Healthful Holiday Desserts
By Joanna Foley, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 24 No. 8 P. 16

Dietitians share their favorite dessert recipes that are both nutritious and delicious.

Ready or not, the holiday season is upon us. This means clients are looking forward to joyful gatherings with family and friends and office parties with fellow coworkers. From Thanksgiving to Christmas to celebrating the New Year, clients will be cooking and baking and indulging in roasted turkey and stuffing, pot roast and sweet potatoes, honey glazed ham, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, collard and turnip greens, and decadent desserts such as apple, pecan, and pumpkin pies accompanied by ice cream. And while many people eagerly await this festive season, they fear the weight gain that often comes with it since these and other celebratory foods and desserts generally are high in calories, fat, and added sugars. After all, most people eat more of these foods during the holidays than they typically do during other times of the year.

It’s OK for clients to indulge a bit more than usual during the holidays, but dietitians should recommend they do so wisely. Clients can incorporate more healthful ingredients into appetizers, main courses, and side dishes, but this gets tricky when it comes to desserts. The good news is that it’s possible for clients to create lighter versions of traditional holiday desserts that still satisfy their taste buds. The key is to use the right ingredients.

Today’s Dietitian speaks with eight notable dietitians who offer their best advice and favorite recipes to create holiday desserts that are healthful and delicious.


Cranberry Biscotti

“I love these biscotti slices because they are lower in sugar than the typical cookie. The nuts and fruit provide antioxidants, and the pistachios offer the protein and fiber as well, so you can enjoy these sans guilt,” says Rosanne Rust, owner of Rust Nutrition, and recipe developer, content creator, and author. “They are perfect to dunk into coffee or serve with tea,” she says.

Yield: 36 cookies or slices

1 cup dried cranberries
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup avocado oil
1 tsp cinnamon
11/4 tsp baking powder
1 T orange zest
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup pistachios, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line a cookie sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

2. Place the cranberries into a small bowl and fill it with hot water to cover them. Let stand for 10 minutes, then drain the water and set aside.

3. Using a stand mixer, add the eggs, sugar, oil, cinnamon, baking powder, orange zest, vanilla extract, and salt to a large bowl. Using the whisk attachment, whisk ingredients until well blended.

4. Change out the whisk for the dough hook attachment. Add 2 cups of flour, cranberries, and nuts to the bowl. Blend ingredients for 1 minute, then gradually add remaining flour until soft dough forms.

5. Cut the dough in half. Take half of the dough and place it onto the baking mat or parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Roll the dough into a log and gently pat the top evenly.

6. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes.

7. Once cooled, carefully slice the logs. Using a serrated knife, on a diagonal, carefully cut 1/2-inch slices. Place the slices back onto the cookie sheet, cut-side down.

8. Bake for 10 minutes, then flip each cookie and bake an additional 10 minutes.

9. Transfer to a wire rack and cool. Store in a cookie tin or other airtight container (do not wrap in plastic wrap) for up to two weeks. Cookies can be frozen for up to three months.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 118; Total fat: 5 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Protein: 2 g; Total carbohydrate: 17 g; Total sugars: 7 g; Added sugars: 7 g; Dietary fiber: 1 g; Sodium: 28 mg

Source: Recipe courtesy of Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN, owner of Rust Nutrition, and recipe developer, content creator, and author

Vegan Pumpkin Pie

“I guarantee there is no better pumpkin pie than one made from fresh pumpkins, as is the case with my Classic Vegan Fresh Pumpkin Pie,” says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian at “With only a few ingredients—many of which you probably have in your pantry right now—you can create a real, homemade pie with fresh ingredients and a lot of love. The thing that’s amazing about this pie is that it’s a bit lighter in sugar and fat than many recipes, and it’s filled with veggie love and whole grains, yet so rich in flavor. With a quick semi–whole grain pastry crust and a pure pumpkin filling, you can create a pumpkin pie that’s really healthy enough for breakfast. But you don’t have to leave it there—serve it for dessert and feel good about it. It’s that real and that delicious.”

Serves 8


Pastry Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour*
1/2 cup whole wheat flour*
1/3 cup vegan butter, stick
4 to 5 T of ice water

Pumpkin Filling
1/2 cup plant-based half and half or creamer, unsweetened, plain (eg, Forager, Silk, Califia Farms)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 T corn starch
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
3 cups fresh pumpkin puree** (or use canned pumpkin puree)
1 T pumpkin pie spice blend
2 T vegan butter

Garnish (optional)
Plant-based whipped cream (eg, Reddi-Wip, So Delicious, 365 Plant-Based Whipped Topping)
Pumpkin pie spice
Mint leaves

1. To make pastry crust: In a medium bowl, mix together all-purpose and whole wheat flours.

2. Cut in vegan butter with a fork until it makes a crumbly texture.

3. Add cold water, 1 T at a time, and mix (may use clean hands) until it creates a firm dough that holds together but is not sticky. Do not overwork the dough, as it will get tough.

