You know that fall is here when the temperatures start to cool down and summer squash is replaced with winter squash at the farmer’s market. Although all squash are in the Cucurbitaceae family, there are many differences between summer and winter squash. Summer squash, including zucchini, have soft skin with moist flesh, and are harvested in the summer months to be eaten within a week of harvesting. In contrast, winter squash have hard skin and firm flesh, which allows them to be cured and stored for winter after they are harvested at the end of summer.

In this Food for Thought, we’ll talk about the nutritional benefits of including winter squash in your diet, ways to prepare it, and what to do with the seeds.

What nutrients do winter squash varieties have and what are the nutritional benefits?

Whether you prefer acorn, blue hubbard, delicata, kabocha, pumpkin, or spaghetti squash, winter squash are packed with nutrients. Their vibrant orange and yellow flesh has phytonutrients such as zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-carotene that are known for playing a part in healthy vision. A ½ cup serving of winter squash provides more than 20% of the daily value of Vitamin A and Vitamin C, both of which are needed for the health of our skin and immune systems. In that same ½ cup serving, you can get anywhere from 2-9% of your daily value of folate, potassium, calcium, and iron. Winter squash is also a good source of fiber which aids in digestion and decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease by helping to lower blood cholesterol levels.

How can we prepare winter squash?

You can find winter squash in all forms, including canned, fresh, and frozen. Canned pumpkin is not only great for pie making, but can also be added at breakfast to oatmeal or pancakes, or to risotto for a savory, nutrient-packed dinner. Fresh winter squash can be found all year long at the grocery store, but more varieties make their appearance in the fall and winter months. When preparing fresh winter squash, the skin is typically not eaten except for delicata, which can be roasted after cutting and removing the seeds. Winter squash can be cooked by roasting, boiling, or microwaving and can be served cubed, mashed, or stuffed. Another great way to enjoy winter squash is in a deliciously creamy soup, which can even be made with frozen cubed squash.

What about the seeds from squash? Can we eat those, and if so, how?

All winter squash seeds, not just pumpkin, can be scooped out and saved to make a nutritious snack with protein and fiber. Remove any stringy material and rinse your seeds. Although not necessary, boiling the seeds for 10 minutes in slightly salted water can help bring more flavor inside the seed. Make sure to pat the seeds dry before roasting as wet seeds will make a chewy rather than crisp texture. Lay seeds out on a parchment-lined roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and mix the seeds until well coated. Add some spices now if desired. Roast in an oven that has been pre-heated to 300° F. Keep an eye on the seeds and remove from the oven when they are lightly browned. Smaller seeds may only take 10 minutes while larger seeds may take 20-25 minutes.