Healthy Holiday Treats
Treat yourself this holiday season without guilt
MIND YOUR SUGAR
Sweets are normally available everywhere you go, but one positive of the holidays in 2020 is that the world will not be full of cookie trays and hot cider everywhere you turn, so that temptation, at least, won’t come into play. But that doesn’t mean this year won’t have its own issues that lead us to make unhealthy choices. That said, a healthy lifestyle always includes treats because they bring us pleasure, a very necessary part of our brain chemistry. This year more than ever!
Whether you are a type 2 diabetic, have an autoimmune disease, are battling cancer or just trying to keep your weight under control, sugar can have a multitude of negative effects on our health, and, for some of us, it is crucial to limit our consumption. When we do indulge, we should make wise choices, that use quality natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup, palm sugar, or honey. These sweeteners also contain vitamins, minerals and other plant compounds that benefit our health, which add value to our diet. Dates are another ideal choice to use as a natural sweetener. Pureed into a paste, they can be used in many cookie, cake and muffin recipes. Avoid artificial sweeteners, even ones like sucralose, that purport to be all natural, as these are not healthy choices.
When we think about treats, after sugar, fats stand out as something to watch out for, and if we are talking butter or vegetable shortening, then you would be right, however there are lots of healthy fats that work well for sweet treats, and fats are an important part of any healthy diet. Avoid vegetable oils such as corn, soybean and even canola, the reasons vary from pro-inflammatory omega 6 essential fatty acids to genetic modification. You can always substitute a mild cold-pressed olive oil, and you can cut that amount further in half and substitute an equal amount of unsweetened applesauce. If you really want to get creative with fats, avocado is commonly used with chocolate to make puddings and mousse, but that may be a bit out there for some.
GET IN THE KITCHEN
The reality is, though, if you want to have healthier treats this holiday season you are going to have to get in the kitchen and make them yourself, as that is the only way to ensure the quality of the treats you make. Be realistic about what confections you are able to conquer. Chocolate and candy making are some of the most complicated and scientifically rigorous foods you can make. The truth is there is really no such thing as healthy candy, sure you could call fruit gems and maybe even licorice natural candy, but they still have loads of sugar and don’t bring anything else to the table.
CHOCOLATE CAN BE GOOD FOR YOU. YES, REALLY.
Chocolate, however, is another story. For years, chocolate was considered unhealthy because of its fat and sugar content, but recent studies, like the 2013 one that appeared in the Netherland’s Journal of Medicine, stated that cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, contains biologically active phenolic compounds. These powerful antioxidants are believed to possibly reduce oxidative stress, regulate blood pressure, and even perhaps lower cholesterol. In fact, there are many different studies that look into the effects of chocolate on human health. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that a food that everyone adores, chocolate, is the subject of more nutritional studies than many vegetables! The world of chocolate is as complex as the cacao beans they come from, and not all chocolate is the same. Reading labels and checking added sugar levels are crucial, and, remember, the higher the percentage of cacao, the higher concentrations of antioxidant compounds.
So, it is not a surprise that one of my favorite healthy holiday treats has loads of dark chocolate and other healthy fats and might take you a bit out of your comfort zone for cooking, though it is super easy. As kids my mom made her decadent chocolate mousse that everyone loved, except for me. It was always a bit too rich. I would only have a spoonful here and there and usually right out of the freezer which cut down the richness. This next recipe shares a similar type of richness, but without all the sweetened condensed milk. This one I can handle! The best part is it takes less than 5 minutes to make.
_the RECIPE box
AVOCADO CHOCOLATE MOUSSEIngredients:
- 2 avocados. Be sure they are not too ripe—those black spots make the flesh bitter.
- ¼ cup good-quality cocoa powder
- 4 ounces of melted dark chocolate, more than 55% cacao
- ¼ cup pure maple syrup (you could use blue agave or honey if you prefer)
- 3 tablespoons almond or oat milk
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth and creamy.
- If mixture seems too stiff to be smooth, add a tsp more of almond milk until you get a creamy, smooth consistency.
- Pour mixture into small ramekins and put in the freezer for at least an hour or so before serving so that you get that mousse-like texture.
RAW BANANA CHOCOLATE NUT BARS
This next recipe uses raw cacao, the healthiest chocolate product available. In fact, the entire recipe is raw which ensures our body’s enzymes are able to effectively and efficiently absorb all the nutrients contained in our treat. The lack of any added sugars squarely puts this recipe in the Paleo or Keto categories, diets commonly used to treat issues such as Alzheimer’s. You can further enhance the recipe by sprinkling chopped nuts, seeds or even shredded coconut on top before freezing.Bottom Ingredients:
- 1.5 cup walnuts
- 1 ripe banana
- 15 medjool dates
- 1 ripe banana
- 4 tbsp almond or natural peanut butter
- 4 tbsp raw honey
- 1/4 cup raw cacao
- Combine bottom ingredients in a food processor and process until well blended. There might be some chunks remaining, but as long as it’s predominantly smooth, you should be good.