4. Place the pastry dough on a floured surface and roll out with a pastry roller to create a circle about 12 inches in diameter. Place in a 9-inch pie pan, and crinkle edges by hand or with a fork. Pierce crust with a fork. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 350˚ F.

6. To prepare pumpkin filling: Add plant-based half and half (or creamer), maple syrup, and vanilla extract to a medium pot.

7. Mix in cornstarch with a whisk until it’s combined well with no lumps.

8. Add sugar, pumpkin puree, pumpkin spice blend, and vegan butter, and heat over medium heat, cooking for about 5 minutes until mixture is thickened and bubbling.

9. Remove pumpkin filling from heat. Pour into the prepared pie crust.

10. Bake at 350˚ F for about 50 minutes, until firm and golden.

11. Remove from oven and allow to cool at room temperature.

12. Garnish as desired with plant-based whipped cream, spice, cranberries, and mint leaves.

13. Slice into 8 servings.

* You can make this recipe gluten-free by using 11/2 cups gluten-free flour blend instead of the all-purpose and whole wheat flours.

** For the fresh pumpkin puree recipe, visit

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 344; Total fat: 12 g; Sat fat: 4 g; Protein: 4 g; Total carbohydrate: 55 g; Total sugars: 22 g; Added sugars: 18 g; Dietary fiber: 5 g; Sodium: 105 mg

Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian,

Gingerbread Donuts With a Molasses Yogurt Glaze

“This recipe encompasses two classic holiday flavors into these tender, flavorful, and moist gingerbread donuts,” says Danielle Stadelman, RDN, a public relations dietitian, freelance writer, and founder of Cover The Label ( “These baked donuts are a more healthful holiday dessert or brunch treat that isn’t like a typical fried donut. The recipe focuses on nutrient-dense ingredients and has a medley of warming spices, topped with a Greek yogurt molasses glaze. These donuts are high in fiber, protein, and healthful fats, which helps the body slowly digest sugar by elongating the blood sugar curve to minimize blood sugar spikes.

“Instead of white flour, these donuts are made with almond flour and tigernut flour. This gluten-free flour blend is high in fiber and low in carbs, plus packed full of vitamins and minerals,” Stadelman says.

Yield: 8 donuts



3 large eggs
3 T blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

11/2 cups almond flour
1/2 cup tigernut flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt

Gingerbread spice blend: 2 tsp ground ginger, 2 tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp ground nutmeg, 1 tsp ground cloves, 3 tsp ground cinnamon

Molasses Yogurt Glaze
1/2 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt
2 to 3 T blackstrap molasses
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Optional toppings: Chopped nuts, dried fruit, or blackstrap molasses drizzle


For the donuts:
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Lightly spray the cavities of a silicone donut tray, or another nonstick donut tray, with oil.

2. Place all the wet ingredients in a high-powered blender and blend on low until just combined.

3. Then add the dry ingredients on top of the wet and blend until fully combined. Scrape down the sides as needed to make sure everything gets fully mixed.

4. Pour the batter into a quart-sized Ziploc bag and cut a small piece of the corner off. Pipe the batter into the silicone donut tray and fill each space about 3/4 full (this should make 6 to 8 regular size donuts).

5. Bake at 350˚ F for 13 to 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

6. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before carefully removing each donut from the tray. Let the donuts fully cool on a wire rack before glazing.

For the glaze:
1. In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, blackstrap molasses, vanilla extract, and spices until fully combined. Taste and adjust as needed.

2. Once donuts have cooled, dip each donut into the glaze and add optional toppings, if desired. Set the donuts on a wire rack to let the glaze set before eating.

Note: Store glazed donuts in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. For the best texture, enjoy these donuts the same day when glazed.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (1 donut)
Calories: 320; Total fat: 18 g; Sat fat: 6 g; Protein: 11 g; Total carbohydrate: 26 g; Total sugars: 15 g; Added sugars: 11 g; Dietary fiber: 4 g; Sodium: 120 mg

Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Danielle Stadelman, RDN, public relations dietitian, freelance writer, and founder of cover the label (

Easy Vegan Apple Crisp

“Fruit crisps are one of my go-to dessert recipes, and this vegan apple crisp is the absolute best,” says Whitney English Tabaie, MS, RDN, certified personal trainer and founder of the website and YouTube channel Whitney E. RD. “It’s perfectly sweet and buttery, without an overload of sugar or fat. It’s crispy, crumbly, and melt-in-your-mouth luxurious. It uses coconut oil instead of butter and only a moderate amount of brown sugar and maple syrup. The best part is that it takes 10 minutes to toss together.”

