How to have a healthier afternoon tea

Afternoon tea can be a great family treat and some small changes can make it more heart-healthy. Our Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains how to have your cake, scone or toast and eat it.

On a relaxing afternoon, settling down with a cup of tea and a snack often seems like a great idea. Sadly, hot buttered toast, wedges of Victoria sponge or cream-covered scones are not such a good idea if you’re trying to look after your heart. But with a few tweaks, you can still treat yourself from time to time.

1. Choose healthier treats

Loaf cake on a cooling rack 

Bread-style bakes such as fruit bread, malt loaf, currant buns, crumpets, bagels and English muffins are usually healthier than cakes and biscuits. Don’t fancy them plain? Steer clear of butter and stick to a thin layer of low-fat, unsaturated spread, or try one of our 5 healthy toast toppings.

If you’re going for biscuits, remember those that snap, such as ginger nuts or rich tea, are lower in fat than biscuits that crumble, such as shortbread or cookies (the fat gives them the crumbly texture). This means they are lower in calories per biscuit, but may still be high in sugar, so portion control is important.

If you’re going for biscuits, remember those that snap are lower in fat than biscuits that crumble

Generally, fruit-based cakes and biscuits will be a slight improvement on chocolate-based ones, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Even a healthier cake or biscuit is likely to be high in sugar and fat, so check the nutritional information.

Soft pretzels have become more popular in recent years, and can be a lower-fat option than cakes and cookies, but may still be high in salt and sometimes sugar too.

2. Always check the labels

Person reading a nutrition label

Food labels are the best source of information if you’re buying cakes or biscuits in a shop. Many café or restaurant chains now have nutritional information online, and some even display calorie information on the menu.

Where this isn’t available, cut the calories and fat by sharing one portion of cake between two. Or try a small individual packet of biscuits (often found near the till) as these usually come in a smaller portion and therefore contain less sugar and fat.

3. Don’t be deceived by 'healthy' ingredients


Healthy-sounding ingredients such as oats, fruit, wholemeal flour or nuts can cast a halo over the product in question, but this doesn’t mean they are low in sugar, saturated fat or calories. Flapjacks and muffins (such as blueberry) sound healthier than cake, but often aren’t much better.

A blueberry muffin has around 400kcal, while a jam doughnut has nearer to 250kcal. A 50g piece of flapjack will contain around 250kcal – 50kcal more than a piece of Victoria sponge of the same weight.

4. Try baking at home

Apple and apricot scone wedges

Scones are easy to make and a few simple changes to the ingredients and toppings can make them a healthier option. Try our apricot and apple scone wedges (pictured), which include fruit for moisture and flavour, and wholemeal flour for fibre. Have them with olive or sunflower spread instead of butter to cut down on the saturated fat.

Wholemeal flour can also work well in cakes such as carrot, banana or even chocolate, where it will combine with the richer flavours. Try our carrot, sultana and orange cake. The colour of these ingredients means it’s not obvious that you’ve made a change. If you are nervous about going fully wholemeal, swap half the flour instead.

Making smaller portions is easier if you bake your cake in a square or rectangular tin

Wholemeal flour might not be right in a Victoria sponge or a lemon drizzle cake, but there are still ways to make a healthy change. Choose a cake recipe that uses a vegetable oil, or replace butter with unsaturated fat spreads (spreads based on sunflower, olive or corn oil fall into this category, for example). As long as they are not ‘light’ or low-fat spreads it should work just as well.

Try to avoid adding icing – decorate with fresh berries for an attractive alternative.

Making smaller portions is easier if you bake your cake in a square or rectangular tin, rather than making a round cake. You can also use a scone cutter one size smaller, and make mini fairy cakes rather than standard ones – just don’t eat twice as many to compensate!

Even if cakes aren’t your thing, there are other options. Baked apples stuffed with spiced raisins and sultanas served with low-fat custard or low-fat Greek yoghurt are a warming treat.

5. Keep an eye on savoury snacks

Cubes of cheese for snacking

Not everyone has a sweet tooth, which is good for avoiding sugar, but savoury treats can be higher in saturated fat and salt. Cheese is a popular choice. It’s nutritious, but also high in saturated fat and salt, so control your portions (a portion of cheese is a matchbox-sized amount). Reduced-fat cheeses are better, but this is an example where reduced fat doesn’t mean low fat – and reduced-fat cheeses are often still high in salt. Soft cheeses such as quark, reduced-fat soft cheese or low-fat cottage cheese are often lower in salt and fat.

Healthier savoury options are avocado, pure (unsalted) nut butters, reduced-fat versions of hummus and tzatziki, tomato salsa and oily fish.

Hot drink in a cup and saucerIt doesn't have to be tea...

Tea might be the classic British drink, but more and more of us are drinking coffee, especially outside the home. Whatever your hot drink of choice, go for one made with low-fat milk and avoid sweetened drinks. At home, you can make a healthier hot chocolate with cocoa (rather than drinking chocolate) and low-fat milk. Sweeten it after it's made so you don't add too much sugar, or use a calorie-free sweetener if you prefer.

More useful information