Healthy strawberry and cherry granola bars

Say hello to the Frankenbar: Part granola bar, part oatmeal cookie, and part Rice Krispie treat. These beauties are also free of refined sugar (mostly), gluten, nuts, and can be dairy-free if you swap out the chocolate-covered sunflower seeds with carob chips. The brown rice syrup takes a little getting used to; to me, it has a slightly funky flavor on its own. But the syrup is far stickier than honey or maple syrup, so it's a better binder, and you don't taste it in final product.

Actually, I have a confession to make: I find a lot of "healthy" baking ingredients a little gross on their own. I wouldn't necessarily choose carob chips or coconut sugar over their more refined counterparts, except that I prefer using ingredients that are generally better for me and for M when I control the food. Also, I aim to only publish recipes here that I know are delicious and don't suffer (at least, to my tastes) from the healthy stuff.

These bars are also completely adaptable based on preferences and allergy concerns. Can't find dried strawberries or cherries without extra sugar? Use other dried fruits. Don't have any nut allergies? Use almonds or peanuts and almond or peanut butter instead of the sunflower seeds and seed butter. Can't find chocolate covered sunflower seeds? Swap in the aforementioned carob chips to make the bars dairy-free or use chocolate chunks or M&Ms.

This recipe is also a great way to use up sunflower seed butter if you have some leftover. Again, one of those ingredients that tastes kind of terrible on its own (unless you make this homemade version which is GREAT), but adds a nice nuttyness. These treats would also make a great snack for Valentine's Day parties in nut-free classrooms.

Strawberry and cherry granola bars

1 1/2 cup quick rolled oats
1 1/2 cup puffed brown rice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup chocolate covered sunflower seeds
2/3 cup dried cherries
2/3 cup dried strawberries
1/3 cup freeze-dried strawberries
1/3 cup freeze-dried cherries
1/3 cup + 2 Tbsp sunflower seed butter (1/3 cup works, but the bars are slightly crumbly)
6 Tbsp melted coconut oil (measure after melting)
1/3 cup + 2 Tbsp brown rice syrup

Preheat the oven to 350. Line an 8x8 baking pan with parchment and lightly grease. Set aside.

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Melt the coconut oil and add to the dry ingredients along with the sunflower seed butter and the brown rice syrup. Using a spatula or your hands (I always use my hands), stir well to combine. Dump the mixture into the parchment-lined baking pan and pack down with gusto. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the edges begin to brown.

Let cool completely before serving. The bars stayed crunchy for one week in a sealed bag at room temperature, but go ahead and freeze some or all if you won't eat within a week.