(Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post)
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.
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, allows you to exhale and, if the tea has caffeine, gives you a gentle energy boost. With so many flavor options, it is also a delightful taste experience. During the holidays, a brew of spiced tea such as chai, or any blend with warm flavors 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 flavor whenever you need it.
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 cozy, comfort-food essence. 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, fiber 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 flavor your yogurt, along with those warming spices and, perhaps, a drizzle of real maple syrup.
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.