The Health Benefits of Winter Squash
Why you should be eating plenty of acorn, butternut, and other varieties this season
True to their name, winter squashes are ideal foods to have on hand during the cooler months. They not only are packed with immune-enhancing nutrients but also work well in heartier dishes and can last a long time in your kitchen. “Their thick and textured exterior allows winter squash to maintain their freshness,” says Maya Feller, MS, RDN, an adjunct nutrition professor at New York University.
While you’re probably familiar with acorn and butternut squashes, there are many varieties—including delicata with its edible skin, pumpkin-y kabocha, and honeynut, a new type developed by plant breeders at Cornell University that’s a smaller, more nutritious, and extra flavorful cousin of butternut. Squashes are also inexpensive, versatile, and easier to prepare than you’d think.
Although they vary in flavor and appearance, most winter squashes are very similar nutritionally. Vitamin A, in the form of antioxidant beta carotene, is often plentiful: One cup of cubed butternut has more than 100 percent of the daily need for people ages 51 and older. “Vitamin A is an essential nutrient important for many processes within the body, including a strong immune system and eye health,” Feller says.
For starters, keep them in a cool, dry place to extend their shelf life. Prepping thinner-skinned squash like delicata and honeynut is easy. Slice into half-moons, toss in a bit of oil, and roast at 400° F.
The density and size of some other varieties can make their prep a bit intimidating, but you don’t need to cut before you cook. “I roast my squash whole,” Poyourow says. Slice a sliver off the back so that the squash sits flat on a baking sheet lined with parchment or foil, cut slits in the top for some steam to escape, and roast in a 375° F oven for 1 to 1 ½ hours. Cut in half, being careful of any steam that might escape, and scoop out the seeds—but don’t toss them. Seeda are rich in healthy fats, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. Rinse, then roast the seeds to snack on or use in salads or other dishes where you want a little crunch.
If that feels too time-intensive, you can poke holes in the top and microwave 10 to 12 minutes on high for a medium-sized squash. “It works in a pinch, but you’re not getting the maximum amount of flavor, which roasting brings out,” Poyourow says.
To save time, you could buy precut, frozen, or canned squash. “They can supply the same amount of nutrients,” Feller says. If you’re cooking for one or two, a smaller portion of precut or frozen squash may make more sense than a whole fresh one. And canned squash or pumpkin is good for making soups.
Once you’ve figured out how to handle squash, try these ideas:
• Adding a little maple syrup or cinnamon to any steamed or roasted squash is a no-brainer.
• Go savory with herbs like thyme or rosemary, suggests Poyourow.
• Low-calorie spaghetti squash can bulk up a pasta dish, or serve as a side dish on its own, tossed with sauce and Parmesan.
• The hearty flesh of acorn, butternut, or kabocha squash is perfect for soup; try it puréed with carrots, ginger, onion, garlic, and low-sodium vegetable broth.
• Try callaloo. This Trinidadian dish is pumpkin with dasheen bush (a leafy green, or use spinach), okra, hot pepper, onions, and coconut milk, Feller says.
• Stuff your squash: Fill roasted delicata or honeynut halves with a mixture of seasoned quinoa, chickpeas, and a sprinkle of toasted walnuts or goat cheese for a satisfying meal.