As the days draw shorter, darker and colder, winter can be a tricky time of year to feel motivated to cook, when all you want to do is curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch a movie. Be mindful however, the likelihood of weight gain during the winter months increases significantly. Research has shown that levels of melatonin, the hormone responsible for our sleep-wake cycle, as well as increased appetite, are as much as 80 percent higher in the body during the winter. This leads to increased appetite, increased sleeping, diminished outdoor activity, all combined with holiday indulgent eating. Here are a few simple ideas to help ensure your weeks are filled with hardy, nutritious, satisfying healthy meals, guaranteed to keep you nourished and fueled with long lasting energy.
Soups are among the easiest meals to prepare in advance and can take influence from flavor profiles all over the world. This means inspiring, authentic and diverse meals with little effort. The key to a successful soup starts with a good quality stock or base. If you don’t have time to simmer down vegetables and meat in a pot of water to make your own stock, there are several excellent quality stock bases widely available at supermarkets. Just look for natural ingredients (water, vegetables, seasoning and possibly meat, should be all the ingredients required) and those that contain low or no sodium, it’s always easier to add than take away. Once you have a good quality stock as your base, throw in vegetables, fresh herbs and aromatics, protein (such as meat, beans or tofu) and some whole grains or pasta. Soups are a great way to also use up vegetables that are on their last legs, as well as leftover cooked shredded meat that can be thrown in at the last minute to a simmering pot of stock.
Pro tip: prepare your own stock in large quantities and freeze in smaller portions, defrost as needed whenever you’re in the mood for soup. Have plenty of frozen vegetables handy in your freezer to throw in your simmering stock for soup in minutes.
Slow cooking and stewing results in rich, flavor packed meals that reheat, age and enhance in flavor after a few days. The key to a successful stew is the choice of vegetables and meat used, in addition to the time you add each ingredient as you don’t want everything falling apart. Start with browning your meat in a cast iron skillet. The brown bits add enhanced depth of flavor and you want to use that. Once the meat is browned and sealed, simmer it on low in a good quality stock, along with some fresh herbs and a few minced vegetables (eg. carrots, celery, onion, garlic). The vegetables added in the beginning will add flavor to the stew, but won’t last long enough to add texture. Once the meat is tender and nearly ready, thicken if desired and add the additional raw vegetables you want in the stew, cut in the equal bite size pieces. Carrots, squash and potatoes work really well at this point. If you would like to add leafy greens, wait to add this until near the end as they cook in minutes in a hot pot of simmering stew. While stews do require a couple of hours to cook properly, once they’re ready, they really do get better after a few days and cooked stew also freezes and defrosts very well for future meals in minutes.
Pro tip: Purchase stewing cuts of meat such as beef shank or pork shoulder in large quantities on the bone, as it is better value and these cuts enhance the flavor of the stew. Also, freeze excess amounts of meat raw in smaller portions to use for your stews.
Casseroles or One Pan Bakes
Casseroles are humble one dish wonders that can satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. There is something extremely enticing about a bubbling warm casserole in the oven, with enticing aromas permeating the house on a cold dark winter evening. A good casserole also lasts for days in the refrigerator, freezes and defrosts easily, while maintaining flavor. The key to a successful one pan meal starts with a starch such as potatoes or pasta, a flavorsome sauce and loads of vegetables for texture and flavor, think pasta bakes such as lasagne, or cottage pie. While casserole preparation does tend to involve a few steps at the start, it’s well worth the effort for the leftovers. A few easy ways to save time include, using a good quality jarred tomato sauce and frozen cooked vegetables to build out texture, flavor and nutrients. A pasta bake or lasagne are a great way to use leftover roasted cooked vegetables such as zucchini, mushroom or eggplant. While leftover mashed potatoes serve as the perfect top layer to a cottage pie.
Pro tip: Have a well stocked cupboard with canned beans, jarred sauces, lentils, dried grains, pasta, and dried herbs and spices.
This is the easiest meal in minutes and another great way to use up vegetables. It can also be used to make meal time a fun, social, interactive family affair. Have each household member prepare a component for building out the grain bowls, set up the components and each family member can assemble their own bowl. Include a cooked grain, roasted root vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, a protein (such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, eggs or cooked meat), fresh herbs, different vinegars or citrus and good quality extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on top.
Pro tip: Cook a large batch of grains and tray of roasted vegetables on the weekend to have handy in the refrigerator.
Make it Yourself
Even when making dishes for one, these types of dishes easily last a few days and reheat very well. Save yourself the effort of cooking a fresh meal daily and make enough of each to get 2 dinners, so it can be consumed later in the week. Preparing healthy, nutrient dense winter warming meals does require a bit of forward planning and a well stocked freezer, refrigerator and cupboard, but they are easy to make even for a novice cook. When you get in the routine of being well stocked and prepared, healthy meals are never far away.