Face it: the four-month season from mid-October through Valentine’s Day is pretty much about food.
Thinking about food. Reading about it. Buying, preparing, and eating it.
Every culture, every family, every geographic region has its winter-holiday food traditions. The magazines at the checkout counter or in our mailboxes reflect this truth. Before we’ve even put the Halloween gluttony behind us, they’re flashing us with luscious photos of the five pies of Thanksgiving, the pomegranate-cranberry relish, and a shot of the “elegant leftovers” buffet.
Before we’ve carved the T-Day turkey, they’ve moved on to the six-layer Kris Kringle cake with the ganache filling and the whipped-cream-candycane frosting, 15 recipes for the neighborhood cookie exchange, the edible gingerbread ornaments (frosted). The office party! The community potluck! The rum balls! The Alka Seltzer!
Don’t get me going on New Year’s Eve and Day. Look for yourself. We’ve hardly wiped away the crumbs of the New Year’s Crumb Cake when it’s on to Super Bowl Sunday: Bring on the bacon-wrapped hors d'oeuvres, the 12-alarm chili, the sticky wings with a seven-layer dip. Suddenly it’s Valentine’s Day and we’re munching homemade truffles with a side of triple-fudge-walnut-filled torte.
Sadly, the days of fall/winter feasting are short and often brutal (blizzards, ice storms, high winds). We don’t feel like moving around much. Yet I challenge you to find a single holiday magazine with food on the cover that doesn’t simultaneously promote some sort of holiday-season exercise with an upbeat article like, Burn off those holiday goodies with heart-thumping fun in the snow, or This exercise burns calories while you sleep.
Some of us find comfort in blaming it all on our hunter-gatherer genes . Our north-dwelling ancestors binged like bears to stuff themselves on high-calorie food as the days got shorter, packing on fat reserves to see them through the winter. Then they’d lay low, not moving much until spring to conserve energy. Even if winter doesn’t suck us down into the clinical depression of seasonal affective disorder, many of us feel ravenous and sluggish the whole season.
Scrupulous attention to staying with small portions? Choosing the fresh fruit cup and passing by the death-by-chocolate cheesecake? Almost impossible. I’ve learned to struggle through the darker months with minimum bodily harm using these few tricks:
- If I’m making a special dish/dessert to bring to a potluck or family celebration, I don’t make extra, and I don’t bring my own or anybody else’s leftovers home. Ever.
- I trick myself into doing more exercise, often in smaller, more intense doses: up and down the stairs twice when I just need to to put some towels away in the upstairs bathroom; trotting three times around the circular driveway on my way back from getting the mail or an armload of wood from the shed.
- I never abandon my schedule of weight-training at the Y. My way of life requires year-’round strength, and strong muscles also take some of the strain off my arthritic joints. Lifting protects or builds muscle mass, which revs metabolism (so lifters do burn more calories while they sleep).
- I turn up the sunlight-mimicking, full-spectrum lights all over the house, especially on gray days, and try to get outside around lunchtime on sunny days for more exposure to the brightest winter light.
- I aim to begin every festive winter meal with a giant salad or a large helping of green vegetables, especially if it’s a buffet or a potluck. The extra fiber in the veggies really does help slow down the appetite and dampen the insulin response.
- I don’t drink my calories. I stick with water, black coffee, or tea. I don’t drink alcohol (ever), but I also stay away from wassails, mulled cider, hot cocoa, eggnogs, and all the other liquid refreshments of the season.
And I do enjoy the months of feasting. But I try to remember Miss Piggy’s wise admonition: “Never eat more than you can lift.”
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.