie count because snacks and treats can be nutritious. “Kids get 25% of their calories from snacks, so you want to them to be as nutritious as possible,” advises Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, a mother of three.
Choose treats or desserts that have 100 to 200 calories and contain some nutritional benefits.
“Read the nutrition label to choose treats that provide some nutrients, especially ones that tend to be missing in our diets like fiber, calcium, and whole grains” says Bedwell. Choose baked chips, low-fat baked goods, and candy made with dark chocolate, nuts, or dried fruit.
2. Go Natural for Dessert
Kids clamor for dessert and they can have it most nights if you make it a healthy one. Rely on Mother Nature, and use fruit as the base for desserts.
“Fruit is naturally sweet; abundant this time of year, super nutritious, and everyone loves it. So make it the dessert of choice” says American Dietetic Association spokesperson, Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD. Serve fruit cut up with a dollop of dairy topping. Or use fruit to top angel food cake, low-fat pudding, or ice cream. Fruit lets you increase the portion size and nutritional goodness of desserts.
There is nothing wrong with an occasional calorie-dense piece of cake, a cookie, or candy, but these are so easy to overeat and the small portion is not nearly as satisfying, says Blake.
3. Limit the Variety of Sweets
Variety may be the spice of life, but when it comes to controlling calories, less is more. The greater the variety of food, the more you want to eat, studies show.
“Kids and adults gravitate to treats, so limit what you bring into the house to reduce temptation,” says Ward. Restrict your treats to one type of cookie, candy, chip, or ice cream.
4. Make Your Own 100-Calorie Treat Packs
Save money and make it easy for everyone to keep within the healthy limits by making your own grab-n-go snack packs. “Buy economy sized bags of baked chips, tortilla chips or cookies,” says Blake, then divide them into individual baggies.
5. Modify Your Recipes
For a healthy makeover of your favorite cookies or cakes, replace half the fat with applesauce or canola oil. Use whole-grain pastry flour. Add in nutritious extras such as dried fruit and nuts.
“When you make treats yourself, you can trim fat, calories, and sugar to make them healthier,” says Bedwell.
6. Buy Single-Serve Portions of Ice Cream, Cookies, and Chips
Certain treats such as chips, cookies, and ice cream are so tempting that we can’t just eat a small portion. “Buy single serve sweets and treats so the portion is controlled for you,” says Blake.
Other ways to limit portions are to buy pint size containers, and serve ice cream in a cone.
7. Keep Tough Treats Out of the House
Certain treats are downright taunting and just too difficult to control. “Don’t keep any treats in the house that challenge your family” says Ward. She suggests going out for these treats, or only bringing them in for special occasions.
8. Freeze Your Favorite Treats
Simple foods can be transformed into yummy treats in the freezer. Try freezing a container of whipped yogurt, fruit, or 100% fruit juice in paper cups for refreshing summertime treats everyone will enjoy.
“Keep bags of frozen fruit handy to microwave as a topping on ice cream or to make smoothies and sorbets with a little added juice or low-fat yogurt,” says Blake. An added bonus, cold treats are more satisfying because they need to be enjoyed slowly to avoid the "brain freeze."
Quick Treat and Snack Ideas
Need more ideas? Try one of these healthy choice treats:
- 10-12 baked tortilla chips and 1/4 cup salsa
- Light popcorn plus a few tablespoons of peanuts
- Whole-grain crackers with low-fat string cheese
- A cup of fresh fruit and 1 tablespoon melted chocolate chips for dipping
- 1/2 cup or single serve low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt
- Strawberry shortcake with angel food cake, fresh berries, and low-fat topping.
- Grilled pineapples, bananas, or peaches
- 6 whole-grain pretzels with 1/4 cup hummus