How We Can Embrace Winter, Starting at the Dinner Table

Published on February 17, 2017

When you hear the word "winter," what images or feelings are evoked? As we know, winter is cold and dark, and it comes at the end of the year. For many people, winter feels like an ending. It feels like a season of darkness, loneliness and other uncomfortable, not-so-warm-and-fuzzy feelings we generally try to avoid. We use winter as a time to stop doing the things we like - or we blame winter for not being able to do those things. We let the snow, ice and wind get to us, as well as the lack of sunlight. We crank up the heat, dream of tropical vacations and count down the days until next summer.

But what if we stopped trying to fight the seasons? What if, instead of seeing winter as an end, we saw it as part of the cycle? What if we embraced the qualities of this season, energetically, physically and nutritionally? Could we reach a détente with winter or even learn to enjoy it?

By looking at Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and Mother Nature, we can learn to co-exist with winter.

On the Gaia Farm, winter is a time of stillness. Some plants lay dormant, biding their time and conserving their energy until next year's growing season; others have reached the end of their life cycles, allowing their corporeal selves to return to the earth that delivered them. They become compost, eventually enriching the soil that will feed future generations of plants, continuing life. Watching the farm transition between the seasons each year is a wonderful reminder that we're all in this together and that this co-evolutionary cycle is ongoing, in ways small and infinitely large.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is a season to conserve heat and energy, a time for warming the core. We naturally seek warmth and comfort from the inside out during this time. December through March is a time for rest, for stillness and for inner contemplation. Our movement becomes more mindful, with an emphasis on stretching the body. We may even put on a little weight (though these days most of us do not need to do that and should take steps to prevent it), knowing that we will shed it when spring arrives and we emerge from our cocoons.

Let this be a time to slow down, something that we do not often give ourselves permission to do.

Winter is not the time to grow and expand. It's a time to look inward and rest, in preparation for the season of rebirth and growth that follows in spring. Do not judge yourself for desiring more sleep, craving comforting foods and shying away from the hard workouts you did during summer. This is you honoring your natural rhythm. Our schedules are meant to shift throughout the year and throughout our lives.

TCM teaches to live in harmony with the seasons, and winter is a time of yin energy. The kidneys manage winter, the season of water. The kidneys are linked to the ears, a fitting pairing during the silent season. This is the time to listen to your inner voice and honor the spirit within.

When the kidneys and the bladder are in balance, the body maintains equilibrium with its fluids, as well as the sexual organs. (Not coincidentally, more babies are traditionally conceived in the winter than during any season!)

Foods that are salty and bitter are suitable for winter, and these flavors are said to promote cooling of the outer body to promote deep inner heat. Beyond table salt, which should be consumed in moderation, salty foods include aged soy products (miso and soy sauce), sea vegetables, millet and barley. Bitter foods include citrus, cabbage, endive, escarole and quinoa. Bitter herbs include Burdock, Dandelion, Turmeric and Chicory.

According to TCM, you can nurture the kidneys with steamed winter greens, hearty warm soups and stews, and plenty of whole grains and roasted nuts.

Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of holistic health, also encourages us to eat with the seasons. We keep our digestive fire - or agni - strong with warm cooked meals. Ayurveda believes that healthy digestion is the key to good, balanced health, and eating for your individual constitution (dosha) as well as the prevailing constitution of the season, which in winter is kapha (cold, damp and heavy).

7  Simple Eating Habits for Winter 

Below is a list of eating habits that can help nourish the body during the winter season. In cooler months, your palate will likely crave heartier foods, so feel free to oblige your cravings in moderation.  

Choose Warming Herbs

Herbs like Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves, Nutmeg, etc. Think of the flavors that pair well with your favorite sweets this time of year, aka "Apple Spice" or "Pumpkin Spice." Sprinkle them on your warm oatmeal, or bake up a low-sugar fruit-based dessert that's generously spiced. (Or reach for Turmeric Boost® Restore or Golden Milk)

Drink Warm Liquids

Warm yourself from the inside out by choosing warm water or herbal tea instead of cool or iced. Add a bit of grated Ginger or orange peel (be sure it's organic!) to your warm water for flavor and additional support.*

Lean on your Slow Cooker

Not only do slow cookers save time in the kitchen, they are an easy way to create the warm, comforting soups and stews you may crave this time of year. Plus, how wonderful is it to walk in the front door and know that dinner is ready (and be greeted by its pleasant aroma)?

Cook your Veggies

When it's hot in summer, we crave the water content in raw vegetables. In winter, swap them for hearty roasted or braised root vegetables. Load them up with plenty of warm herbs and spices, like Cumin or Turmeric or blends like Harissa or Curry.

... And your Fruit

Cold or frozen fruit can be jarring on the system, and it may not appeal to kids in winter. Dr. Mary Bove suggests warming your fruit before serving. For example, saute apples or pears in a tiny bit of coconut oil and cinnamon just to take the chill off, then serve. You can even do this with citrus - try broiling grapefruit with Ginger or grilling oranges with Rosemary.

Eat What's in Season 

Asparagus and strawberries in winter not only taste bland, they also cost a fortune. Save money and get the most flavorful foods by buying what's in season. Dark leafy greens like collards and kale; root vegetables like beets and sweet potatoes; citrus fruit like lemons, oranges and grapefruit; and cruciferous vegetables like turnips, broccoli and cauliflower are all in season in winter. (Notice how most of the green vegetables are bitter in flavor, too?)

Comfort yourself

Summer is not the time to indulge a craving for mom's lasagna, all those cozy casseroles you pinned on Pinterest or a hearty roast with braised root vegetables. Those warm, wet foods would leave you feeling weighed down and overheated. But in winter, those comfort foods are a perfect fit. Be sure to choose quality ingredients that are organic when possible, and eat just enough to satisfy you.

Pitchford, Paul. "Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition," 3rd ed. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. 2002.
Svoboda, Robert, E. "Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution," 2nd ed. Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI. 2011.