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On the Menu: Healthy baking alternatives for the holidays

Registered Dietitian Tara Martin shares tips for making holiday recipes that are a bit healthier.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It is that time of year when many of us probably have a holiday bake sale or cookie exchange to attend. 

For today's On the Menu segment, Registered Dietitian Tara Martin from Mercy Health is here to share some easy ways to make your holiday desserts a little healthier, but still just as tasty. 

Dessert seems to be everywhere this time of year, and today is National Cookie Day. Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a sweet treat occasionally, especially when enjoying time with family and friends. There are plenty of ways you can add some nutrition into every bite of your dessert. 

Baking is different than cooking in that it involves more chemistry and the ingredients must work together to form the finished product. For example, butter is used in some baked goods for leavening and flavor. Sugar is important for keeping your product moist and soft since sugar will bind to the liquid that is present in the ingredients. 

You can’t change the composition of a recipe completely, but there are plenty of ways that you can exchange some of these ingredients to make your dessert healthier. You can always simply add some nutritious ingredients to bump up the additional benefits. You have probably heard of replacing some butter/oil in brownies for black beans, or even options like zucchini bread that has that hidden vegetable. 

Here are a few examples of some healthier dessert options perfect for the holiday season.

Cinnamon Applesauce Cookies

Applesauce is used to replace about half of the amount of sugar in this recipe. Some sugar will still be necessary for proper texture and color. However, you can use unsweetened applesauce in a 1:1 ratio when baking. You may need to reduce the liquid in your recipe by about ¼ cup. Not only does the applesauce allow for less sugar but also adds some vitamin A and vitamin C to the recipe as well. 


  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup thick applesauce (unsweetened or very lightly sweetened)


  1. Pre-heat oven to 400°, line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Sift cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a large bowl.
  3. In a medium bowl cream together butter and brown sugar add egg blend about 2 minutes, add sifted dry ingredients alternately with the applesauce, combine until just combined. 
  4. Drop batter by spoonful (about the size of a golf ball) on prepared cookie sheets, bake for approximately 10-12 minutes until lightly golden.

Oatmeal Flax Chocolate Chip Cookies

This recipe is a good example of one that doesn’t necessarily have a replacement but has some added ingredients that will make it a little more nutritious. The ground flaxseed adds omega 3 fatty acids that many of us don’t get enough of from our diets. Omega 3s have been proven to lower the risk for heart disease and fight inflammation. Ground flax blends nicely in these cookies and really doesn’t change the flavor at all. Oatmeal also adds a little fiber in there as well.


  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cup oats
  • 1 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup ground flax seed.


  1. Let butter soften at room temperature
  2. Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, cream together butter, sugar, and vanilla.
  3. Beat in eggs.
  4. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt together in a small bowl, then add to cookie mixture, blend.
  5. Add oats, chocolate chips, and flax, mix until just blended. (try not to overmix, it will get you flat cookies.)
  6. Refrigerate dough for at least a couple hours, or overnight.
  7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  8. Drop rounded tablespoon-fulls onto a greased cookie sheet
  9. Bake in heated oven for about 8-10 minutes

Holiday Truffles

These truffles are a no-bake dessert, so a lot of that chemistry and balance of ingredients is less important. They include very little added sugar the sweetness comes mainly from the coco powder and dates. Dates will add some antioxidants and fiber to the treat. There are also nuts for a little crunch and some added healthy fats and vitamins. 


  • 2 cups pitted dates 
  • 1/4 cup raw cacao powder
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil, plus more to coat your hands
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup crushed freeze-dried raspberries (for red coating) or matcha powder (for green coating)
  • Handful of pecans, or your favorite nut (optional)


  1. Add dates, nuts (if using), cacao powder, coconut oil, vanilla, and salt to a food processor. Blend for 3 to 5 minutes or until dough is smooth. (If using a blender, scrape down the sides with a spatula and blend again, repeating until ingredients are combined.) If necessary, add 1 tablespoon water while processing to help dough come together.
  2. Lightly coat your hands with coconut oil. Break off a bite-size piece of dough and roll it into a ball. Repeat with remaining dough.
  3. Roll each ball in red or green coating. Store truffles in the refrigerator for up to four weeks.


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