Cold winter months are unavoidable for many of us. In these literal and metaphorical dark times, you may find that what you choose to eat can have a profound effect on your outlook.
Before you eat, it helps to set the scene. And who better to advise on embracing winter’s charms than our northern neighbors? Germans have Gemütlichkeit, Swedes have mys, and Danes have hygge; though there are subtleties to each, they are all about creating cozy and warm feelings, especially in the winter. “Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things,” writes Meik Wiking in his 2017 book, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. Light a few candles, put on some music, cuddle up under a heavy blanket, and you’ll be feeling snug and comfortable in no time.
Food and drink may be the heart of hygge, as Norwegian writer Signe Johansen notes in her 2016 cookbook How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, but this is not an article about hygge. (Since we’re on the topic of Scandinavia, you should also know about the Finnish practice of kalsarikänni, or drinking alone at home in one’s underwear; a story, perhaps, for another time.) Rather, this is about you, your kitchen, your neighborhood restaurants, and the food you will eat when the next cold front strikes.
Buy ingredients that’ll save you grocery store runs in the cold
For the cooks among us, take a peek in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to assess the situation. Spring cleaning may be the norm, but if Marie Kondo’s taught us anything, it’s that organization has no season.
Decide which ingredients you want to stock up on, because one of the best things about winter is staying in and avoiding sludging through piles of dirty snow just to get groceries. Do you enjoy baked goods? Stock up on chocolate, butter, and eggs so you can make your favorite brownie recipe. More of a savory tooth? Get a can of tomatoes, a package of panko bread crumbs, a block of aged cheddar, and a few types of dried or canned beans so that you can make a cheesy tomato and bean bake. Must have your meat and potatoes? Get some stew meat and slide it into the freezer so you’re ready for a slow-cooked soup whenever the next snow day strikes.
“We spend a lot of time in the late summer putting fish up for the winter,” says Emma Teal Laukitis who, with her sister Claire Neaton, owns Salmon Sisters, a clothing, home goods, and seafood company in Alaska. “When winter comes around, it’s so great to have good food in your freezer that’s easy to pull out,” she says.
Fish such as salmon is an especially good choice, says Teal Laukitis, as it’s rich in vitamin D and omega-3s. These are good for you no matter the season, but particularly in the winter: You may be less likely to get enough vitamin D through sunlight, and omega-3s have been linked to improved mood (as well as heart health). Having a full freezer and pantry is not only practical: It’s a comfort, a reassurance that even when the next bomb cyclone polar vortex sharknado strikes, you’ll be ready to make something nourishing and warm.
Take stock (and eat your vegetables)
Warming up over a cup of steaming hot chocolate or a spiced latte is all well and good, but to avoid the inevitable sugar crash and caffeine jitters, try sipping on something a little more savory. You could go the bone broth route — simmering bones, such as chicken, in water for many hours, often with aromatics and a splash of vinegar — or, if you don’t eat meat, try something plant-based: “I like to start the day with a nice broth, like a miso broth balanced with a little garlic,” says Kale Walch, who, with his sister Aubry, owns the Herbivorous Butcher, a vegan butcher shop in Minneapolis. “It makes the crushing cold a little better in the morning.”
Keep some carrots, onions, and celery around — plus a few other pantry-friendly ingredients — and you can make your own sipping vegetable broth. Or, store a jar of concentrated bouillon (such as the Better Than Bouillon brand) and a container of miso in your refrigerator for a quick, just-add-water broth to sip on or put in soups. Using a broth from concentrate not only takes up less space, it also cuts down on packaging waste from store-bought broths and tastes better than most broths or stocks you can buy in a grocery store.
And don’t underestimate the power of soup. A hefty, long-cooking Guinness stew is pure comfort, but look around for lighter options, too, like noodles in broth with whatever vegetables you’ve got, or red lentils simmered in water and served with a squeeze of lemon and lots of herbs. “My favorite is a coconut milk-based salmon chowder, with lime juice, too,” Laukitis says. “It’s tangy and not super heavy.”
