It’s a good thing the holiday season overlaps with the darkest weeks of winter.
All the parties and edible gifts – the parade of cookies, cakes, chocolates, cheesy dips, bacon-wrapped bites, and grogs and glasses of spirits – lift us up, imparting a warm cheer to what would otherwise be a pretty dreary time of year.
But that flood of indulgences, and leaning on them too heavily as a way out of the winter doldrums, can leave us feeling worse – sluggish and uncomfortable in our tightening pants. Getting outside and moving, whether it’s for a brisk walk or a few spins around an ice-skating rink, is one surefire way to feel better, especially if you can manage to do it during mood-boosting daylight hours.
But there are foods and drinks that can help, too – those that dish up comfort in a better-for-you way, or allow you to pace yourself to help you get through the season both happily and healthfully.
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1. Spiced tea
A hot cup of tea hits the spot when you are not truly hungry but crave a little something, a pick-me-up or a break any time of year. Each sip slows you down a bit, allows you to exhale and, if the tea has caffeine, gives you a gentle energy boost. With so many flavour options, it is also a delightful taste experience. During the holidays, a brew of spiced tea such as chai, or any blend with warm flavours such as cinnamon, ginger or a wintry peppermint, gives you the essence of the season on top of all that.
And it warms your hands, as a mug of mulled cider or hot cocoa would, but it’s totally calorie-free (unless you add sweetener, of course, but even then a teaspoon of honey is just about 20 calories). Steep tea at home in a decorative pot for an extra-special effect, and stash a few tea sachets in your bag or at work for some holiday flavour whenever you need it.
2. Pumpkin puree
Pumpkin has an off-the-charts warm-and-fuzzy factor, which is why you find pumpkin-spice everything for sale as soon as the first leaf flutters off a tree in the fall. It also works throughout the winter months to infuse everyday foods that might otherwise feel humdrum with a cosy, comfort-food essence.
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The ubiquitous overly sweet seasoning that contains very little of the actual winter squash might be a fad, but real pumpkin puree spiked with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg is here to stay, providing old-fashioned heartwarming goodness, plus vitamins, fibre and antioxidants.
You can roast and puree pumpkin yourself or get it from a can, which is just as nutritious. Stir it into oatmeal, add it to smoothies or use it to flavour your yoghurt, along with those warming spices and, perhaps, a drizzle of real maple syrup.
3. Vegetable soup
Hardly a week goes by where I don’t make a big pot of vegetable-based soup – chilled ones in the summer and hot the rest of the year. It gets my family through the busy workweek, making for an easy, nourishing snack in a mug or as a full dinner in a bowl with a hunk of whole-grain bread. But there is no time I rely on my big pot of vegetable soup more than during the holiday season.
It is easily made ahead and reheatable in minutes in any portion size, so after a day racing around in the holiday crush, I know I have a crowd-pleasing, belly-warming dinner on hand for however many hungry people show up.
Keeping the soup vegetable-based means it also fills in the gaps from all the holiday parties where produce usually takes a back seat to sausages, cheeses and sweets if it gets any play at all.
4. Shrimp cocktail
Cooked, chilled jumbo shrimp hugging the rim of a cocktail glass or arranged on an elegant platter is a classic that immediately spells c-e-l-e-b-r-a-t-e. When you see it served at a holiday fete, get it while you can, because it usually goes fast.
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It’s one of those rare party foods that are both festive and healthy in equal measure, packed with lean protein and essential minerals and satisfying with few calories. The same goes for other shellfish, including crab claws and oysters. Pile your plate with those and automatically shift the balance in a healthier direction without feeling the least bit deprived.
5. Sparkling water
Sparkling water, which has become the new “it” beverage over the past few years, could be your new holiday party BFF, helping you maximize flavour and fun while keeping your wits about you. Poured into a wine or cocktail glass with a twist of citrus, the effervescent beverage feels extra festive.
Check out some of the exciting flavours like passion fruit and raspberry – and consider bringing a six-pack of that to the party to share – or add a splash of cranberry juice to plain sparkling water for a beautiful blush beverage. You could drink that all night or alternate a glass of sparkling water with each glass of wine or a cocktail to help you pace yourself and stay hydrated.
6. Mini candy canes
When Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole are crooning in the background and there is a dusting of snow outside, you naturally want some holiday treats to complete the picture. Homemade tree-shaped cookies and fruit-studded cakes abound, but if you’ve had your fair share of those and are still hankering for more, a mini candy cane or two could stop you from going back for seconds and thirds.
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Keeping a couple in your pocket could also help at a crowded mall, taking the edge off your sugar craving enough to steer you away from the gigantic cinnamon buns. The classic red-and-white swirled peppermints are a joyful symbol of the season and make you feel like a kid again. They also take a while to eat, so by the time they’ve melted in your mouth, your sweet tooth – and your urge for nostalgia – will probably be satisfied.
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Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author who hosts public television’s “Ellie’s Real Good Food.”