There are certain foods that we don’t consider good for our bodies, which are actually very good for our souls. They are different for everybody, they are the foods that give us warm, nostalgic feelings. They are the foods whose aromas waft out from the kitchen and immediately make us feel safe and loved. Those are the feelings we all need to feel more often and are just as important as healthy food and clean air.
The not-so-great part of this equation is that those same foods that give us all of the deep and delicious soul food are often the same foods that are full of sugar and refined carbs. What’s worse is that the more we learn about which foods we ‘should’ be eating (or when, let’s say your daughter obsessively researches the foods you should be eating based on your recent cancer diagnosis), we begin to feel guilty about these comforting soul food experiences, an emotion that cancels out all of the health benefits of the good stuff that you may have been feeling from those old familiar smells and tastes.
Years ago, I was manic-ly cheerleader-ing green juice and antioxidant-rich foods for my Mom when she was diagnosed with cancer, convinced that being strict and dedicated was the way to good health and remission. She wondered aloud one day as she held her first grandson if she would ever be able to make cookies with him now that none of us were eating cookies. It made me realize I probably needed to chill out and have a look at the bigger picture. After all, there are people who live long, happy, healthy lives who eat cookies for breakfast and smoke cigarettes for lunch. An afternoon spent baking cookies with the kids in our life during the holidays is probably better for our emotional (and overall) health than a lonely, chilly afternoon spent with our juicers (that still refuse to clean themselves).
It is the most cookies and sweets-filled time of year, and I’m not telling you to eat with reckless abandon because your soul is looking for a good time. But if you are going to do some holiday baking and want to use your old family recipes, make sure you reeeeally enjoy it in a guilt-free way.
Here are eight easy tips (the bare minimum) to make your old familiar baking recipes a little bit better (for you, your kids/grandkids, friends and family, digestive health, your overall health, and those guilt feelings):
1.) Swap all refined sugar out for coconut sugar. This is lower glycemic, more mineral-rich and I think it actually tastes better than other refined sugar (it tastes like caramel-y brown sugar). You can buy a big bag for a good deal at Costco (Canada). If you’re definitely going to buy white sugar, buy the organic evaporated cane sugar. It is just sugar minus the GMO beets that are used to make traditional white sugar (imagine the processing needed to strip that pigment out!), and the charred cattle bones used to filter it. This got a bit gross, let’s move on.
2.) Use a gluten-free flour blend in place of wheat flour. I know that gluten-free gets a bad rap socially, but you don’t have to be celiac to reap the benefits of cutting gluten out of your diet. Most people are sensitive to it whether or not they realize it and it causes inflammation in the body, which is thought to be one of the root causes of many diseases including cancer and heart disease. GF flour is not ‘healthy’, it is still white, processed carbs, but it’s a good swap if we’re looking for a final product that is a bit better than your original white, wheat flour recipe. There are plenty of brands out there now that boast the ability to swap into a recipe in the exact quantities of the regular flour in your recipe.
3.) Extra virgin coconut oil in place of the fats in a recipe. EVCO contains lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid, which act as an antimicrobial and antifungal (great for gut health). It is also full of minerals and has a decent smoking point, deeming it good for cooking/baking with. It tastes like coconut so is better in recipes that either go well with that flavour or aren’t overwhelmed by it (chocolate, gingerbread, lemon). That being said, I use it in most recipes including chocolate chip cookies and think it tastes awesome. Butter is my second choice, but make sure it is organic and try to find grass-fed or goat butter (raw is great too, if available).
4.) Use lots of spices. Try adding cinnamon to your shortbread (or at least half of it), this will help keep your blood sugar level while you indulge in an afternoon cookie with your antioxidant-rich green tea. Turmeric goes really well (disappears into) gingerbread and as we know, is an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. Make sure to add some black pepper to go with the turmeric, they work best as a team (and black pepper and gingerbread are actually old friends too). Most spices are warming and contain medicinal and benefits (cloves, nutmeg, dried ginger, allspice) (see more details here) so double them up or choose recipes that use them with reckless abandon.
