Maybe you know what it feels like to offer a better-for-you baked good only to receive a skeptical stare in return. It can feel like an uphill battle to convince someone you’re not actually trying to poison them with a lower-sugar, whole-wheat scone.
Never was this pattern of lukewarm response more clear than last week. That’s when my first lesson for better-for-you baking crystallized in my mind. The key is to make it sound delicious. I'd accidentally stumbled upon this formula with my Seeded Whole-Wheat Banana Bread recipe. As of this writing, the banana bread is the most Instagrammed recipe from my book, and I credit that to a common understanding of what banana bread is. It’s not hard to make the jump from, “Okay, this is what I like banana bread to taste like,” to “Oh, okay, all I have to do is swap out regular flour for whole wheat, and stir some seeds in.” It’s small steps like these that make healthyish eating sustainable, and it still tastes great.
The point with that recipe was to make a healthyish banana bread. However, last week, I was staying in L.A. with my sister Charlotte while developing a new recipe for a healthyish breakfast treat. While it baked, I was bragging to her about the list of ingredients I’d magicked into a satisfyingly sweet package. The recipe is a mish-mash of whole-wheat flour, oats, coconut, wheat bran, and sunflower seeds, plus a generous serving of grated carrots. I used only all-natural sweeteners—at that point, a combo of coconut sugar and honey. The point is, I was excitedly nerding out, but to my sister, I was basically telling her she’d be getting some cookie-shaped sawdust. Her response was, “Can’t you make me a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting?”
My goals for the recipe were to make a fiber-packed whole-wheat breakfast recipe that wasn’t a muffin, and that had a flavor-profile to be adjacent to carrot cake. Once the cookies were out of the oven, I offered Charlotte a taste as “Carrot Cake Breakfast Cookies.” She agreed to take a bite (this is why you test your recipes on people who love you unconditionally). The verdict? She loved them! Framing them as a cookie wasn’t a lie—they’re little button-shaped cuties and they do have sugar. The point is, formats that make sense can help eaters make better-for-you choices.
My second rule of thumb is to focus on flavors, not sweetness. Alternative flours like spelt, rye, buckwheat, or quinoa actually add flavor, rather than detract. Pulling back on sweetener also allows these ingredients to shine. Since alternative flours are more expensive than traditional white, all-purpose flour, you might as well showcase them! It’s been fun to see the kinds of flavors that readers are trying in the banana bread recipe—since it’s not too sweet and it has the deep, mellow flavor of whole-wheat flour, ingredients like chopped chocolate plus buckwheat flour or topping the loaf with fennel seeds have worked for different bakers. In my recipe I go with toasted pecans, and a hefty serving of sesame and poppy seeds. Plus, not only do the seeds taste good, they add interesting texture, and they’re beautiful in the seeded crust.
This brings me to my third tactic: Make it pretty. When we think whole-grain, we might think things like, brown, sad, disappointing, dry, blah. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so presentation is an important place to bring it. The sesame and poppy seed crust on my banana bread recipe looks exciting, so that even before you know it’s whole wheat and lower in sugar than most banana breads, you probably think, “Hey, I want a slice of that!” Winning people over with looks is as important as how you frame it.
So why make whole-grain baked goods at all? Isn’t the point of making a treat to be, ya know, a treat? Don’t get me wrong, there is space for a caramel-filled chocolate cake enrobed in milk-chocolate ganache in my life, and I will never stop loving a perfectly executed éclair. However for day-to-day eating, I have found that recipes that live in a middle ground of sweet but not too sweet allow me to maintain healthy levels of blood sugar and avoid any sort of sugar headache. Whole-grain baked goods have more fiber, and I like to pair them with additional ingredients like seeds, nuts, coconut, and lower amounts of sugar.
When developing the baking recipes for my cookbook, Healthyish, it was essential for me to find a sustainable middle-ground for daily indulgences. That meant only calling for whole-wheat flour, cutting down on sugar where I could, but still making something that genuinely tastes good. I’m not about fooling people by saying a slice of cake is secretly healthy or pretending that anything that’s meant to be dessert is both nutritious AND delicious. Recently, the conversation around headlines that posit recipes as “guilt-free” has ramped up in the niche food media world I inhabit. I don’t have guilt around eating a cookie—there’s no room for encouraging shame around eating, as far as I’m concerned. I do, however, like to feel good in my body, clear in my mind, and hey, managing my digestive tract with more fiber and less sugar is a successful way to do both of those things.
- 1/2 cup neutral-flavored oil, such as canola, vegetable, or grapeseed, plus more for the pan
- 1 1⁄2 cups whole-wheat flour, spooned and leveled, plus more for the pan
- 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons poppy seeds
- 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
- 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup mashed banana, from about 3 really ripe bananas
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped
What are your favorite methods for better-for-you baking? Share your tips with us!