Decorative holiday cookies are shown.
Whole wheat flour is one of the easiest and healthiest swaps you can make in your recipes—it contains more fiber, protein and other nutrients. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Stress baking. Anxiety baking. Quarantine baking.

Whatever you call it and whatever hashtag you might use to post your sweet creations on social media, one thing is clear: There’s been an unusual amount of baking going on in 2020.

And with the holiday season now here, the number of cookies, candies, cakes, bread, muffins and pies is sure to skyrocket.

“Baking, especially around the holidays, holds so many memories and so much nostalgia,” Spectrum Health dietitian Angela Fobar, RDN, said. “We want to make all those things that we remember because they bring us joy and comfort.”

So how can we enjoy all the sentimentality and mental health benefits of baking without expanding our waistlines?

Dietitians are here to help.

Swap ingredients

It’s understandable if you just can’t bring yourself to change anything about those favorite recipes passed down from Grandma. But there might be other recipes that present opportunities for healthy ingredient swaps, Fobar said. And even Grandma’s recipes might be easier to tweak than you think.

“There’s an interesting quote I came across: ‘While cooking is an art, baking is a science,’” Fobar said. “Sometimes people are intimidated by the fact that baking is a science. And we’re more hesitant to change things, but there are some good swaps we can do.”

She encourages bakers to be brave and give it a shot.

First, cut the amount of sugar back by one-quarter, she said. It won’t affect most recipes. Turn to natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and pureed dried fruits such as dates, which typically need to be re-hydrated with water.

You also can experiment with different kinds of flour, which adds fiber and uses a less-processed product.

“If something is higher in fiber, it’s always a great benefit,” Fobar said. “It’s heart-healthy and it fills us up faster, so we might have one slice of bread or one cookie versus two, with greater filling effect.”

Some tips on calculations: 1 cup of white flour is equivalent to 1 1/2 cups of oat flour or 2 cups of almond flour. It’s also equivalent to 1 cup (minus two teaspoons) of whole wheat flour.

Also consider replacing or reducing the amount of oil or butter with applesauce, Greek yogurt or avocado. Instead of using a full cup of butter, for example, cut it in half and supplement it with half a cup of avocado.

Dairy is a great place to use light or low-fat versions without affecting the integrity or taste of the recipe, she said.

Indulge—in moderation

While some ingredient swaps can make baked goods healthier, it’s important to remember that treats are still an indulgence to enjoy in moderation.

“Sometimes it’s better to say, ‘This is my favorite so I am going to have this,’” Fobar said. “Then we just need to make sure we are eating it in moderation.”

If you tell yourself you can’t have a treat, that could make you want it more, said Holly Dykstra, RD, a dietitian with Spectrum Health Preventive Cardiology.

So if you want a cookie, don’t chastise yourself. Allow yourself to indulge in one—and really enjoy it.

“If you decide to have a cookie, really show up for that food rather than just stuffing it in your mouth,” she said. “Pay attention to it using all of your senses. Give yourself that moment. Then be mindful of your food choices the rest of the day.”

Be active

Getting regular exercise is a secret weapon. It not only helps you burn those extra calories from baked goods, but also helps reduce stress, Fobar said.

“This holiday season is going to be super stressful,” she said. “And being active can help with stress reduction.”

Burning additional calories doesn’t hurt, either.

Quantity control

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, gatherings in large numbers should be avoided this holiday season. With that in mind, we can scale back on the number of different treats we are making, as well as our batch sizes, Fobar said.

We don’t want to have too many sweets in the house with no crowd to eat them, she said.

One solution is to find a safe and contactless way to share with friends, family and neighbors.

Also, cut back a little this year.

“Pick those favorite ones you really love and stick to that,” Fobar said.

Eat balanced meals

Don’t fall into the trap of justifying eating more baked goods by skipping a meal, Fobar warned.

Filling up on sweets and treats is not going to give your body the nutrients it needs—and you’re going to end up hungrier.

Also, if you’re using treats as meals, you’re likely to far exceed the recommended daily amounts of added sugar. For the average American, that’s 40 to 50 grams of added sugar per day, she said.

“You don’t want more than 10% of your calories to be from added sugar,” Fobar said.

Naturally occurring sugar, such as what’s found in fruits and vegetables, doesn’t count as added sugar. It plays an important role in a healthy diet, Fobar said.

Keeping these tips in mind can help you fill your home with the sweet aroma of baked goods, while still maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.