Serves 6 to 8

4 to 5 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 lemon, juiced
11/4 cups whole wheat flour
11/2 cups rolled oats
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup coconut oil, solid

1. Preheat oven to 425˚ F.

2. In the bottom of a greased baking dish, combine apples, syrup, and lemon juice.

3. In a medium bowl, combine all remaining ingredients, then cut in the coconut oil forming a crumbly mixture.

4. Top apples with crumble, then bake uncovered for 50 minutes. Serve warm.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (8 servings)
Calories: 381; Total fat: 15 g; Sat fat: 11.5 g; Protein: 5 g; Total carbohydrate: 61 g; Total sugars: 30 g; Added sugars: 17 g; Dietary fiber; 7 g; Sodium: 154 mg

Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Whitney English Tabaie, MS, RDN, certified personal trainer and founder of the website and YouTube channel Whitney E. RD

Pomegranate Pistachio Bark

“This simple pomegranate pistachio bark is perfect for the holidays and makes for a healthier treat,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Diabetes Create Your Plate Meal Prep Cookbook. “Using at least 60% dark chocolate gives you more of the antioxidant theobromine, which has been shown to help reduce inflammation and help lower blood pressure. The pistachios have fiber, protein, and unsaturated fat, which are three nutrients to help you feel full longer, and the pomegranate arils are a good source of fiber and provide 10% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C per 4-oz serving. The bark is also easy to tote to a party or pack as a healthier edible gift for friends and family.”

Yield: 24 pieces

1/2 cup raw shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
1 lb of at least 60% dark chocolate, broken into pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate arils, liquid drained
1/8 tsp sea salt

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.

2. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pistachios and cook until toasted, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

3. In a small saucepan, bring a cup of water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Place a heat-proof medium bowl on top of the saucepan to make a double boiler. Add the chocolate to the bowl and cook, stirring gently with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth, about 5 minutes. Spoon the chocolate onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading to the edges evenly with a spatula.

4. Evenly sprinkle the chocolate with the pistachios, pomegranate arils, and sea salt.

5. Transfer the baking sheet to the refrigerator for about 45 minutes, until the chocolate sets.

6. Break the bark into 24 pieces and serve.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 127; Total fat: 8 g; Sat fat: 4 g; Protein: 2 g; Total carbohydrate: 11 g; Total sugars: 8 g; Added sugars: 7 g; Dietary fiber: 2 g; Sodium: 14 mg

Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, author of nine cookbooks and founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (

Mini Pecan Pie Tarts

“My grandma Edith and I share a love of pecans. So, I created this vegan, gluten-free and low-FODMAP pecan pie with her in mind, and it’s one of my favorite holiday desserts,” says EA Stewart, MBA, RD, a digestive health expert and gluten-free blogger at Spicy RD Nutrition. “Tofu helps thicken the pie filling and is an excellent swap for anyone who doesn’t eat eggs. The mini cast iron tart pans are festive and keep portions in check. Also, if you are watching your saturated fat intake, these pecan pie tarts are lower in saturated fat than traditional pecan pie.”

Serves 6


Tart Crust
1 cup gluten-free flour blend (made without xanthan gum)
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
5 T vegan butter spread, melted, plus extra for greasing tart pans

Pecan Pie Filling
3 T vegan butter spread
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 T cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup firm tofu, drained
1 cup pecan pieces or pecan halves

1. To make the crust: Preheat oven to 325˚ F, and grease 6 mini cast iron pans or mini tart pans with vegan butter spread. Set pans on a baking dish.

2. Combine flour, confectioners’ sugar, and melted vegan butter in a mixing bowl. Stir with a fork to combine well. The mixture will be slightly crumbly.

3. Evenly spoon crust mixture into the prepared pans and press on the bottom and sides with clean hands. Place baking sheet with the pans in the oven, and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool while you make the filling.

4. To make the filling: Turn oven temperature to 350˚ F. Melt vegan butter spread in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar, maple syrup, cornstarch, and salt. Stir well, making sure there are no lumps. Add vanilla extract and stir for an additional minute. Remove pan from heat.