- Spread blended bottom ingredients in a glass pan. Use parchment paper in the bottom to make removing the bars from the pan once frozen much easier. Spread out the mixture evenly.
- Combine topping ingredients in a food processor and process until well blended. It should be smooth.
- Spread blended topping ingredients over bottom ingredients in pan.
- Place in the freezer for a couple hours.
- Remove from pan, cut into squares, or use a fun small-star cookie cutter and serve! (Makes 18 or so 1-inch squares).
Macaroons are a simple and easy treat that everyone adores. Naturally gluten free, this recipe hits a lot of the healthy-choice marks because the only sweetener is natural maple syrup and the only other ingredient is high-protein egg whites. You can take them a step further and drizzle them or just simply dip the bottoms, in melted dark chocolate.Ingredients:
- 3 cups dried unsweetened coconut flakes
- ½ cup of pure maple syrup
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 6 egg whites
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- Combine the coconut, vanilla and maple syrup.
- Beat together egg whites and salt until soft peaks form.
- Combine with the coconut mixture.
- Scoop into balls and place on a cookie sheet.
- Bake for 10-15 mins at 350 degrees.
- Cool and drizzle with melted dark chocolate if you choose.
We are talking holiday treats, and our individual favorite treats, I am sure, vary widely. In fact, it is safe to say my favorite holiday treats don’t come in the form of cookies or cakes, they are more likely to come in a glass. Yes, that’s right, holiday cocktails indeed fall into the treat category. Most festive drinks actually have higher sugar contents than their cookie counterparts, but we often don’t think about it that way. The sugars in alcohol can be damaging to our health, but like the other holiday treats featured here, there are choices that are much wiser than others. In general, there is nothing healthy about eggnog, so if that is your holiday go-to drink might I suggest a change?
Some rules of thumb when it comes to festive holiday beverages, like our treats—try and bring some value. Even something as simple as turning your white wine into a spritzer and tossing in some pomegranate seeds for color and a squeeze of lime gives you a small dose of vitamin C and the seltzer acts as additional hydration, counteracting the dehydrating aspects of the wine.
This next recipe works for either tequila, vodka or rum. Think of it as an optimal holiday margarita, gimlet or daiquiri. The key ingredient is ginger stevia elixir which is a substitute for simple syrup, keeping sugar levels low and adding a hefty dose of anti-inflammatory compounds from the fresh ginger. Combined with loads of fresh lime juice and your choice of polyphenol rich pomegranate or cranberry juices, this drink packs a lot of flavor and vitamins all at the same time. Remember treats that also add value are the best kind.
_the RECIPE box
OPTIMAL HOLIDAY MARGARITA/GIMLET/DAIQUIRIIngredients:
- 1 ½ ounces of your preferred liquor, tequila, vodka or rum
- ½ oz Elderflower liquor
- 1 oz Ginger stevia elixir (next recipe)
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
- 1 oz 100% unsweetened cranberry or pomegranate juice
- Combine first five ingredients in a shaker glass, or if you prefer it the way I do, toss it into your ninja or blender, whatever you use. You can easily double or triple the recipe if you are having one with a friend.
- Add ice and shake or blend well and serve with cranberries or pomegranate seeds for garnish and a slice of lime.
- For a festive touch coat the rim of the glass with chopped crystallized ginger.
GINGER STEVIA ELIXIRIngredients:
- A 3 to 4-inch hunk of fresh ginger
- 1-quart water
- ½ tsp pure stevia powder***
***Like most things that become extraordinarily popular, some manufacturers look for ways to stretch a product and, in this case, it is combining stevia with other products to give it more heft. These are often refined artificial products. Opt for pure, organic varieties, which are extremely concentrated, so be careful with amounts. If you don’t like stevia you can always substitute 2 tablespoons of honey, maple or blue agave syrup instead.
- Wash ginger and roughly chop. Don’t worry about the skin as long as you wash it, but you want to increase the surface area exposed to get a stronger flavor.
- Place in a sauce pot with a quart of water and the stevia powder.
- Simmer for about 1 hour until reduced by half.
- Let cool and then strain and use for making drinks or sweetening tea.
It is important this year to strive to find some balance between taking care of yourself and treating yourself, because that, too, is a type of self-care crucial to our mental health. If you have a favorite treat that you simply must have, go for it! The 2020 holiday season will be like no other, and, honestly, none of us know what exactly to prepare for. However, it is pretty clear we will have plenty of time at home. And why not use some of it wisely by experimenting in the kitchen with some healthy new holiday treats?