The QUESTION: “Please help! The winter solstice makes me want to crawl into bed and eat mac n' cheese straight from the pot […] How can I cook healthier or at least with more variety in the dark winter months?”
The Answer: The winter solstice (and surrounding months) can be a drag on any activity. But in the kitchen, especially for people who have busy schedules and/or don’t LIKE to be in the kitchen, it often means falling into a carb-heavy-comfort-food rut. The best way to a varied, healthy diet (anytime of year) is a bit of a platitude: make it fun until it becomes habit. But don’t worry, keep reading, I have four specific things for you to focus on in the kitchen to spite the dark (and platitudes).
From a personal and clinical perspective, creativity and energy are both reduced without enough UV light to make our brain chemistry happy. I have a portable UV light that is great when I’m traveling around the holidays but even better on dark days when I’m in the kitchen for 6+ hours; I just tuck it into a corner and let my eyes absorb the goodness. I’m using it right now typing this blog post at the kitchen counter on a very dreary Thursday.
While YOU may not want or need a UV light, you can make an effort to do the repetitive work in the kitchen during daylight hours. The prep-work will be easier and faster when there is sunlight and it will be easier to eat healthier if the veggies are as convenient as that box of noodles. Your best prep-work time will entirely depend on your work schedule. You could try in the morning before work or perhaps do a bunch of prep work on your day off. You can store lots of cleaned and cut veggies in plastic bags for a week or two (depending on the hardiness of the veg in question) in the fridge to grab as needed.
This may be full-on sappy but, the more your loved ones are in the kitchen, the more you will love the kitchen. Get together and make your own pizzas instead of ordering delivery. Or if your family has a sweet tooth, use baking to lure them into the kitchen. Instead of buying cookies and sweets from the store bake a batch (the dough could still be store-bought if needed) every time you all get together to cook something healthy.
That sentiment of getting through it together goes for eating even more than cooking. Start a rotating potluck group among friends/colleagues. The support and accountability of others can work wonders to break a rut. If you have competitive friends even better (unless they are the tear you down sabotage-y kind of competitive). Everyone trying to one-up each other on nutrition could make all of you more healthy.
Pervasive marketing to children has made the tip to “eat the rainbow” counterproductive. But different foods are different colors because they have different nutrients, vitamins, etc. The wider variety of color in your diet the more complete your nutrition will be. But DON'T let white food fool you; cauliflower and turnips are amazingly nutritious despite their bland appearance. Similar to the competitive potluck, challenge your spouse, kids and/or friends to see if they can come up with meals that have at least 5 different colors.
Related to color, one of the best things about winter is that it is citrus season. Let the smell, tang, color and vitamin C in grapefruits and oranges invigorate and inspire you. Blood Orange dressing on a salad with grains at lunch will feel virtuous while being so delicious. And baked chicken with clementines is a great savory and sweet dinner everyone will enjoy. Snack on candied grapefruit peel with nuts or granola any time of day. If you ask me, citrus is Nature’s holiday gift to the world.