Holiday Treats with a Healthy Twist

Hillcrest South dietitian Stephanie Harris, MS, RD/LD, shares a few recipes and tips for enjoying classic holiday treats with a healthy twist.

When one hears the word "antioxidants" typically thoughts of fruits and vegetables come to mind.  But, did you know that spices, herbs and even chocolate are also packed with antioxidant power?

It seems almost too good to be true that chocolate is considered healthy. One study in the August 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association showed that consuming 3 ounces of dark chocolate daily can lower blood pressure. It has also been shown to increase serotonin levels, which in turn produces a calming, soothing effect (just what's needed in mid-December). Also, cocoa contains potent antioxidants called flavonoids that reduce inflammation, which is involved in heart disease. Plus, it's a rich source of catechins - antioxidants that may help boost the immune system and prevent disease. However, not all hot chocolates are created equal. The key is to use dark chocolate.  Look for cocoa mixes that list dark chocolate as their first ingredient, or simply melt a bar of dark chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa. To make your hot cocoa even healthier, make it with low-fat milk, which cuts fat and calories.

Cinnamon has the highest antioxidant capacity of any spice and is a potent antimicrobial agent.  Cinnamon is also rich in natural compounds called polyphenols and research suggests that these compounds may act like insulin in our body to help regulate blood sugar levels.  Cinnamon is a great addition to your coffee grinds before brewing or to help sweeten yogurt, oatmeal and smoothies. You can even sprinkle into a traditional PB&J to make it more festive.

The recipes below feature these ingredients and will be sure not to disappoint your crowd at your next gathering.

Chocolate Walnut Cookies

This signature treat delivers a delicious dose of heart-healthy fat and antioxidants, courtesy of the nuts and cocoa.   Also, these cookies are flourless- a perfect holiday recipe for those looking for gluten free desserts!

Makes 60 cookies


  • Parchment paper
  • 2 ½ cups walnut halves
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • ½ cup plus 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract



  1. Position 2 racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Heat oven to 350°. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2.  Place walnuts on a work surface and finely chop. Transfer to a separate large baking sheet and toast until fragrant, about 9 minutes. Let cool.
  3. Mix sugar, cocoa and salt in a bowl. Stir in walnuts. Add egg whites and vanilla; beat with a fork or an electric mixer on medium until batter is just moistened. (Do not overbeat batter or it will stiffen.) Drop batter by the teaspoonful onto baking sheets in evenly spaced mounds.
  4. Bake cookies until tops are lightly cracked and glossy, about 15 minutes. Repeat with remaining batter.
  5. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

              * For a finishing touch, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Nutritional Information: 55 calories per cookie, 3.3 g fat (0.4 g saturated), 6.2 g carbs, 0.6 g fiber, 1.2 g protein

No-Sugar-Added Minty Hot Cocoa
Serves 4

  • 8 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 4 - 8 packets of Stevia sweetener (to desired sweetness)
  • Dash of salt
  • 4 cup 1% milk   
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  • 2 teaspoon peppermint extract


1. Mix 2 teaspoon of cocoa, 1-2 packets of Stevia, and a dash of salt in each mug (4).

2. Heat milk in a medium saucepan, until hot.

3. Gradually add hot milk to each cocoa mixture and stir until well blended.

4. Stir in ½ teaspoon each of vanilla and peppermint extract.

Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant and is currently under research for its potential to help regulate blood sugar and inhibit tumor growth. Cinnamon has the highest antioxidant capacity of any spice, and is a potent antimicrobial agent.

Warm Spiced Apple Cider infused with Orange and Ginger

Serves 4


  • 4 cups of apple cider
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1/2 orange, sliced
  • 1-inch peeled, fresh ginger, cut into 6 slices
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg


Combine the ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer over a low flame for 20 minutes. Strain and serve.