From dessert trays to cookie exchanges, holiday baking can be more than just a tradition — it may also be beneficial to your mental health. According to mental health experts, engaging in the cooking process (which includes baking) can help to relieve anxiety and mental distress. A 2018 review of over 300 studies on the mental health benefits of cooking reported positive psychosocial benefits including higher self-esteem, improved psychological well-being, decreased anxiety, and better quality of life. But — can comfort foods and health go together? We think so.
Better-for-you baking aims to deliver the best of both worlds, the benefits of the baking process and the comfort of baked goods with health in mind. And there’s more good news, it’s about what you include not just what you take away. Here are a few tips to try out the next time you’re in the baking mood.
Take the High Road with Quality Ingredients
Quality matters, even in baking. High-quality ingredients mean more flavor with smaller amounts. Consider using vanilla beans or pure extract instead of artificial, unusual flours for different flavors and textures, quality herbs and spices, fresh zests, and premium chocolate for bolder flavors.
Sneak in More Nutrients
Adding fruits, vegetables, nuts, and/or seeds gives your sweet treats more interesting textures while also providing more nutrients. Then switching to a whole-grain flour or less-common flours, or using plant-based dairy are common ways to boost nutrition and flavor in baking. You can even experiment with 100% plant-based baking.
Add Plant-Based Fat
Consider swapping some of the butter for heart-healthy oils like avocado, olive, or grapeseed oil. Or try cutting your fat with applesauce or whole avocado (be mindful that avocado may affect the color of your dessert). Also be aware when a classic shouldn’t be tampered with (like your Grannie’s pound cake recipe), and instead savor that more indulgent treat.
Moderate the Sweetness
Reduce sugar by 25% in any recipe without noticeable differences, although adding additional liquid may be required. Other sweetener alternatives such as dates, monk fruit, stevia, or natural sugars can be used to add different flavors, but don’t lean on them to be healthier than white sugar. Have fun with the ratios!
Play with the Portion
Watching portion sizes for baked goods ensures you can have a taste of comfort without overindulging. Make bite-sized treats or cut brownies and cakes into two-inch squares for a single serving.
Experimenting in the kitchen with healthier baking can not only improve your baking skills and mental well-being but also introduce more nutrients into each tasty bite. Remember to focus on moderation and enjoy the process! Happy healthy baking!