Healthy Winter Foods

Experts give advice on buying and preparing winter foods that are good for your health.

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on February 20, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Pie, fudge, hot chocolate -- are there any winter foods out there that aren't loaded with calories and devoid of nutritional value? Look no further than your grocer's shelves, because tucked behind the box of discounted candy canes is a shopping list full of healthy and hearty winter delights.

"Winter is a terrific time to enjoy foods of fiber, color and flavor," says Roger Clemens, DrPH, a food science communicator for the Institute of Food Technology. "These foods are rich in fiber, B-vitamins, minerals, and may contain good sources of protein."

Legumes, cranberries, and winter squash are just a few of the nutrition-packed must-haves for cold winter days.


"Legumes are a food that often we don't think of during summer, but they're a healthy and hearty ingredient for winter recipes," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian in St. Paul, Minn.

Rich in important nutrients like fiber and protein, legumes, such as kidney, garbanzo, and pinto beans, lentils, and white and black beans, are a tasty addition to winter soups and stews.

"They have a hearty, meaty taste to them, which makes them great on a cold winter day in a soup or a stew," says Moores, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.


One of the first foods people think of when they think "winter" is a Thanksgiving tradition -- turkey.

"Turkey is a tremendous food for winter," says Moores. "It's lean, a great source of protein, and from a calorie standpoint, it's remarkably low."

Turkey soup, a turkey sandwich on a hearty whole-grain bread, as well as turkey on its own, is always a treat on a cold winter day.


"We have frozen cranberries year round, but in the fall and winter, we can get them fresh," says Elaine Magee, a register dietitian and the "Recipe Doctor" for WebMD. "So it's no surprise to see a lot of winter dishes loaded with cranberries."

Cranberries are not only delicious when they're fresh, they're low in calories.

"A cup is only 47 calories, with over 3 grams of fiber, and more than 20% of the daily allowance of vitamin C," says Magee.

Fresh whole cranberries add snap to salads, breads, and muffins, and for something different, try topping a turkey hot out of the oven with this tart winter berry.

Winter Squash

"Winter squashes are in abundance now," says Magee. "Acorn and butternut squash are loaded with vitamins and nutrients, and while you can buy them year round, we think about them in the fall and winter when people are more likely to prepare dishes that include them."

A cup of baked acorn squash cubes is packed with vitamins and minerals.

"A cup is only 115 calories, and contains 9 grams of fiber, 30% of your daily value of vitamin B-1, 25% daily value of B-6, 21% daily value of folic acid, 37% daily value of vitamin C, and 31% of your daily requirement of magnesium," says Magee.

Butternut squash is just as vitamin-laden.

"A cup of baked butternut cubes has 82 calories, 5.7 grams of fiber, a whopping 179% of your daily value of vitamin A, 22% folic acid, and 52% vitamin C," says Magee.

The trick, however, is to not spoil the nutritional value of power-packed foods like winter squash.

"It's never good to douse these veggies with cubes of butter," Magee tells WebMD. "These are wonderful foods bursting with nutritional value, and we smother them with high-calorie condiments like butter and syrup."

Instead of smothering, try just a teaspoon of low-fat margarine in the cavity of the squash while you bake it, or just a sprinkle of brown sugar -- without overwhelming its natural flavor and taste. Even healthier, try a little applesauce instead of syrup.

Citrus Fruits

"Winter is the season for fresh citrus, and oranges are loaded with vitamin C," says Susan Mitchell, a registered dietitian in Winter Park, Fla., and author of Fat is Not Your Fate.

One orange alone offers up more than 100% of your daily requirement of power-packed vitamin C, as well as other disease fighting nutrients.

"Plus, oranges have folate, a B vitamin that may help to keep your heart healthy, as well as fiber and potassium," says Mitchell.

Cabbage and Kale

"Red cabbage is nice because it's so low in calories -- about 20 per cup," says Mitchell. "It's a source of vitamin A and contains the natural phytochemicals lutein and zeaxanthin that may help your eyes age gracefully."

A cousin of cabbage is kale, another winter food rich in nutritional value.

"Kale is a power source of a multitude of healthy nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate, iron, magnesium, and a number of phytochemicals," says Mitchell.

Served in salads, soups, and stews, cabbage and kale add flavor and zest to hearty winter recipes.

The Frozen Food Aisle

If it's not in season, fear not: While frozen or canned isn't exactly the real thing, it's not necessarily bad, either.

"I am a proponent of frozen and even canned foods," Moores tells WebMD.

If it's picked at optimal ripeness, processed quickly, and stored well, frozen or canned foods that aren't in season can be tasty in the winter.

"By and large I do think frozen and canned foods are a nice way to still get the taste of fresh foods without sacrificing nutrition," says Moores.

Summer Foods in Winter

These days, you can get almost any food during any time of the year, for the right price.

"I don't know if there's anything I've seen that you can only get in season from a grocery store," says Moores. "Of course, it'll probably be more expensive."

While you can find a plethora of foods year round if you're willing to pay the price, you might be sacrificing taste and nutrition.

"If you have strawberries in November or December, they're coming from very far away," says Moores. "While transportation is remarkable, the strawberries are being picked prior to their ripeness, so you sacrifice taste and some nutritional value. Tomatoes are another example: If you eat a tomato out of season instead of in season, there's no comparison.

"From a nutrition and taste standpoint, you have an advantage when you're eating seasonal food," says Moores. "It tastes good, it's got great nutritional value, and you're getting it at a good price."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Roger Clemens, DrPH, director, Analytical Research & Services; associate director, Regulatory Science; adjunct professor, molecular pharmacology and toxicology, USC School of Pharmacy; food science communicator, Institute of Food Technology, Los Angeles. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, author, Comfort Foods Makeover. Susan Mitchell, PhD, RD, fellow of the American Dietetic Association; author, Fat Is Not Your Fate. Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn.

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