The 10 Foods and Rituals That Keep Me Happy During Winter

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Now that we're well into the new year, I'm full of optimism as well as a few pairs of ill–fitting pants. While many food magazines and blogs are still promoting eating light, I've turned my thoughts towards eating happy. Here are the 10 foods and rituals that keep my spirits up in the winter.

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Having grown up in Southern California, the winters of Portland, Oregon, have been — how can I put this exactly? — VERY DIFFICULT. It's dark, wet, gray, gloomy, sad. It's perfect weather for watching old movies and delving into projects, but it can also be very depressing. A permanent twilight sets in and all times of day feel like early evening. (No wonder they filmed the Twilight series up here in the Northwest!)

Over the years, I've amassed an arsenal of food ideas that I focus on for the gray winter months. I know Portland is a cakewalk compared to dots on the globe that experience real, harsh, impossibly cold weather, but for me, after a lifetime of hiking in tank tops over Christmas break, it's quite an adjustment. Here's a list of what's worked for me.

1. Citrus

I like to explore the vast array of different citrus fruits carried by my local co-op. The flavors are so bright and fresh, perfect to cut through richer dishes I crave this time of year. A Sicilian salad of sliced grapefruit, orange, red onion and flat leaf parsley is a great starter to any meal.

2. Tea

I just spent $34 on four different loose-leaf teas (vanilla roiboos, jasmine, creme de la Earl Gray, Assam and Nilgiri). This will last us a few months and brings me so much comfort throughout the day that the cost breakdown is actually not that crazy. About 50 cents a day for about three to four cups of tea — not bad considering how much pleasure I get from it! Having several different varieties is key to my enjoyment, as is cutting off the caffeinated types at about 3 o'clock. Other than that, get your sip on.

3. Grains

I like to take time to try a few new grains during the winter. Having done this the past few years, I've added a multitude of fabulous and nutritious grains to my repertoire. Things like wheat berries, farro, buckwheat groats are all staples for breakfast porridge or savory salads at lunch and dinnertime. They are a superb source for complex carbohydrates, so they really keep me going and keep me happy. Happy + grains = beating the winter blues!

4. Chocolate

In the same vein as the tea and grain exploration, I enjoy splurging on a fancy chocolate bar or truffle about once per week. It keeps my sweet tooth in check, while exploring new combinations, varieties and flavor profiles. Smoked sea salt and toasted almond, extra dark and dotted with cacao nibs have all excited my palate and inspired me. Having one (or two) small chunks broken off a bar each winter day or popping one perfect truffle into my mouth sends me straight to my happy place. No talking, checking email, TV, reading or doing anything else while savoring the chocolate. I also never chew — just let that puppy melt. Amazing. I'm excited as I type this for what chocolate I'll try today!

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5. Leafy Greens

Eat a lot of them. I love to massage thinly sliced raw kale with a little salt, vinegar and oil, throw an avocado on top and dig in. I feel like superwoman whenever I eat greens, cooked or raw. Find a recipe or method of preparing one leafy green vegetable, and then substitute a different type (they're all pretty interchangeable) the next time you're in the kitchen.

6. Vegetarian Phở Soup

Whether you make this traditional Vietnamese noodle soup at home or have your favorite phở restaurant's phone number on speed dial, phở will fill you up with flavor and healthful ingredients. It's so fresh and clean, yet surprisingly filling and robust. It will soothe your winter aches as only a huge bowl of delicious soup can.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Roast them, bake them, make them into fries, throw them into pancakes. There's really nothing that this magical, brightly-colored, vitamin–filled tuber can't do. For me, they are so nourishing and delicious, decadent without being heavy. In dreary weather, they really hit the spot dolled up with a sprinkling of brown sugar, cinnamon, flake salt, dried cranberries and candied walnuts.

8. Create a Ritual Meal

My husband and I like get bagels and coffee with family on Sunday mornings. This weekly (almost sacred) meal is crucial for us during the winter months. We check in with each other, read the paper, attempt the crossword, laugh a lot. There's never a line (we save trendy restaurants for other times), it's inexpensive and we part ways after this touchstone event. Friends sometimes join us, sometimes not.

9. Develop a Quest

Last year, I scoured my city for the perfect veggie burger during the winter months. I found it, then the restaurant closed (tragedy), but it was fun to think about which veggie burger we would share at our weekly dinner out. This year, I'm focused on biscuits and so far, I've found some delicious contenders. The quest is just in full swing!

10. Eat something beloved from your childhood on a weekly basis.

For me, this is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with lots of homemade jelly and salty, crunchy peanut butter. There's something so comforting about this meal; it brings me straight back to my days of tag and swings on the playground. I like to vary it up with different jams and breads, but the core elements remain the same. And while I'm at work, eating my sandwich, I think about being a little younger, from the intriguing gully beyond my elementary school to the Craft poster on my wall during adolescence. Another winter, another year older... geez!

What gets you through the dog days of winter? I'd love to add to my list.

Originally published 1.12.2011

(Image credits: Leela Cyd)