I have to admit, as a general rule I am pretty anti-muffin. As far as I am concerned, comedian Jim Gaffigan gets it right when he exposes muffins as yet another clever way we’ve devised to eat cake for breakfast. He laughingly lambasts muffins as “bald cupcakes,” and I have long been inclined to agree with him. No one is going to argue that muffins aren’t tasty – chock full of butter and sugar, how could they not be? But they’re nutritional value as a breakfast food is basically nil.

Don’t get me wrong – I love an oven-fresh, nutritionally bankrupt breakfast as much as the next person. Special mornings just cry out for scones, waffles, and pancakes. And that is a good thing! But when Anthony asked me to bake something tasty for a youth group breakfast, I just couldn’t bring myself to make something that, although undoubtedly delicious, would send their blood sugar through the roof.

I don’t know if you’ve read the New York Times article on junk food that came out last week, but I sure did. It wasn’t particularly groundbreaking; I think we’ve known for a while that neon orange food is bad for us. I wasn’t shocked by the long-hushed secret that snack food executives have hired scientists to engineer chips and cookies to be biologically irresistible to humans and more addictive than cigarettes, or that they’ve bankrolled marketing prodigies to sell us evermore crap. And I was saddened, though not surprised, to know that poor people in developing countries are the next great marketing frontier for all-American junk food. But what I couldn’t get out of my head was one of the images described by the author. He writes about the marketing guru who invented “Lunchables,” and describes of photograph of the man’s daughter on her wedding day – white dress, perfect hair, big smile, and a tray of Lunchables. When asked about that picture she admitted that she wasn’t really a big fan, but they were like the family’s “fourth child” since her father had spent so much time and energy creating them. Her own children, she said, have never had one. “We eat very healthfully,” she insisted.

I don’t know why this one particular image stuck with me, but it did. And it got me thinking about feeding people – kids, adults, anyone. Whenever I am asked to cook for folks, I want it to be delicious. So, I often make things that I know will please, even if it is not the healthiest option. Muffins made with butter, filled with jam, and topped with cinnamon-sugar. Baked macaroni and cheese with three incredible cheeses and a little bacon for good measure. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, there is a time and a place for all that. But this time, haunted by the image of a young bride and the children she would later shield from her father’s Franken-lunch creation, I decided to make something that tasted good, but still had reasonable nutritional content. After all, these kids (like all of us!) are bombarded daily with snacks designed to addict them and marketing specifically targeted to manipulate them. And I, for one, think they deserve better.

So, I fiddled with some recipes and came up with these Spiced Carrot Muffins with Dried Cranberries and Pecans. They do have some brown sugar and oil (but both can be reduced to 1/3 cup if you’d like a lower calorie breakfast), but they also have fresh carrots, low-fat yogurt, warm spices, dried cranberries, and toasty pecans. And I’m told they were a hit.

Spiced Carrot Muffins with Dried Cranberries & Pecans
Makes 12 large muffins

You can use ½ cup of brown sugar, if you like a slightly less sweet muffin. Also, if you’d like to jazz up these muffins further, add 1/4 chopped crystallized ginger.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon table salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/3 cups low-fat plain yogurt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup light brown sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups grated carrots
2/3 cup dried cranberries tossed with 1 teaspoon flour
½ cup chopped toasted pecans

Heat the oven to 375 degrees and adjust the rack to the middle position. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with baking cups and spray with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, yogurt, and vanilla. Using a spatula, stir in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Fold in the carrots, dried cranberries, and pecans.

Divide the batter evenly between muffin cups, filling them to just below the top. Bake until lightly browned and well risen, about 25 minutes.