Winter is the time for warm foods! Especially if you live in a place that has cold winters like Idaho, my home.

Corresponding to the Water element and its organs, the Kidney and Bladder, Winter is time of storage and introspection. It’s a wonderful time to enrich our lives with the virtue of the season. Dried foods, heavy grains, seeds, roots, and squashes that help move the body’s energy inward to deeply nourish us and keep us strong. It’s time to slow down, to increase your cooking time, and spend more time indoors resting and enjoying good food and company.  It’s a wonderful time to polish the dynamic relationship between the Heart and Kidneys but I’m jumping ahead. This is a food blog about the Asian medicine principles of eating in winter, which means eating appropriately for your climate.

General guidelines for eating in Winter

Eat appropriate for your climate – I live in Idaho, where we are blessed with four dynamic seasons. Winters here can be cold and long. In keeping with the principles of Asian (Chinese) medicine, I embrace the changing season which means eating the foods that are seasonal, local and sustainable. Not a lot grows in winter here without the help of a greenhouse or well protected garden area. Of course foods will vary greatly from region to region. Take a bit time to look at the history and traditional foods of the area. Fruit ambrosia (coconut and oranges) might be right on if you live in Hawaii or Florida, but these foods are very cold and clearing and inappropriate for someone living in freezing temperatures…brrrr.

Eat more cooked foods – Raw foods cool and clear heat, which can be a blessing in the Summer and a curse in colder months or if you have weak digestion. Too much cold or raw foods will overly chill the digestive system causing contraction and tightness (cold causes spasms and contractions) ultimately your body will have to work harder to try to warm your food up to digest it. Asian (Chinese) medicine wisdom holds that the Stomach and Spleen (the major rulers of digestion) are like a cauldron and too many overly cold foods will put out the digestive fire or vitality, causing digestive issues. I recommend raw foods to very few people and usually only during the warmer months and only if their digestion is strong. Even then, I ask them to at least eat the food at room temperature? Why? Thermodynamics, my dear. Your fridge is usually around 36-40°. That’s at least 30º colder than your body temperature, which you have to heat your food up to be digested. That’s a lot of work on a slow, cold system. If your digestive fire is weak, you should eat warming foods, rather than asking your body to try to work harder to heat the food to transform it into vital essences.

What does weak digestive fire look like? Cold, fatigue, slow and sluggish digestion, loose stools, hypothyroid, obesity, weight gain, adrenal fatigue, low body temperature, weakened immunity, autoimmune disorders, food allergies, allergies – get the idea?

Eat peacefully – Take you time in eating whenever possible. Take a moment to say grace or be thankful for what you have and how you are nourishing yourself, no matter how humble or elaborate your meal.

Winter cooking – How you cook a food will affect your body and shift the food’s energetics a little. In winter include more foods that are cooked slowly for a longer period of time like soups, stews, slower cooker foods, roasting and baked dishes. These methods create a deeper warmth and supply greater energy. If you suffer excessive dry conditions, use more stewing or poaching–which add in moisture. If you suffer excess dampness use dryer methods, like baking and roasting.

Winter foods

Because Winter is the season of Water (Yin), we need to nourish Yin and fluids while keeping the Fire (Yang) warm and glowing like a candle in our bodies.

Winter vegetables – Most of your garden vegetables have died back with the cold, unless they are roots, hard winter squashes or you have canned and stored them for the cold months.

Winter squash – Hubbards, pumpkins, delicata, spaghetti, acorn, red kuri, turban….you get the idea. Winter squash have the hard skin and keep well through the Autumn, Winter, Spring and even into early Summer if stored right.  Winter squashes correlate to the season of Late Summer which is actually the buffer between all seasons and help us bringing balance and core stability during times of transition. Squashes should be a part of everyone’s diet. They are high in vitamins C, B1 and B6, niacin, fiber, potassium, folic acid and carotenes -which protect against cancers. They warm the core, drain damp and tonify Qi and their neutral, sweet flavor lends to either sweet or savory dishes.

