Eating seasonally is an aspiration for many of us. The benefits for the planet are well-rehearsed – eating what is in abundance can reduce our carbon footprint as there is less of a need to resort to importing foods. Yet did you know that eating seasonally can have a positive impact on your health and well-being? As the nights draw in, indulging in wintry feasts can bring great comfort and joy.
As the chill sets in, I begin to crave braised red cabbage bejewelled with glistening pomegranates and swollen sultanas. When I think no-one is looking, I treat myself to scraping off the sticky residue which adheres to the sides of the casserole pan.
I doubt I am the only one who hankers after warmer, richer foods at this time of year. There is science behind our cravings. Food that is in season is much more flavourful. Just harvested, the humble parsnip has a natural sweetness that only requires a drizzle of honey to set it off. When we eat seasonally, the taste of the ingredients sings out.
This means that eating becomes a sensory experience. The practice of mindful eating encourages us to savour our food and pay attention to how it tantalises our senses. For example, the crunch of radish can add texture which can perk up a simple winter salad.
When it comes to fruits, all things citrus take centre stage in winter. The sharp zing of a zested lemon can really lift spirits when it feels like the darkest of days. Studies show that even the scent of citrus fruits can reduce depression and anxiety.
Connecting with the rhythm of the year helps us feel more in harmony with nature. Winter signals a time to slow down. Many of us find ourselves become more introspective and meditative at the turn of the year. Embracing the season rather than resisting it can make us feel happier and more in balance. In nature, animals often eat more in preparation for the coming winter. While our busy lives may not allow the luxury of hibernation, we can still lean into this need to fortify ourselves and use seasonal cooking as an anchoring point. Winter is the time for us to hunker down and conserve our energy for the spring ahead.
This is a great time to invest in slow, soulful cooking. Mushroom risotto is a classic slow dish. The act of stirring repeatedly can be a form of mindfulness practice. Cooking simple recipes with love, with the due care and attention the ingredients deserve, can ease us into a flow state. Pickles are another slow food which have experienced an unlikely resurgence during the lockdown. Again, the process of preserving foods can have therapeutic benefits as we slow down and focus on nourishing ourselves. The salty-sour tang of preserves can bring additional layers of flavour and complexity to the plainest of dishes. Nigella Lawson, the queen of the pickle, has lots of inspiring recipes in her books.
As winter ushers in the long dark days, eating seasonal foods can help us to recuperate and re-energise in anticipation of spring. We crave warming hearty foods at this time of year for a reason. We should listen to our bodies and nourish ourselves with warming vegetable soups and casseroles. This is not the time to embark on a strict salad-only diet!
Common wisdom has it that you should opt for soup when convalescing from illness. Research suggests that it does indeed have anti-inflammatory properties. There is also a suggestion that our need for soup comes from an informal intuition and association of soup with baby food. Nursing a soup can soothe the soul.
The concept of changing our diets with the season is popular in traditional Chinese medicine. This school of thought suggests the cooling energy of winter should be balanced with warming foods. Sipping a spiced chai tea is the perfect way to lift spirits and give us a much-needed boost at this time. Eating seasonally creates a greater sense of harmony and balance with our environment, which can make us feel more equipped to cope with change. Fresh greens spiked with chilli and ginger are a simple way to include more spice. If you have a sweet-tooth, how about a warming slice of cake flecked with cinnamon?
In traditional Chinese medicine, each season has a colour and an organ associated with it. Winter heralds the turn of blue-black and is aligned with the kidneys. Proponents of traditional Chinese medicine advise incorporating some dark coloured foods at this time of year to ensure optimal health. A scattering of black sesame seeds over sweet potatoes can add some welcome texture while also being high in tryptophan, a protein that can aid restful sleep.
Eating the season can also mean engaging in rituals that have been practised for years. Winter, perhaps more than any other season, is when we come together to eat and celebrate. The foods we enjoy at this time of year have a special resonance and magic as they can spark memories. That might be mulled wine-infused festive get-togethers or a traditional Burns night feast complete with neeps and tatties.
So why not ditch the leftover selection boxes and instead nourish yourself with seasonal foods this winter – your body and mind will thank you for it. Bon appetit!
Louise Bond has several years of experience working in healthcare transformation and is excited by opportunities for more preventive approaches.