Healthful Holiday Goodies: Delicious Gluten-Free Options, Sugar Substitutes, and More

For most of us, the holiday season is synonymous with goodies galore. They seem to be everywhere we turn, from the office to the candy bowl at the local hardware store. Festivities and family get-togethers are what make this time of year so meaningful and a holiday party without multiple goodie platters is like the 4th of July without fireworks.

What makes many of these holiday treats so exceptional is that the recipes are often tucked away in their own special recipe box, awaiting the time of year when tradition reigns. Enjoying these goodies but once a year creates many a joyous holiday memory and most of us wouldn’t dream of them during flip-flop and tank top weather. To enjoy my mom’s Martha Washington candy or skillet cookies during the other eleven months of the year would be certain cognitive conflict for me. To make gingerbread, pecan pie, or peanut brittle in August would be, well, sort of blasphemous.

You Can Have Your Sweets and Eat Them Too

Given this cultural culinary custom, the holidays are a challenging time to think about watchdogging sugar and refined carbohydrate intake. If you want to be cautious about not overloading on sugar and refined flour, there are a few simple steps you can take to treat yourself as well as your taste buds well. I’ll bet you eggs to eggnog that you’ll find these substitutions make your recipes even more luscious than ever, giving them a natural, earthy flavor.

Begin by eliminating white sugar from this year’s recipes. There are many natural sugar alternatives, and the best ones for baking are date sugar and coconut sugar (aka coconut sap), which can both be incorporated 1:1 in any recipe. Date sugar is made from ground, dehydrated dates and just like fresh dates, contains fiber and nutrients. Although it’s great for baking, date sugar doesn’t dissolve well in liquids, so it won’t work so well in your cup of tea.

Coconut sugar is made from nectar of the coconut palm blossom and is chock full of essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. It has more of the consistency of brown sugar but is low on the glycemic index. Foods high on the glycemic index, of which white refined sugar and flour are at the top of the heap, spike blood sugar, causing an insulin rush. It is these foods that, if consumed in excess, can over time lead to Type II diabetes.

For any recipe that calls for white flour, substitute all-purpose spelt flour, typically available in bulk at your local health food store. Whole Foods Market now sells it in a bag in their baking products aisle. Spelt is an ancient grain, a distant cousin of wheat, and is better than wheat flour for baking, as it has a lighter, nuttier flavor and is much lower on the glycemic index.

If you’re gluten free, or even if you’re not, there are several great baking/pastry/all purpose flour mixes at your local co-op or health food store. There are also oodles of sources on the web for how to make your own gluten free flour mix. I know several people who, while they don’t have to eliminate gluten, prefer these less refined, more nutritious flours that taste amazing. Mixes and recipes can include flours such as almond, teff, amaranth, brown rice, tapioca, and quinoa.

Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef has some of the best information I’ve seen on gluten free baking. Their pie crust recipe is a good one for those willing to do it all from scratch. If you’re like me, and a little intimidated by making pie crust, you can always buy the frozen, ready-made variety. I’m all for simplicity.

You Butter Believe It

Is your butter softening on the counter yet? You may be surprised to hear that I do not believe in making any substitutions when a recipe calls for butter. There is no healthy substitute for real, organic butter, preferably the grassfed variety. (Margarine is a mere molecule away from being plastic. Don’t eat it!) Butter is filling, satiating, and tends to help folks eat less. It also lowers the glycemic index of carbohydrate-rich foods. 

With a few easy substitutions, you can start your own healthy holiday custom by incorporating wholesome ingredients. Enjoying homemade goodies made without refined sugar and flour and with real butter makes it so much easier to pass on the Hershey’s Kisses in the office. And once your friends and family exclaim that your pecan pie is even better than last year, you can divulge your newfound secrets and get them in on the healthful tradition.

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies

Only slightly sweet, these buttery biscuits are infused with the rich, dark flavor of cocoa. They freeze well in an airtight container or ziplock bag with wax paper between layers. Remove from container and thaw before serving.

1 cup unsalted, organic butter

2/3 cup coconut sugar, loosely packed

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 ½ cups + 2 tbsp gluten free all purpose flour blend, more for dusting

½ tsp xanthan gum

1/8 tsp salt

¼ cup unsweetened, fair trade cocoa powder

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until mixture is creamy, about 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Add vanilla extract and beat on low speed until combined; set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, mix together flour blend, xanthan gum, salt, and cocoa powder.
  5. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture, mixing on low speed only until ingredients are combined. Don’t over-mix. Put dough in the refrigerator for 30 min.
  6. Line a cutting board with parchment paper or dust it lightly with flour. Place dough on board and roll it out about ½ inch thick. Cut into 1x3-inch rectangles with a shortbread cutter or knife. Space evenly on prepared baking sheet.
  7. Bake in preheated oven for 16 to 18 min. or until light golden brown. Let cool on the cookie sheet to finish baking. Cookies will be crumbly and difficult to handle until they’ve cooled completely.

Recipe by Mary Capone,

Jill Grunewald is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Counselor, health writer, and passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture. Her practice, Healthful Elements, focuses on bio-individual health and whole-foods therapy, with specialization in the endocrine system and hormones, particularly thyroid and adrenal health. Jill's last post for Simple, Good, and Tasty was Stuffed Full of Gratitude.