Photo by Jennifer Chase

It’s no coincidence that the holiday season overlaps the darkest weeks of winter. It’s that way by design. The parade of cookies, cakes, chocolates, cheesy dips, bacon-wrapped bites and grogs and glasses of spirits–lift us up, imparting a warm, glow-y cheer to what would otherwise be a pretty dreary time of year. But that constant flow–flood, even–of rich foods, and leaning on them too heavily as a way out of the winter doldrums can ultimately throw us out of balance, leaving 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 sure-fire way to lift your spirits and well-being, 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 and joy in a better-for-you way, or allow you to pace yourself to help you get through the season both happily and healthfully.

Spiced tea

A hot cup of tea hits the spot when you are not truly hungry but you crave a little something, need a pick-me-up, or a break from the hectic, midday action 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 flavor options, it is also a delightful taste experience. During the holidays a brew of spiced tea, like Chai, or any blend with warm flavors such as cinnamon, ginger or a wintery peppermint gives you the essence of the season on top of all that. And it does so in a way you can warm your hands around, like 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 teaspoons 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 anytime you need it.

Pumpkin puree

Pumpkin has an off-the-charts warm-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 hum-drum with a cozy, comfort food essence. The ubiquitous overly-sweet seasoning that contains very little of the actual winter squash might be a passing 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 and puree and freeze it, 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.

Vegetable soup

Hardly a week goes by throughout the year 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 and me through the busy work-week making for an easy, nourishing snack in a mug, or 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 reheat-able 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 fare where produce usually takes a backseat to sausages, cheese and sweets, if it gets any play at all.

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-!  It’s one of those foods that is both festive and healthy in equal measure– packed with lean protein, essential minerals and satisfying with few calories. The same goes for other shellfish like crab claws and oysters. Pile your plate with those and automatically shift the balance in a healthier direction without feeling the least bit deprived.

Sparkling Water

Sparkling water, which has become the new it beverage over the past few years, could be your new holiday BFF, helping you maximize flavor and fun, while keeping your wits about you. Poured into a wine or cocktail glass with a twist of citrus makes the effervescent beverage feel extra festive, Check out some of the exciting flavors like passionfruit 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 so you have a blast, but still feel good the next day.

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 have had your fair share of those and still hanker for more, a mini candy cane or two could stop you from going back for seconds and thirds. The classic red and white swirled peppermints are a joyful symbol of the season, they make you feel like a kid again, and they take a while to eat so by the time they’ve melted in your mouth your sweet tooth, and your sense of nostalgia, will likely be satisfied.

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