Baking Hacks for Better-for-You Holiday Pies

by | Updated: October 13th, 2020 | Read time: 3 minutes

Who doesn’t love a great pie? During the holidays, at a picnic or in a restaurant, a slice of this baked dessert is one of our favorite ways to cap off a meal.

But pies can be a threat to our health, says Nancy Farrell Allen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“The concern is the high-fat, high-sugar content,” she says.

Overhead View of Dough Being Rolled Out on Parchment Paper Surrounding by Ingredients in Bowls and Spoons to Demonstrate How to Make a Pie |

Indulging in too much pie adds a lot of extra calories to your diet, and raises your risk of serious health problems.

“Think obesity, heart disease and insulin resistance,” says Farrell Allen, who is also founder of Farrell Dietitian Services in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

What makes pie dangerous?

The hidden danger lurking in pies starts with the crust. “Traditional pie crust consists of white flour and a fat, such as butter, lard or vegetable shortening,” Farrell Allen says.

She notes that a typical white flour pie crust contains about 8 grams of fat and 1.6 grams of sugar in just one-eighth of a slice.

And that is just for starters. The fruit filling adds natural sugar content to a fruit pie. 

“We eat cream and custard pies, where the fat and sugar content increases,” Farrell Allen says. “We might use canned sweetened condensed milk, which again means more fat and sugar.”

Top off your pie with whipped cream or a scoop of a la mode ice cream, and your dessert can quickly become a major health threat.

“And we don’t just have one slice,” Farrell Allen says. “We might have several to sample all pies available at a celebration.”

Baking more healthful pies

Fortunately, there are ways to bake more healthful pies – during the holidays, or at any time of the year.

For starters, make your own pie crust out of less harmful ingredients. Add fiber by using whole-wheat pastry flour for the crust, sprinkling in some ground flax meal, Farrell Allen says.

“I like to grind oats to a fine flour and substitute some of that for my pastry flour in some recipes,” she says.

Using a more healthful source of fat – such as canola oil, or olive oil for dinner pot pies – also can help.

“You can also try substituting a spoonful of Greek yogurt or nonfat sour cream for some of the fat source,” Farrell Allen says.

Other ways to add less harmful fat include incorporating ground nuts — walnuts, pecans or pistachios — to your crust

“I like substituting almond flour for some of my pastry flour in many of my recipes,” Farrell Allen says, adding that quinoa flour can be a good option that also provides extra protein to your pie.

For graham-cracker crusts, use a high-fiber cereal that you crush, she adds.

More tips for enjoying pie and staying healthy

There are many other simple ways to make pies less of a threat to your well-being. For example, avoid serving a pie with a top crust.

“I like to do a light crumble topping on apple pie,” Farrell Allen says. “Or, you can use a lattice pie crust for a pretty effect and less fat and sugar.”

Also, cut back and use just a light spoonful of whipped cream on a pumpkin pie.

Using ¼ cup of agave nectar — instead of 1 cup of sugar — can save you calories and improve glycemic load, Farrell Allen says.

“I like date nectar, and this or maple syrup could be an option as well,” she says.

Other, more healthful options include:

  • Experimenting with spices, and orange or lemon zest
  • Adding Greek yogurt to creamed pies
  • Making frozen-yogurt pies

As the holidays approach, be extra careful to rein in your love of pies and other desserts.

“Portion sizes matter,” Farrell Allen says. Rather than eating everything in sight, choose one or two of your favorite desserts of a standard portion size, “and no more.”

If such restraint sounds challenging, Farrell Allen suggests other tips, such as tightening your belt buckle to make it uncomfortable to overeat.

Also, remind yourself that for every estimated extra 100 calories you consume, you will need to walk an extra 10 minutes to burn them off.

“Enjoy the holiday food, but remember to focus the celebration on making holiday memories with family and friends,” Farrell Allen suggests.