OK, we’re in favor of relishing the most decadent, oozy, rich dessert of your dreams, in all its fatty, sugar-laden glory. But don’t indulge often, and keep your portion size moderate. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, those last two suggestions aren’t easy for everyone, especially those of us with a daily dessert habit. In lieu of discipline and willpower, we present to you healthy dessert ideas using some of our favorite ingredient swaps. Then you can not only Instagram your you-know-what, but eat it too.
Smart Swaps Aren’t About Restriction
“I try to feel like I’m not missing out with ingredient swaps,” says Sarah Galla, who started The Nourished Seedling recipe and wellness blog from her Chicago home in 2015. She’s a holistic nutritionist, recipe developer, certified yoga instructor, and mother of three.
Galla doesn’t like the idea of saying no to dessert because she’s on a diet. That approach won’t work. She loves food too much.
“I don’t like restrictions. For me, that makes me want it more,” Galla says. “If I know it’s doing something beneficial, then it helps me. I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself, and I’m getting all these nutritional benefits.”
Galla keeps a jar of ground seeds—pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, chia, or flax—to throw into her baked goods or oatmeal to amp up the nutrition.
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She swaps out some fruit for vegetables, like beets, which are sweet when roasted anyway. She uses avocado and coconut oil instead of canola or vegetable oil. She also reduces the sugar and looks for ways to use more natural sugars from fruit or maple syrup, which have the benefit of extra vitamins and minerals.
Related Reading: 5 Healthy Foods That Aren’t Actually Good for You
Upping the fiber is always a good idea with sweets because it makes you feel fuller and keeps your blood sugar levels stable, preventing a crash and those quick cravings that return afterward.
“It’s all about balance,” Galla says.
Healthy Dessert Ingredient Swaps
These are some of our (and Galla’s) favorite ingredient swaps in desserts.
1. Use 70 Percent or Higher Dark Chocolate Instead of Milk Chocolate
The percentage refers to how much cacao is in the chocolate bar. Cacao’s iron, magnesium, and calcium nutrients are why chocolate can be good for you. The lower the percentage, the higher the amount of sugar. And don’t use white chocolate if you can help it. White chocolate is just chocolate with all the antioxidant benefits removed and all the negatives remaining. You can also do cacao nibs instead of chocolate chips.
Related Reading: Our Favorite Dark Chocolate Bars for Healthier Snacking
2. Use the Water From Your Can of Chickpeas to Make an Eggless Meringue
If you want to avoid eggs, you can still have the cloud-like fluffiness they provide, thanks to bean liquid, also known as aquafaba. Bush’s Beans gave us a recipe for a simple meringue, which is basically whipping 2 cups whipped garbanzo (that other name for chickpeas) bean liquid with 1/3 cup of powdered sugar, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Use the meringue as you would normally in any meringue dessert, or just top a spice cake with it.
3. Use Fruit, Especially Dates and Bananas, Instead of Sugar
Galla likes soaking her dried dates and then pureeing them and using them as sugar. The fruit is quite sugary naturally, but you’re also getting more fiber and nutrients like potassium. You never need to add sugar or honey in a smoothie or dairy-free ice cream if you’ve got a frozen banana on hand. Keep a few of those, already peeled, in the freezer at all times.
4. Substitute White All-Purpose Flour for Other Flours
In some dishes, you can use whole wheat flour at a 1 to 1 ratio, but with pastry, it’s better to use less whole wheat pastry flour because it’s so heavy and doesn’t flake. Usually, swapping about ⅓ to ½ of the white flour for whole wheat is good. Then you get more fiber and nutrients. You can also get more protein and other nutrients when you use all sorts of alternative flours, from made from beans and oats, to quinoa and amaranth. (See our beginner’s guide to gluten-free flour.)
5. Try Unsweetened Applesauce Instead of Oil in Baking
And sometimes in place of a bit of eggs and sugar. You will want to reduce the liquid in the rest of the recipe, if there is any, because of the liquid in the applesauce, or use a flour that will hold up well.
6. Swap Greek Yogurt for Butter
Some recipes call for full-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt, and the ratio is up for debate also, but often it’s a 1 to 1 ratio up to 1 cup. You need the yogurt to be Greek though, because of its thickness.
7. Try Coconut Cream Instead of Heavy Cream
This is such a simple swap for whipped dairy toppings and fillings for people with lactose allergies, vegans, or anyone wanting a more tropical flavor. Just refrigerate your can of regular coconut milk and then scoop off the heavy coconut cream that solidifies on top. Then whip it with an electric mixer for a few minutes the same way you would heavy dairy cream.
8. Use Beans Instead of Flour
Black bean brownies and cookies are a staple at Galla’s home. Take beans from a can, rinse them, and purée them. Don’t do a 1 to 1 ratio with flour, necessarily, but either way, reduce the other liquids in the recipe. “I’m always looking at the consistency,” Galla says.
Healthy Dessert Recipes
See how you can incorporate these ideas (and more) in the healthy dessert recipes below:
These moist blondies won’t look done when you take them out of the oven, but resist over-baking them. You definitely don’t want dried-out blondies. With a bit of speckled darkness, like a bottle-blond whose roots are showing, but in an on-purpose, ombré way. Stylin’. Get the Flourless Chocolate Chip Chickpea Blondies recipe.
This rich, creamy, chocolatey dessert from “The Love and Lemons” cookbook has so many swaps. It’s sweetened with maple syrup instead of sugar, uses almond milk instead of dairy milk, dark chocolate instead of semisweet or milk chocolate, and whipped coconut cream instead of whipped heavy cream. Oh, and of course, there are mashed avocados to make it fluffy and silky without any dairy. Get the Dark Chocolate Avocado Mousse with Coconut Cream recipe.
This “nice cream” is made with frozen bananas and cocoa powder, all in your blender. The vegan aquafaba fluff is a magical marshmallow alternative to cap it off. Get the High Protein Rocky Road Blender Ice Cream with Aquafaba Fluff recipe.
Like their traditional cousin, these cookies aren’t hard to make. You just need a good food processor or blender to pulse the almonds and oats, which then are mixed with spelt flour. There’s coconut oil instead of butter or other oils. Maple syrup and fruit-sweetened cherry jam lend their natural sugars. You don’t have to use cherry. Go with whatever your jam is. Get the Chocolate Cherry Thumbprint Cookies recipe.
Pie lovers, rejoice. Eat them in your hand with this recipe, which does have a tad more than 1/4 cup cane sugar, 1 cup of white flour, and 7 tablespoons of butter. But there’s so much more nutrition added to it, from the 3/4 cups of whole wheat pastry flour to the ½ cup of golden beets, which are great for your liver. Get the Apple, Pear, and Golden Beet Turnovers recipe.
This can be a go-to treat when you have crazy cookie cravings. We would know. It has many swaps in one, from applesauce and Greek yogurt to honey and whole wheat pastry flour. There is no sugar, egg, butter, or white flour in this recipe at all—and you also get oats. Get the Guilt Free Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe.
Header image by Jeanine Donofrio.