It also helps to think a bit outside the chicken noodle can, and even far away from cold climates. Lisa Aganon, co-owner of Hafa Adai Fiesta Food, a restaurant serving Chamorro (indigenous Guamanian) food in Colorado Springs, makes kadu (Chamorro for soup or broth) in the fall and winter. “The chunks of meat, squash, beans — it fills you up,” Aganon says.
And tempting though it may be to drench all of your vegetables in cream and cheese or eat cookies and cake for breakfast, in the interest of your health, enjoy them in moderation. Cold weather is also the time to enjoy winter squash, potatoes, roots like carrots or parsnips, and hearty greens like kale and cabbage. In contrast to the summer, when the last thing you want is to turn on your oven, now is the time to crank it up to 400 degrees and roast everything. Plus, leftovers are great in soup.
Spike the flavor
Fight winter malaise with big and bold seasonings. Stock up on all of the citrus that’s in season in warmer climates (especially lemons, which are all-purpose and add a pleasant acidic brightness to anything you’re eating) or use spices and herbs to amp up flavor.
German cookbook author Lisa Nieschlag loves to bake in the winter, turning especially to family traditions like sugar cookies filled with red currant jam and topped with lemon icing, or classics such as gingerbread cookies. “The ground ginger, gloves, freshly grated nutmeg and ground cinnamon fill the house with such a delicious Christmassy scent,” she writes by email.
Spices can lend their warmth to your beverages, too. The Walch siblings like to pair mulled wine with food, such as a dry white wine mulled with spices typically found in pho — star anise, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon, plus a few twists like Sichuan peppercorns, lime leaves, coriander seeds, and lemongrass — to go with a (vegan) cheese party. “That makes the meal kind of magical,” Aubry Walch says. “People often think mulled wine is just cheap wine and spices, but you can do it in a way that’s kind of gourmet.”
Eat out in cozy places
Let’s say you’re not into cooking and live in a city with lots of dining options for cold days, or you’re just too tired to cook. As much as you may want to stay in and order delivery, remember that it’s good to get out and be around people. Find a place within walking distance and make it your go-to. Get to know the owners. Make connections and become a regular. “Maybe more than other times of the year we turn to our favorite Chinese restaurant,” Aubry says. “It’s nice and warm in there; the windows are nice and foggy like they are in the movies.”
You might be sad that it’s not really margaritas on the restaurant patio season anymore, but that just means you should find a cozy, dimly lit spot with dark beers. Go to the windowless restaurants and bars that you avoid in the summer. Take a book and read for a while at a coffee or tea shop. Appreciate the charms that winter affords, like candles and restaurants with fireplaces.
If you do opt for delivery, especially on the nights with a charming wintry mix, tip the delivery person a little extra. They are out in the cold so you don’t have to be, plus you’ll get a boost of warm and cozy feelings from your small token of appreciation.
Share the load, or treat yourself
Misery loves company, so invite your friends over and get through it together. Try not to focus on the negative; it might be kind of ugly out, and yes, everyone has some level of anxiety around the state of the world. You can’t change that, but you can put down your phone and have face-to-face conversations with people you care about.
If company’s coming, food and drinks are right behind them. Make it easy and ask everyone to bring a bite or a beverage to share, or borrow someone’s fondue pot so you can go all out and get cozy and close around some bubbling cheese. Find a recipe for stuffed grape leaves, tamales, dumplings, or other labor-intensive foods, enlist the help of your friends, and make it together.
If none of this sounds appealing, well, winter is also the ideal time to retreat, look inward, and spend some quality time with yourself. Use this opportunity to buy a cookbook — something with recipes and techniques totally new to you — and really dive into it. Learn about cooking styles from a culture other than your own. Cook all of the recipes that sound interesting to you, and take notes so that you’ll know what worked and what didn’t.
Above all, the key to eating and cooking in the face of winter doldrums is to do what comforts you. And if all else fails, there’s always kalsarikänni.
Kara Elder writes about food and cooking. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Eaten: The Food History Magazine, and more.