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How a grocery upgrade can give your new year a boost

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January is a month of contradictions. On one hand, it’s a time for most to try and reestablish a “normal” routine, take a breather and recalibrate after the holiday season. But it’s also the moment when we can feel pressured to set resolutions, intentions and other self-improvements for the new year.

On top of that, the weather isn’t doing us any favors. January and February can be the gloomiest months for people who experience seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

Even if you’re the type of person who wakes up on New Year’s Day ready to go with an agenda for the year, a flare of ambition can lead to burnout quickly.

Now that the steady stream of resolutions to completely overhaul your eating habits, exercise plans and spending behavior has mostly faded, why not give yourself a break? You don’t have to upend everything at once just because you put a new calendar on the wall.

Think of the end of January as an on-ramp for the year — a way to get up to speed at a pace that feels good for you. I’ve had my share of Januarys in which I stall by this time of the month after attempting to do too much, too soon.

So, I’ve discovered that the best thing to do for my emotional health and to beat the winter blues is to give myself a boost with a few special grocery upgrades.

What’s a grocery upgrade?

Spring for fresh clams for one-pot clam pasta or creamy clam chowder when you want to feel like you're on vacation. - bhofack2/iStockphoto/Getty Images
Spring for fresh clams for one-pot clam pasta or creamy clam chowder when you want to feel like you're on vacation. - bhofack2/iStockphoto/Getty Images

I consider a grocery upgrade to be a small splurge, not a big investment. When I’m shopping this time of year, I’ll add one or two ingredients or foods to my cart that are a little more luxurious than what I would typically buy.

I’m an inveterate grocery budgeteer, so I’m certainly not suggesting that you break the bank with porterhouse steaks or white truffles. There are other ways to feel like a high roller and avoid the anguish of dipping into your savings for groceries.

Here are some examples of how I upgrade my grocery list when I need a pick-me-up. It works throughout the year as well, so if you’re hit hard by an emotional wallop in June or October, come back to this idea as needed.

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Choose more artisanal cheeses as a treat. - Mikhail Rudenko/iStockphoto/Getty Images
Choose more artisanal cheeses as a treat. - Mikhail Rudenko/iStockphoto/Getty Images

One of my favorite everyday splurges is cheese. There are always piles of blocks and shredded packages in my refrigerator, but rarely do I allow myself to peruse the glass-fronted case of more artisanal options.

In January, however, I make sure to grab some tangy, crumbly Vermont cheddar for my bowls of vegetarian chili instead of the regular, plastic-wrapped block. For grilled cheese sandwiches, I might stack gooey Camembert slices on sourdough bread.

Another inevitability of January where I live in the Northeast is the need to shovel out the car after a snowstorm. It’s my least favorite winter task, so I choose to reward myself with a grocery upgrade for getting the job done. Instead of the usual hot cocoa packet, I have a tin of high-end cocoa mix for these special occasions. (Whipped cream from a can is always a splurge in this house.)

If your freezer is always stacked with pizza boxes for last-minute dinner emergencies, take this opportunity to bump up your usual choice to a more gourmet option. Or head over to the prepared foods section and pick up a refrigerated pizza with fresh toppings instead.

And speaking of fresh toppings. …

Buy fresh instead of packaged

Add whipped cream to your high-end cocoa for a upgrade. - Eva-Katalin/E+/Getty Images
Add whipped cream to your high-end cocoa for a upgrade. - Eva-Katalin/E+/Getty Images

One of the simplest ways I upgrade my grocery list is by substituting fresh versions of my usual boxed and canned goods.

The brightest way to brighten these dreary winter mornings is a splash of fresh citrus. Rather than boxed juice, I buy bags of oranges and grapefruits for a fresh-squeezed glass with breakfast. If juicing is too much work and not enough reward for you, go for the bottles of perishable juice and get the same lift.

Canned clams are a pantry staple for me as well since I love to keep them on hand for a quick dinner of one-pot clam pasta and clam chowder. But when I have the chance, I’ll splurge on a bag of fresh littlenecks and upgrade my dinner situation to feel like I’m on vacation.

Boxed pasta can be its own upgrade if you pick an unusual shape or small-batch brand, or you can go one step further. Scope out the refrigerated cases in the deli or prepared foods section for fresh pasta that can be tossed with jarred sauce for a “homemade” meal.

Give yourself a takeout treat

In my opinion, the most indulgent upgrade is to take my cooking duties off the table entirely and outsource a meal that I know will be utterly satisfying. When you really need a pick-me-up — beyond picking up the usual Friday night pizza for the family — a meal you don’t have to make yourself is the best present.

For instance, I’ll never make panang curry that tastes half as good as my local Thai restaurant does, so I’d rather support it than feel let down by my efforts. Nor is it any fun to clean up after making homemade buffalo wings, so why not let my neighborhood bar do the work with its industrial deep fryers?

And if there’s no time or money for takeout, there’s always the option of popcorn for dinner.

Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good Food Stories.

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