You Are What You Eat: Staying Healthy in Winter
Living in the Northeast, as in many other regions, the winter cold has set in and the outdoor growing season has come to an end. This makes it easy to kick back, enjoy a nice cup of hot cocoa, and snuggle up near the hearth with a good book. Don’t get me wrong, I too am guilty of such upon occasion, but it is all too easy to get into a slump and allow our health to take the back seat. During the warmer months, many of us spend our free time busy with outdoor chores, getting fresh air and exercise, and spending lots of time out in the garden dreaming up our next colorful meal. Why is it that we are content to settle for less in the winter?
A little bit of summer, all winter long
So, you can’t organize your meals straight from your garden this time of year, but maybe you thought ahead to preserve some of that summer goodness by freezing fruits and veggies, canning those tomatoes, drying your herbs, and fermenting green beans, brussel sprouts and kimchi (more on food preservation coming this summer!) Or if you didn’t grow enough to put by your own winter stores, maybe you did so with seasonal fruits and veggies from other local sources.
When I first started putting foods by, I admit that I found myself forgetting to use them or uninspired to work them into my meals, but once I got into a routine, I found that I was much more satisfied with my winter meals when I added preserves of the summer harvest to every feast. So, don’t forget to peruse your pantry for these items and get creative. Lighten up those heavy meat and potato dishes with some sautéed veggies and pesto from the freezer and a few fermented dilly beans. If you fill your plate with veggies first, you won’t be as inclined to fill up solely on comfort foods. And don’t forget those frozen blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. They are great in your oatmeal, and I even add them frozen to plain yogurt and granola - yum!
What’s in season?
Even if you didn’t have the time or space to preserve the harvest, does not mean you have to settle. There is plenty of seasonal produce available all winter long. Vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, chicory, kale, collards, leeks, and sweet potatoes, and fruits like apples, kiwi, avocado, and various types of citrus, to name a few, are grown and harvested fresh in the US during the winter months. They may even be offered at your local winter farmers market, depending on your location. Even in the coldest climates you can find local storage vegetables such as carrots, beets, onions, celeriac, potatoes and winter squash. It is easy to stock your pantry with lots of healthy fruits and veggies all year long - it just requires a little creativity.
Grow your own!
After pulling from the preserves or shopping your local market, you might still be craving a fresh winter salad. How about one that really packs a nutritional punch and doesn’t come from 3,000 miles away? Sprouts, shoots, and microgreens are riding the wave of a healthy future. While they might cost an arm and a leg when purchased fresh at the grocery store, growing your own is so easy and cheap that anyone can do it. As far as sprouts go, all you need is a mason jar and a sprouting lid and a few minutes of your time each day, and voila, you have the base for a homegrown salad. Shoots are just slightly more time and work, requiring a tray and some potting soil as well. If you get on a rotation of starting these every few days, you will have fresh greens all winter.
Research has shown that these little wonders are nutritionally superior compared to their mature counterparts, and some varieties may also offer important health benefits like cancer prevention, detoxification of the blood, and cholesterol-lowering properties. So I scratch my head wondering why more people don’t take advantage of this easy way to boost your health, especially during the winter when local salad greens can be difficult to come by. In fact, this year for the holidays, I gave the gift of life and set up my parents and in-laws with sprouting equipment and seeds. Let’s hope they run with it!
Backyard Poultry and Eggs
Keep in mind that growing your own garden or sprouts is not the only way to be a part of your food chain. Organic eggs and meats can be expensive purchased from the store, making raising your own flock a viable option for many folks. Most store-bought chicken and eggs, even while touted to have had access to grass, are raised so rapidly and in such numbers that they never even find that little peep-hole to the outdoors. The ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in their eggs and meat can become skewed when they don’t eat the proper balance of grain and greens. Fed a balanced diet, the meat will be healthier and taste better and the eggs will have those bright orange yolks that you almost never see with store-bought eggs. Pastured eggs have been proven to have higher levels of vitamins D, A, and E and beta carotene as well as less cholesterol and saturated fat. So even if you cannot raise your own, it is worth looking for a local source!
If you’ve been on the fence about raising your own, consider that the initial cost of building a coop can be low, especially for a small flock. Once the infrastructure is in place, the cost of grain and time it takes to keep a backyard flock happy is marginal; probably less than the cost of purchasing an inferior final product. At the same time, raising chickens can be really fun and rewarding, and can help get you outdoors in the winter. We raise Freedom Ranger meat birds in the summer in one coop and have a separate coop for laying hens. We choose breeds that are good foragers, which helps allay the cost of grain, and in the winter, when foraging on pasture is not an option for us in the snowy northeast, we supplement our birds with kelp to keep their omega-3 levels up.
On an emotional level, our layers are quite like pets, and our family loves them dearly! My daughter gets such a kick out of checking for eggs, watching them peck and scratch, and we all get a giggle to see them rushing over in that funny chicken way when they see us coming. Needless to say, they are not without personality!
Let’s not forget the rest…
Without plugging the specific details for a balanced diet, it is obvious to most of us that fruits and veggies eaten alone will not satisfy all of our dietary needs. We also need balanced proteins and whole grains. And although there are many different “healthy diet” practices and theories, some of which contradict one another, I cannot help but share my personal beliefs about maintaining a diet that includes plenty of healthy saturated fats, such as coconut, avocado, nuts, raw milk, and cultured dairy products, cooking with butter or lard, etc. Satiating my body with these healthy fats definitely helps me stave off cravings for the not-so-healthy sweets and junk foods, especially when my desire for comfort foods is strongest in the winter months.
And last, but certainly not least, put down that great book you’ve been reading and get outside! Go for a brisk walk, ski, snowboard, take your kids sledding (trust me, it’s just as fun for adults!), build a snow fort - whatever it takes to get some fresh air and sunshine, and of course, get your heart rate up a bit. Exercise is good for the body and soul, improving your mood and energy level. And when you’ve come in with those beautiful, rosy cheeks, you can grab that book, have a seat by the hearth and enjoy a nice cup of hot tea, knowing that you’ve done your body good!