Whether you're a die-dark dark chocolate fan, a pumpkin pie devotee, or someone who swears by restorative effects of rocky road ice cream, there are a number of clever ingredient swaps—plus additions you can stir into your batter—that will significantly boost the nutritional value of your favorite dessert. Just ask Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition expert and co-author of Sugar Shock (consider it the bible of spotting sneaky sources of sugar in foods and finding healthier replacements). Here are nine healthy ways to hack your nighttime (or anytime) treat to make it that much better—for you and your tastebuds—according to Cassetty.
Replace butter with pureed avocado
This is a simple baking substitution since you can use the same amount of avocado as the butter that’s called for. According to Cassetty, this swap reduces the overall fat content while boosting the fiber and nutrient content, supplying vitamin K, folate, vitamin E, potassium, and more. Plus, trading butter for avocado replaces less healthy saturated fat with anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fat. It should work well in all baked goods, but if you’re worried about a green tinge, try it in chocolatey goodies where you won’t notice any color difference.
Slip in some chickpeas
It may sound surprising, but chickpeas are really versatile—when used in baking, they create luscious, moist blondies, cookies, and other baked goodies. “Chickpeas supply protein and fiber, plus a slew of other nutrients, including magnesium, zinc, iron, and folate,” Cassetty explains. Because of this, studies have shown that chickpeas improve the nutritiousness of meals, and the same could be said for chickpea-infused desserts.
Nothing could be simpler than stirring walnuts into desserts like brownies, cookies, and crumbles. “Including walnuts in the diet has been found to improve nutrient intake, so adding them to your treats is a great strategy,” Cassetty says. Of all the nuts, walnuts are the only ones rich in ALA omega-3 fatty acids, plus they provide fiber, magnesium, and iron. And they happen to taste divine in desserts.
Make a chia or flax egg
Vegans have been using this hack to replace eggs for years, but even if you’re not vegan, you might want to try this tactic. Just combine one tablespoon of either chia or flax seeds with three tablespoons of water and let it sit for about 15 minutes until it’s similar in consistency to an egg. According to Cassetty, these seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, aka important anti-inflammatory fats that we don’t eat enough of.
Swap empty carbs with nutrient-rich ones
“Unfortunately, most desserts contain mostly empty carbs, like added sugars and enriched wheat flour, which is a refined grain,” says Cassetty. “Try recipes and baking mixes that contain nutrient-rich almond or coconut flours, like Birch Benders' Cake and Brownie mixes. They have a lower carb load and more fiber and protein than regular mixes, which means you won’t experience the energy lows and blood sugar swings brought on by most desserts.”
Reduce the added sugar in recipes
According to Cassetty, you can cut about a third of the sugar without compromising the final product in fruity recipes, custards or puddings, and no-bake bars. “Of course, they’ll taste less sweet, but that’s a good thing as heavily sweetened desserts get your palate hooked on sweets.” In baked goods, sugar helps retain moisture, so to cut back, try pureed prunes in a 1:1 swap. This trick cuts the sugar and adds fiber without messing with the texture.
Be strategic with chocolate chips
Try using mini chocolate chips or chop the dark chocolate into smaller bits when recipes call for chips or chunks. This trick gives you chocolatey flavor in every bite but cuts down on the amount of chocolate you use because the smaller chips and chunks disperse more evenly.
Transform your fruit
“Even I would never suggest eating a piece of fruit for dessert, but you can absolutely turn your fruit into something worthy of a dessert title,” Cassetty says. “One of my favorite ways to go is to sauté chopped apples sprinkled with cinnamon and then top with walnuts. Another option is to heat frozen fruit for 30 seconds until it’s juicy and then stir in 1 teaspoon of chia seeds per half cup of frozen blueberries. Let the mixture sit at least 30 minutes until it gels up. Then top with lower sugar granola for a faux berry crumble.” These are just two options, but in reality, there are so many other ways to make a dessert out of naturally sweet fruit (like frozen fruit ice pops!).
“One of my favorite pro strategies is to make mini portions. Our enjoyment plateaus after a few bites, so a mini dessert allows you to maximize your enjoyment but keeps the portion sizes more reasonable for an indulgent treat,” Cassetty says. It’s really a win-win.