Healthier Holiday Cookies

Medically Reviewed by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD on December 09, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

Holiday cookies come around only once a year. They're nearly impossible to resist. But you could be nibbling your way to something worse than coal in your stocking.

When faced with a tray full of temptation, reach for cookies with oats, nuts, or fruit. "You'll at least get some fiber," says registered dietitian nutritionist Libby Mills, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Avoid anything smeared with frosting or coated with sugary sprinkles.

At home, don't be afraid to tinker with a beloved family recipe. "Your ancestors didn't know a lot about the dangers of trans fats or the need for fiber," she says. Give your loved ones the gift of a new and improved family recipe.

When done right, you can enjoy these delicious holiday treats and stay off the naughty list.

Cut Back on Sugar

An easy place to start is the granulated sugar. You can use 1/4 cup less in many drop cookies, such as these cinnamon-sugar cookies, and they'll still taste as sweet. Often, you could cut up to a third of the sugar and not notice a difference. Or add dried fruit to make up for the sugar you're leaving out.

If you want to bake with a sugar substitute product, stick to recipes from the manufacturer. Used in your recipes, these products could throw off the flavor, texture, and appearance of your cookie. "Some artificial sweeteners become bitter when exposed to heat," Mills says. Aspartame won't do well in the oven, but saccharin and sucralose should taste OK.

Baking tip: Because sugar helps dough spread while baking, using less sugar can lead to puffier, rounder cookies. If you want cookies that look more like you're used to, Mills suggests coating the palm of your hand with nonstick cooking spray and flattening out the dough balls before putting them in the oven.

Replace the Fat

Butter, shortening, and some kinds of margarine have a lot of unhealthy fats. Fortunately, you can replace up to half of a recipe's fat content with healthier options.

Fruit purees. Try unsweetened applesauce, pumpkin puree, or prune butter.

Vegetable purees. Cauliflower adds the lightest flavoring. Pureed fennel will add extra flavor to anise cookies.

Oils. Canola and sunflower oils raise good cholesterol, too. Canola oil also gives you healthy omega-3 fats.

The substitution is simple: 1 cup of butter = 1/2 cup of butter plus 1/2 cup of oil or pureed fruits or vegetables. For example, "In this chocolate chip cookie recipe, 3 tablespoons of butter could be replaced with an equal amount of canola oil," Mills says.

However, "Lower-fat cookies will have a denser texture," she says. "They won't be as crisp."

If you use margarine, avoid the hard sticks. Choose soft margarine in a tub with no trans fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.

Baking tip: Reduced-fat substitutions will make cookies lose moisture during baking. Lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees, and shorten the baking time. Keep an eye on the first batch to get the timing right.

Change Flour for Fiber

"In olden days, people cooked with what they had on hand. If whole wheat flour had been in the pantry, you can bet your great-grandma would have used it," Mills says.

Whole wheat flour bumps up the fiber content of these oatmeal cookies. In your recipes, "Start by replacing 1/4 cup of white flour with whole wheat," Mills suggests. If you're happy with the taste and texture of the finished product, next time use 1/2 cup.

Because cookies made mostly with whole wheat flour tend to be heavier and coarser, try whole wheat pastry flour. "It's similar in texture to white flour," she says.

"You can replace up to three-fourths of the recipe's white flour with whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour, or up to half of white flour if using oat flour," Mills says.

Toss in a couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed for even more fiber.

Baking tip: Any whole wheat flour (including pastry flour) absorbs more liquid because it contains more protein or gluten than all-purpose flour. "You may need to add a little extra liquid, such as water or milk, to get the right dough consistency," Mills says.

This extra moisture can mean a longer baking time. Bake just three or four cookies before cooking the entire batch. If they're not done by the time the recipe says they should be, put them back in the oven and keep checking every minute or two until you're happy with the result.

More Healthy Cookie Tricks

Want to make your cookies even healthier?

  • Cut the salt in half. (You won't miss it.)
  • Use fewer chocolate chips. (Try smaller chips, or chop larger ones finely so they spread throughout the dough.)
  • Use fewer nuts if you're worried about calories. Otherwise, nuts add good fats and phytochemicals along with some protein and fiber. (Again, smaller bits will blend into the dough more evenly.)
  • Add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, vanilla, or almond extract.
  • Mix in dried fruit including raisins, cherries, cranberries, or chopped apricots for sweetness, texture, and color.

"Baking is more of a science than an art," Mills says. "You have to experiment with a recipe several times before getting the perfect measurements."

Because you're making changes, the cookies won't be exactly like Grandma's. But they'll still be tasty, and they'll be healthier.

Show Sources


Libby Mills, registered dietitian nutritionist, Philadelphia; spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

American Diabetes Association: "Using sugar substitutes in the kitchen."

Cleveland Clinic: "Butter vs. Margarine."

Harvard School of Public Health: "Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good."

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