Winter greens – Many of the spring greens have bolted or wilted in the summer heat or are just waiting for the weather to cool off enough to grow again. Some hardier greens like cabbage, kale, broccoli, chard and chicory will continue if they aren’t too heavily burdened with snow or frost. Add them to your soups and stews, roast them with roots and squash.

Winter fruits and berries – Few fruits are available fresh in the winter months in Idaho. The exception is apples and pears and hard berries like cranberries, which can be wintered over if properly cared for in a cool pantry or root cellar. Dried fruits and berries make an appearance this time of year as stewed compotes for hot grain cereals or in tarts. I also freeze and home can some fruits for a treat.

Roots – Onions, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, beets, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes–if it grows underground, and was harvested in Autumn, it’s a Winter food too.  This is a very broad category so I can’t list all their vitamins or specific healing properties–but all roots create strength, tonify the center and the digestion. Pungent roots like onions clear phlegm and warm digestion. Sweet roots like yams and sweet potatoes nourish the Earth element.  Eat a wide variety.   Use longer cooking methods such as stewing, roasting or adding them to soups for cooler months.

Animal proteins and broths – Animal flesh is warming and grounding by nature, and for those who choose to eat it, a little more during the cooler months is appropriate. Ideally, roast, bake or stew the meat and make up broths. The longer cooking time, again, helps move the energy in the body inward, warming and deeply nourishing.

Whole grains – Whole grains have been an integral part of our diets since we first started cultivating the Fertile Crescent, about 10,000 years ago.  And whole grains are still an essential part of our diets today, providing essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and complex carbohydrates.  Whole grains are loaded with complex (there’s the key) carbohydrates.  All carbohydrates create energy, but the more simple the carbohydrate (like refined grains–bread, pasta) the faster they burn. Burning the carbohydrates too quickly spikes the body’s glycemic index. Complex carbohydrates burn are longer chains that take the body longer to break down, they stabilize blood sugar, create warmth and energy.  Black rice and wild rice specifically corresponds with the Winter element and the Kidneys.

Lentils and legumes – High in fiber, protein, and vitamins lentils and legumes are complex meaning they regulate blood sugar -great for diabetes. They contain properties that counter cancer causing compounds in the intestines, they help relieve depression and fortify the body overall.  In Chinese medicine terms, they recharge Kidneys and adrenal glands while calming the nervous system. They encourage growth and stimulate the brain, spine and bone marrow.  They also drain damp excess conditions like edema and obesity.  Add them to soups, eat hummus or black bean dips, make up a lentil soup.  If you don’t regularly consume lentils and legumes, start slowly maybe one type at a time and use a digestive enzyme until your system starts to increase the creation of the its own enzymes.

Nuts and seeds – Tight little bundles of nutrition and energy. Nuts and seeds build and strengthen the body.  They add on weight and fight deficiencies.  Yin building (fluids and fats) and warming nuts are good for thin, weak and frail types.  Limit your intake to about a handful a day and use a wide variety.  Use fresh nuts, keeping them in the shell until ready to use or freeze hulled nuts to avoid rancid oils that will aggravate allergies and  weaken the immune system.  Walnuts correspond to the Kidneys, brains and marrow. Cashews, the nuts highest in fats, benefit the Kidneys and nourish the nervous system. Nuts should be avoided if there is excess dampness, phlegm or yeast.  Read more about nuts.

Mushrooms and fungus – Fabulous for the immune system, the Lungs and Kidneys, mushrooms start coming available again in the Autumn and dry and store very well through the Winter.  Mushroom Hot Pot?

The colors blue and black – Each season has a corresponding color and foods of the same color benefit the organ.  Winter’s colors are blue and black, so add in dark berries, black rice, black sesame and things like a little soy sauce.

Salty the flavor of the Water Element

Our second favorite flavor–right behind sweet.  The salty flavor is helps to regulate proper water balance in the body, when used appropriately.  It descends the energy deep into the core and softens hard masses.  Out of balance it overly burdens our Kidneys, Bladder and Heart…read more here.

Here’s to an introspective Winter.