Nutritional Power of Winter Squash

Food As Medicine

Eating Seasonally: Unlocking the Nutritional Power of Winter Squash

Acorn, Butternut, Delicata, oh my! Around this time of year, there may not be much local produce available, but winter squash is still in season. These versatile and hearty fruits come in an array of shapes, sizes, and colors, adding warmth and flavor to seasonal dishes. And, yes, you did read that correctly! All forms of squash are considered fruit because they contain seeds. Although botanically a fruit, winter squashes are typically used as vegetables. From the iconic butternut squash to the lesser-known delicata and acorn varieties, each type of winter squash brings its unique taste and texture to the table. Beyond their delicious profiles, these seasonal gems pack a nutritional punch, offering a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that contribute to overall health. Let’s explore a few different squash varieties and uncover their nutritional benefits. 

Butternut squash

This familiar squash variety is known for its tan-yellow skin, orangy flesh, and sweet, nutty taste. Even though the skin is thick, tough, and usually cut or peeled off of the flesh, it is edible. The same goes for the seeds inside, which can be baked and eaten like pumpkin seeds. As the squash ripens, the inside turns increasingly deep orange and becomes sweeter and richer.

Acorn squash

This squash type is known for its characteristic longitudinal ridges; the most common variety is dark green on the outside. It is shaped like a ribbed acorn, hence its nickname. Acorn squash belongs to the same species as summer squash, like zucchini. 

Delicata Squash

This squash variety has an oblong shape, is yellow or orange, and sometimes has stripes. You may have heard it called Bohemian, sweet potato, or peanut squash. It tastes like a cross between sweet potato, corn, and squash. One unique characteristic of this variety is its edible thin skin, which doesn’t require peeling and makes prep a snap! 

Nutritional Benefits

The orange hue in many squash varieties is due to the abundance of carotenoids, including beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, and alpha-carotene. These compounds are precursors to Vitamin A. Your body converts them into retinal and retinoic acid, the active forms of Vitamin A. One cup of cooked butternut squash provides more than 450% of the RDI for Vitamin A and over 50% of the RDI for vitamin C! Vitamin A is essential for regulating cell growth, eye health, bone health, and immune function. Vitamin A and C are antioxidants that help protect your cells from damage by free radicals.

All types of squash contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. Both types have different functions within the body and play an important role in digestive health. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forming a gel. It helps to lower cholesterol and blood sugar. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water. Instead, it attracts water into your bowel, which promotes bowel health and regularity. Both types of fiber feed the good bacteria in your gut, which have numerous beneficial effects on the rest of your body.

Many winter squash varieties contain high amounts of potassium, which has a beneficial effect on blood pressure. Potassium can help balance the adverse effects of sodium. The more potassium you eat, the more sodium is removed through your urine. Potassium also relaxes blood vessels, which can further lower blood pressure.

Whether you’ve never tried squash or eat it regularly, it is a delicious and nutritious way to incorporate seasonal produce into your diet. Fortunately, winter squash is versatile, can be prepared in various ways, and incorporated into many delicious recipes. I have included one of my favorite stuffed squash recipes below, which can be made with many different squash varieties. Challenge yourself and choose a new type of squash or prepare it in a way you haven’t tried before. Squash on, my friends!

Farro, Mushroom, Cranberry, and Pecan Stuffed Acorn Squash 

(adapted from Vegetarian Stuffed Acorn Squash « Running in a Skirt)

Ingredients

     

      • 2 medium acorn squash

      • 1 cup farro

      • 2 cups vegetable broth

      • 1 small, sweet onion, diced

      • 1 teaspoon minced garlic

      • 8 ounces portobello mushrooms, diced

      • ½ teaspoon dried thyme

      • ½ teaspoon dried sage

      • pinch red pepper, optional

      • ¼-1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste

      • ¼-1/2 teaspoon pepper, to taste

      • ½ cup pecans, chopped

      • ½ cup dried cranberries

    Recipe Instructions:

       

        • Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

        • Cut the acorn squash in half. Scrape out the inside and remove seeds. 

        • Place cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake 25-30 minutes or until the flesh is fork tender. When cooked, remove from the oven and set aside flesh side up.

        • While the squash is cooking, cook the farro according to package instructions using broth instead of water. 

        • While both of those things are cooking, bring a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Saute the onion.

        • Add the mushrooms, sage, thyme and cook until tender 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and allow to cook for only 15 seconds before mixing it in with the rest. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add the optional pinch of red pepper.

        • Push the mixture to the side and add the pecans, toasting for just a minute.

        • Remove from heat and stir in the cooked farro and dried cranberries.

        • Stuff the farro mixture into the acorn squash. 

        • Put them back into the oven for 10 minutes.

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