5.) Choose dark chocolate, 68% and up (and raw if possible). This means you will be avoiding all dairy (and many fillers) and getting the maximum antioxidants. Read the packages to make sure the ingredients are kept to a minimum (chocolate chips usually have more stabilizers than a block of chocolate so that they hold their shape in a cookie). If you really want to get wild, replace (at least some) of your chocolate chips with cocao nibs. Crunchy, chocolate-y, clean and mean antioxidant party. Don’t love dark chocolate? Don’t worry, the sweet part of your recipe (cookie dough, toffee etc) will balance the bitterness out. This is annoying advice, I know, but try to train yourself to embrace bitter flavours, because the dandelion greens of January are calling your name! And palates do adjust, they just need some training.
6.) Use raw cacao instead of any other cocoa powder. We get so many more antioxidants from it, because it is much more pure. Think homemade hot chocolate with raw cacao, Brazil and almond milk and dates loved up altogether in your blender…
7.) Add lots of nuts and seeds (walnuts! pumpkin seeds! Brazil nuts! sesame seeds!). This will add fiber and fat (which will help balance out the overall glycemic load that can will be on the high side from your starchy gf flour and sugar) and minerals that our body really wants but is sometimes too shy to ask for in its outside voice.
8.) Natural food colouring exists, it’s sold at health food stores (and fancy grocery stores) as well as naturally dyed candies for your gingerbread house. I have coloured Yoda with powdered spirulina (it tasted like spirulina) and Hello Kitty with raspberries and beets (tasted awesome) so you can play around with making your own, using real food too. Natural food dye is worth seeking out, the alternative is pretty appalling, especially for kids.
If these tips overwhelm you, choose a couple of them to start, and slowly turn over your pantry ingredients to include some of the new, healthier ones. If you have already switched over to a healthier style of baking (or are game for some bigger changes), try these gingerbread men. They are made of dates and dried plums (fiesta of fiber), lots of warming, anti-inflammatory spices, a splash of molasses (a good source of iron), flax and pumpkin seeds (more fiber, lots of zinc to prevent the dreaded Christmas cold/flu), and many other good things. These guys were made to love you back.
You can leave them raw (they’re basically gingerbread-flavoured bliss balls, rolled out so that we can make gb men) and store them in your fridge or freezer, or you can dehydrate them or bake them in a very low oven to resemble ‘real’ gingerbread cookies (less bendy). The cooking/dehydrating process will also make them solid enough to string up and hang on your tree.
If you’re looking for more super healthy holiday treats to help you create new holiday food memories check out our Sunbutter Balls, Chocolate Coconut Fudge (hint –add some peppermint oil to this for an extra Christmas-y kick!) and most recently our healthy spin on Tiger Butter. Swoon
My sister bought me this rosemary Christmas tree, which I’m slightly obsessed with. I decorated it with these homemade (dehydrated) gingerbread men and think it would make the perfect host gift over the holidays: the cookies -a taste of something sweet and holiday-appropriate (but healthy, shhhh) and the rosemary -(immune system stimulant, circulation improver, anti-inflammatory and it smells SO GOOD) to bring them good health and flavour to their roast veggies and soups until next year (or longer if they plant it and remember to water it).
- 1 c Pumpkin Seeds, ground up into a flour
- ¼ c Hemp Hearts
- 8 Medjool Dates
- 6 Dried Plums
- 1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
- 2 Tbsp Coconut Flour
- 2 Tbsp + 1 tsp Flax seed, freshly ground
- 2 Tbsp Molasses
- 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp Dried Ginger
- 2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
- ½ tsp Ground Cloves
- ½ tsp Dried Turmeric
- ½ tsp Ground Black Pepper
- In a food processor, blend up the pumpkin seeds until they are a fine-ish flour (not butter...)
- Add the dates everything else except for the flax and blend (you may have to turn it on/ off/scrape down a few times) until quite smooth.
- Add the ground flax and blend until very well mixed.
- Shape into a disc, wrap well and let sit in your fridge for several days (the flavours get better with time).
- When ready to roll it out (you can also roll it right away), unwrap and place between two pieces of parchment paper.
- Once the dough reaches a spreadable temperature, roll it out with a rolling pin, between the parchment (to avoid it sticking to your rolling pin) to less than a cm (1/4 inch?) and cut out using your fave cutters.
- If you have a dehydrator and want to keep these (mostly) raw, dehydrate at 105*F for 12 hours (or longer for bigger shapes).
- If baking in your oven, preheat it to 200*F and bake for ½-1 hour depending on the size of your shapes.
- The wrapped dough and finished cookies (cooked and raw) keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks and several months in the freezer.