5. Place tofu into a blender along with the hot filling mixture, pouring carefully. Place lid on the blender and blend on high until tofu and filling are creamy and well combined. Pour mixture back into the saucepan, and stir in pecans.

6. Spoon pecan filling into the tart crust, dividing equally. Bake for ~25 minutes, or until firm, checking after 20 minutes to ensure tarts don’t burn.

7. Remove from oven. Cool for 5 to 10 minutes or until ready to serve.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (1 tart)
Calories: 434; Total fat: 24 g; Sat fat: 4 g; Protein: 4 g; Total carbohydrate: 50 g; Total sugars: 28 g; Dietary fiber: 1 g; Sodium: 175 mg

Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of EA Stewart, MBA, RD, digestive health
expert and gluten-free blogger at Spicy RD Nutrition

Hazelnut Pear Crumble

“I love this dessert because it puts the focus on the fruit. It’s a quick and easy way to get that pie or cobbler fix without having to roll out pie dough,” says Katelyn Moir, RDN, CNSC, a clinical dietitian in Lynwood, California. “While there’s a time and place for a tasty piece of Grandma’s apple pie, this recipe provides an option for something sweet without excessive amounts of sugar and butter. You can scale the recipe up or down to control how many servings you want to make.

“Pears naturally are sweet, and the crumble offers a nuttiness with a bit of caramelized maple. By incorporating whole fruit with a nut-based crumble, you get a little extra fiber, unsaturated fats, and protein to keep you full and energized. You can customize this recipe by swapping out pears for another fruit, like peaches or apples, to keep with the seasons. You also can play around with different nuts if you prefer almonds or walnuts. There are no wrong combinations here,” Moir says.

Serves 8

1 cup of raw pecans, halved
1/2 cup hazelnuts, whole
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup almond flour
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon, ground
Pinch of salt
2 T butter, melted
4 whole pears

1. Preheat oven to 350˚ F.

2. Make the crumble: In a food processor, add pecans, hazelnuts, oats, almond flour, maple syrup, vanilla extract, cinnamon, salt, and melted butter. Pulse until pea-size pieces form. The mixture should be chunky.

3. Cut pears in half, then scoop out the core using a spoon or melon baller. Lay pear halves skin-side down onto a foiled baking sheet.

4. Fill the center of each pear with crumble, about 2 T each.

5. Bake at 350˚ F until pears are tender and crumble is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Tip: Cover pears with foil if the crumble is browning too quickly.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (1/2 pear with crumble)
Calories: 312; Total fat: 19 g; Sat fat: 3 g; Protein: 5.5 g; Total carbohydrate: 30 g; Total sugars: 16 g; Added sugars: 6 g; Dietary fiber: 7 g; Sodium: 75 mg

Source: Recipe courtesy of Katelyn Moir, RDN, CNSC, clinical nutrition manager at St. Francis Medical Center, Lynwood, California

Spiced Walnuts

“I love the feeling of walking into a kitchen filled with the aroma of holiday spices, and this recipe does just that!” says Monica Nedeff, RDN, LD, owner of Monica Nedeff Nutrition & Consulting, LLC, and travel blogger at “This isn’t a candied walnut recipe where you have clusters of sugar on the nuts. This is truly a spiced nuts recipe that highlights the holiday spices of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, along with the nutty flavor of the walnuts.

Walnuts are heart-healthy nuts thanks to their rich omega-3 content and make for a filling and satisfying snack. The recipe isn’t high in sugar or saturated fat, so it’s a healthier spin-off of candied nuts.”

Serves 12

1 egg white
3 cups raw walnuts
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp allspice
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 T orange juice

1. Preheat the oven to 325˚ F.

2. Whip the egg white into a foam and coat the walnuts.

3. Mix the sugar, allspice, cinnamon, salt, and cayenne pepper together. Sprinkle over egg white–coated walnuts and mix well.

4. Add the orange juice and mix well.

5. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 20 minutes. Flip the walnuts halfway at the 10-minute mark to help them toast and crisp up on each side.

Note: The walnuts will be soft when they bake in the oven. Once they’re taken out to sit on the counter, they’ll harden and crisp up.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (~1/4 cup)
Calories: 212; Total fat: 19 g; Sat fat: 2 g; Protein: 5 g; Total carbohydrate: 9 g; Total sugars: 5 g; Dietary fiber: 2 g; Sodium: 103 mg

Source: Recipe and photo courtesy of Monica Nedeff, RDN, LD, outpatient dietitian and food and travel blogger at

— Joanna Foley, RD, is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She’s the author of two cookbooks and provides expert health content for numerous health and wellness brands and websites. Learn more about her writing services at