Healthy Food Ideas for a Holiday Gift Basket

Homemade baked goods -- yes, baked goods! -- can make for a delicious addition to a healthy gift basket, especially when they're made with partly whole-wheat flour.
Homemade baked goods -- yes, baked goods! -- can make for a delicious addition to a healthy gift basket, especially when they're made with partly whole-wheat flour.
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It's just not holiday time without a cellophaned tower of chocolates, cheeses, biscuits, cookies and salty, salty nuts. And why not? If ever there were a time to treat yourself.

Gift-givers going the gourmet-extravaganza route are a populous lot. It's hard to beat delicious, beautiful food -- unless, of course, it's delicious, beautiful food that doesn't deliver enough fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories to last the rest of the year.


Homemade, store-bought or ordered online, the angle on gift baskets tends to be taste over health -- not a ridiculous way to go for a once-a-year thing (if a bit short-sighted). But why not give both? Healthier foods can be equally gourmet, possibly more impressive-looking and just as well-received.

No, seriously. You can put together a healthier gift that doesn't scream "I'm healthy!" with just a few thoughtful tweaks on the old standbys. And you don't even have to leave out the cookies.

That's right -- or the brownies, muffins or scones. Because with baked goods, as with so many foods, fresh vs. packaged makes much more of a difference than some people think.


Fresh Baked Goods

A cookie is a cookie, right? Butter, flour, sugar, eggs, oil ...

As far as basic ingredients go, yes; however, a packaged cookie that's sitting on a shelf or in a warehouse has requirements a fresh-baked cookie does not. Most notably, it needs to stay in its current form for a very, very long time -- a feat manufacturers often accomplish by infusing their vegetable oil with hydrogen in a process called hydrogenation which produces manmade trans fats in the process [source: Micco]. Hello, clogged arteries.


Bakeries don't need their products to last for months, so those fresh-baked goods are a better choice. The best choice, though, is to bake at home, where you can use only the healthiest oils (canola and safflower are good ones) and make some careful replacements: trading some of the white flour for whole wheat flour and a bit of wheat germ; one of the whole eggs with two whites; some of the whole milk with 2 percent; and part of the sugar with honey and applesauce.

Try fat-free banana muffins, whole-wheat peanut butter cookies, honey-sweetened granola bars and oatmeal-cranberry scones.

Next, fruit isn't just a bag of apples ...


All Things Fruit

Actually, a bag of mixed apples isn't a bad choice, but you can get a lot more exciting with fruit. More-exotic varieties like pomegranates, star fruit, kumquats and persimmons can be a real treat; and each of these ripens in winter, so you may be able to stay local in your selection.

If you start early, you can create your own fruit-flavored vinegars. There's also the juice route, in wildly creative combinations if you're feeling bold, dried fruits in seldom-seen varieties, fruit-infused teas, fruit-based salsas, and natural jams and jellies that leave out the refined sugar and preservatives that tend to interfere with the natural flavor.


Have some fun with it by doing a themed basket -- citrus, perhaps, with fresh kumquats, orange champagne vinegar, marmalade and a potpourri of dried, mixed citrus rinds. Fragrant and delicious is always a hit for the holidays.

Hmm, not quite indulgent enough? Try a food group high in fats -- good fats, that is.


Unsalted Nuts

Nuts have made a huge comeback in the health race. As it turns out, some fats (the unsaturated ones) are good for you, and nuts are a great place to find them. They also have no cholesterol and plenty of nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants and protein. Chestnuts, a holiday favorite, are also high in complex carbohydrates (those are the good kind), a nut rarity.

As far as calories go, pistachios are on the low side; for fiber and vitamin E, almonds are excellent; for the highly sought-after DHA variety of fatty acid, walnuts are superb; and peanuts are a particularly good source of folate.


So, what's the problem with the mixed nuts in your typical holiday basket? Sodium. While small amounts of sodium can be a good thing, salted nuts are typically heavily salted. A 1-ounce serving can provide a tenth of the maximum recommended daily intake of salt, which is a lot when a serving can fit in the palm of your hand [source: Henneman].

It's an easy problem to fix: Include only unsalted nuts in your gift basket. They're fantastic on their own, but you can also get more interesting with spices, nut butters, granolas and trail mixes.

The low-fat route can be tasty, though ...


Homemade Popcorn Treats

As with fats, carbohydrates can be more healthy or less healthy: Simple ones, like in white bread, are high in calories, lower in nutrients, and can cause damaging insulin spikes; complex ones, like in whole-grain bread (and those chestnuts), provide level energy and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and various cancers [source: Mayo Clinic].

Whole grains as a category are not, perhaps, the most festive of foods -- unless those whole grains are popcorn, of course. Then, as long as you leave out the oil, butter and pint of salt, you've got a nutritious party going on.


Homemade (and air-popped) is the way to go to ensure a healthy popcorn treat. Try your hand at low-sugar kettle corn, parmesan- or cinnamon-dusted popcorn, honey popcorn balls, or a "party mix" of, say, popcorn, unsalted peanuts, unsalted sunflower seeds, dried cranberries and -- wait for it -- bits of dark chocolate.

Yes, dark chocolate. And here we arrive at one final, surprising addition to the healthy holiday basket ...


Antioxidant-rich Indulgences

OK, chocolate will never be healthy-healthy, but this is holiday time, and chocolate is a joy, and dark chocolate does have something truly healthy going for it: flavanols.

Flavanols are phytochemicals, plant-derived substances with antioxidant properties. (Vitamin C and beta carotene are phytochemicals, too.) It's the cocoa itself that contains the flavanols, which is why dark chocolate, not milk chocolate, is healthy in small doses: The dark version has a lot more cocoa in it.


A small supply of dark chocolate isn't the only way to include some vice without completely blowing the health angle. Red wine and espresso beans, too, are antioxidant-heavy and have health benefits when consumed in moderation [source: Purcell].

Wine, chocolate, popcorn, nuts, fruits, cookies ... It's a gift basket that says "I'm feeling festive," not "I'm concerned with your health." Not that an eye toward health is ever a bad thing, but you probably don't want to be the one giving out toothbrushes on Halloween or sugar-free cupcakes at the birthday party, so to speak -- especially when it's so easy to give good food and good health. You can just be the one whose beautiful, delicious baskets don't make everybody feel bloated and tired after the holidays.

For more information on holiday gifts, healthy eating and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Healthy Eating: Nuts & Seeds." SFGate. (Sept. 24, 2012)
  • Henneman, Alice. "Nuts for Nutrition." University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension - Lancaster County. March 2004. (Sept. 26, 2012)
  • Micco, Nicci. "Eating Well - True or false: How much so you know about cholesterol?" Chicago Tribune. May 23, 2012. (Sept. 24, 2012)
  • "Mrs. FieldsĀ® Gifts Nutritional Information." Mrs. Fields. (Sept. 24, 2012)
  • Purcell, Janella. "Are dark chocolate and red wine good for us?" NineMSN. May 22, 2009. (Sept. 24, 2012)
  • "Raw Nuts -- A Better Choice?" Dr. Weil. Jan. 7, 2005. (Sept. 27, 2012)
  • Robin, Suzanne. "Health Benefits of Nuts: Raw vs. Roasted." SFGate. (Sept. 24, 2012)
  • "Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet." Mayo Clinic. (Sept. 26, 2012)
  • Wright, Kendra. "The Healthy Benefits of Popcorn." SFGate. (Sept. 24, 2012)