Chefs are moving away from cream and butter and toward leaner meats, ancient grains, and vegetables.

Winter may come in with a chill, but full-service chefs are heating up their imaginations with strong influence from the season. They’re taking ingredients that were once sidelined and making them predominant components, and they’re increasing the health factor in dishes by cutting down recipes or swapping specific elements. Upcoming trends in winter menus include lightened-up plates and vegetables taking center stage, as well as use of game and not-so-traditional meats, ancient grains over heavier alternatives, and various peppers.

“One of the coolest things I’ve noticed is [chefs] aren’t afraid to make something in the wintertime light,” says Andrew Whitney, associate director of culinary operations at M Street, including Moto in Nashville, Tennessee. Moto’s menu of smaller plates is great, Whitney says, because customers can order more than one item off the menu and taste the ingredient for what it is, as opposed to it being a component in a more gluttonous dish.

Martial Noguier, chef/owner of Bistronomic in Chicago, also sees this trend to lighter winter options. He doesn’t use cream or butter as much because customers no longer are crazy about the heaviness. Instead, he turns to acidity like with sherry vinegar, apple cider, or yuzu to lighten up dishes.

At Yves in New York City, executive chef Alex Baker is taking hearty veal blanquette and lightening it with rabbit, a lighter sauce, baby carrots, turnips, pearl onions, mushrooms, and farro instead of white rice. “A lot of chefs are using less cream and butter, and customers really want to be eating healthy these days,” Baker says.

Instead of being fated as sides, seasonal winter vegetables like squash, beets, rutabaga, and celery root are steadily being highlighted on menus, Baker and Noguier say. “You don’t always have to use vegetables as side dishes, and I think it’s important to make those some of the stars on your menu, and that can be easy with things like squash and cauliflower,” Baker says. “It’s a good way to incorporate vegetables and healthy things onto your winter menu.”

On Yves’ menu are a celery root velouté with brown butter walnuts and black truffles, as well as delicata squash with chestnuts, beurre noisette, and ricotta gnudi dumplings and a beet salad with endive, blue cheese, candied pecans, and a black pepper vinaigrette. Moto is also using roasted delicata squash with a smoked hickory syrup and olive oil glaze, whipped goat cheese, torn basil and mint, and toasted pine nuts.

In addition to Baker’s lightened blanquette, which swaps traditional veal for more interesting rabbit, other chefs agree that winter menus will take advantage of different types and cuts of meat. Noguier is crafting up braised meats like venison with persimmon, lamb shank with a rutabaga purée, lamb neck with ravioli and chestnuts, and oxtail with pear and gnocchi.

Roberto Santibañez, chef/owner of Fonda with three locations in New York City and Mi Vida in Washington, D.C., says pheasant is up-and-coming. He’ll roast it with root vegetables like carrots and serve with a saffron sauce.

Ancient grains are also experiencing a resurgence. “One of the things that’s been ringing true are ancient grains [cooked] in classical methods, whether it’s risotto style, grain bowls, salads, or savory overnight oats, then serving those with braised meats or braised greens,” Whitney from M Street says.

Baker sees this, too. He says ancient grains— including farro, buckwheat, and quinoa—are popping up on more menus. The grains are hearty and healthy, but not as heavy.

Spice from peppers is also becoming more prevalent. Santibañez says guajillo and Manzano peppers are being seen more and more on menus, especially of the Latin variety, and guajillos especially will be used more in winter because they’re ideal in soups, for coloring rice, and overall versatility. He’ll be using guajillo peppers in a soup with beef broth, an oatmeal thickener, and a seasoning mix of guajillo and garlic. With the Manzano peppers, which he says are starting to gain popularity because they’re more available on the market, he’ll stuff them like a bell pepper with picadillo hash and cheese.

Feature, Health & Nutrition