By February, the winter doldrums can truly have set in. Natural light levels may be low, temperatures even lower and just making your way to work or school can be a a study in drudgery…or is it trudgery? Once you get home, it’s time to regroup, de-stress and replenish body, mind and soul. Mealtime is prime time to jumpstart the process.

Psychological studies show that color has an effect on mood. Consequently, filling the lunch or dinner plate with vibrant hues can help stimulate the visual senses, your spirit and your palate. Fortunately, the colder season provides a robust selection of colorful veggies, fruits, grains and beans - many of them bona fide nutritional powerhouses - to amp up your energy stores and protect the body from disease.

When it comes to produce, the deeper the color, the higher the level of disease-fighting antioxidants. Leafy greens are a case in point. In most all parts of the country, supermarket and natural grocer produce sections are likely to be amply stocked with bunches of this winter staple. Choose deep-green collards, or try one of the varieties of kale. Curly-leafed kale and dinosaur kale come in shades of green and red, while lacinato, sometimes known as Italian kale, owns a rich forest green. Green, red and rainbow chards -- and trusty spinach -- also make hearty options.

Rinse greens, tear or chop into bite-sized pieces and steam or sauteé – with onions or garlic, if you like – for a speedy side dish. On weekends, or when you have more time, slice or chop winter greens, along with other vegetables, toss them into a pot and let simmer – with or without meat – for a rich, tasty soup or stew.

Squashes typically boast sweet flavor. Those with orange flesh are rich in Vitamin A, among other nutrients. Butternut, with its round base and extended neck, is the familiar standby. But why not give pale yellow delicata, sweet dumpling, or vibrant kabocha a try? When it comes to preparation, squashes are no muss-no fuss. Place any one of these selections whole in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. After an hour or so, remove, allow to cool for 10 minutes, cut open and scoop out the seeds (an easy feat). Dig in as you would to a baked potato, or scoop the warm, creamy flesh onto a plate for a comforting side dish.

Broccoli, cabbage, and their cruciferous cousins – Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and bok choy – are also quality winter meal candidates. Rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, they even boast cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Green and red cabbage work great in stir-fries, but consider combining them with carrots, pickle relish, onions and mayo for a sprightly slaw. Substitute shredded broccoli for a greener take on slaw. Roast Brussels sprouts  lightly brushed with olive oil  for a flavorful compliment to traditional meat and potatoes.

When it comes to carrots and sweet potatoes, you might think orange is the sole selection. But these root vegetables can sport other hues. Brilliant purple-fleshed sweet potatoes are so striking as to steal the mealtime spotlight, while red, yellow, white or purple carrots create a stunning side dish all their own. What's more, according to Dr. Oz, purple potatoes (not to be confused with purple sweet potatoes) can even help lower blood pressure.

Look to dried beans and peas for protein, carbohydrates, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Green and red lentils, navy and kidney beans, and yellow split peas are traditional favorites. But deep purple French lentils, reddish cranberry beans and creamy cannellini beans make terrific choices to flavor soups and stews. Feeling ambitious? Armed with an authentic recipe, try your hand at traditional French cassoulet using white beans or Brazilian feijoada using black beans. Both employ slow cooking to imbue the beans with the flavors of meats, aromatics (onions, garlic, etc.) and seasonings.

Fresh out of vivid veggies? Don’t fret. Cooked grains can take up the chromatic slack. Both fiber-rich rice and protein-rich quinoa come in red and black varieties for visual punch. Look for color-rich beans and grains at natural food stores or online.

As to winter fruits, nature offers bountiful options. To restore water-soluble vitamin C, slice pastel-green kiwis into a bowl or onto a plate. Delicate pink grapefruit – sectioned or in the rind  can’t help but revive lagging spirits, while the deep-red flesh of blood oranges can truly enliven the appetite.

Prefer your fruit warm? Slice or chop red or green apples – with or without the skins  into a saucepan with a bit of water. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in sweeteners to taste, and voila – homemade applesauce. For variety, substitute green, brown or red pears for some of the apples. Or add fresh or frozen cranberries to apples for an unexpected burst of color. To make things even simpler, core pears or apples, set them in juice or water, and bake them in their skins at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes for a handy snack or dessert.

View these suggestions as a jumping-off point. Search your local farmer’s market for other produce selections. Create your own recipes and experiment with food combinations. Power up your menus with an army of appetizing hues to defend against winter’s deathly drear.


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