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Dark greens are among the most nutrient-dense foods we can easily eat every day – and for many good reasons, too. They are concentrated in cancer-fighting antioxidants, such as sulforaphane, that can help keep cells healthy and less prone to damage. They’re also one of the most important foods to include in the diet for supporting heart health because they provide folate and potassium, which are necessary for cardiovascular function. Eating about one cup of greens every day has also been shown to protect cognitive function and slow down cognitive decline. Greens are also a great source of the following bone-building vitamins and minerals: calcium, magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin K.
There are so many wonderful greens and so many delicious ways to consume them. Usually with greens, the darker the better in terms of their nutrient density. Dark greens such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, collard greens and arugula (among others) are usually readily available at most grocery stores and farmers markets.
Greens vary widely in their flavor characteristics. Some greens are mild, sweet and grassy, while others may be pungent, bitter, sharp or even spicy. If you are new to eating greens, I recommend easing your palate in with some of the milder, sweeter greens before moving onto the ones with more complex flavors. Experimenting with different cooking techniques and flavoring agents can also help to balance certain flavors in the greens. For example, braising a slightly bitter green like kale in a small amount of diluted apple, orange juice or a sweet sherry vinegar can tone down the bitterness. And lightly steaming or sautéing certain greens, rather than eating them raw, can also make them more palatable to most people. Selecting baby greens like baby kale is another way to avoid the stronger bitter compounds while still reaping many of the nutritional benefits. Here are some different types of greens:
- Mild: bok choy, spinach and collards
- Grassy: Swiss chard and beet greens
- Spicy: arugula, mustard greens and dandelion greens
- Sweet: collards, Swiss chard, bok choy, beet greens and spinach
- Bitter: dandelion greens, turnip greens and kale.
Selecting and Storing
- When shopping for greens, choose the ones with crisp leaves and stems and vibrant color. Yellowing is a sign of age and may indicate that the greens will have an off flavor. To keep them fresh while being stored, first remove any bad leaves from the bunch. Leaves that have already started to turn can cause the rest of the bunch to spoil more quickly. Next, pat them mostly dry then wrap them in paper towels. Do not wash greens before storing because exposure to water will encourage faster spoilage. If you do wash your greens in advance, be sure to use a salad spinner to help remove most of the water from your greens. Place the greens back in an open plastic produce bag or use a special perforated produce bag to allow the greens to “breathe”. It is best to try to utilize your greens within a few days to a week of getting them home.
- When you are ready to cook with your greens, you may want to give larger greens like kale, Swiss chard, spinach, and collards a quick bath to reinvigorate them. Filling a sink with cold water and swishing the greens around allows any dirt or debris to be easily removed from the greens. Shocking them with cold water can also help perk them back up if they have started to wilt.
Ways to Get More Nutrient-Dense Dark Green Leafy Vegetables Into Your Diet
Always think greens first! Every time you sit down to eat, ask yourself how you can add greens to your meal. Here are some simple ways you can make greens more of a mainstay in your diet.
- Try layering your sandwich with a layer or two of leaf lettuce or spinach, loading up your slice of pizza with some spinach and enjoying it with a large green salad, or throwing a handful of spinach or kale into your morning omelet.
- Drink your greens! It is very easy to add greens into a smoothie. Using deeply pigmented berries and cherries can mask the color of the greens as well as most of the taste. Alternatively, if you want your smoothie to show off its brilliant green color, use lighter colored fruits like green grapes, banana, green apples or pineapple in your mix. To save on prep time use frozen organic kale or baby spinach. Note: watch portion size of smoothies, especially if they contain more fruit than vegetables.
- Add a handful of chopped greens to soups and stews toward the end of their cooking time for vibrant color, flavor, texture and more nutrients.
- Use as a flavorful salad base. Baby spinach, spring mix, baby kale, red leaf and green leaf lettuces, watercress, micro greens, arugula and romaine are all great greens to use in your daily salad. Try to rotate them to increase the amount of variety in your diet. Dress with a simple homemade vinaigrette.
- Look for microgreens at your local farmers market. These tiny greens are a concentrated source of flavor and nutrition. Use them as a garnish on soup or other dishes or mix them in with your salad greens.
- Steam your greens. Kale, Swiss chard, Brussels Sprouts, dandelion greens, turnip greens and mustard greens become milder in flavor and pungency after a few minutes of steaming and this gentle cooking method makes them easier to digest.
- Wrap it up! Try using a blanched collard greens, Swiss chard leaves or fresh butter lettuce as a wrap in place of a tortilla and stuff it full of yummy hummus, shredded veggies or quinoa pilaf.
- Give them a massage. Massaging chopped greens like kale with a small amount of olive oil and lemon juice is a great way to help tenderize the tough leaves, breaking down their hard cell walls and enhancing their digestibility.
- Throw a handful of kale or spinach into a batch of pesto along with the fresh basil.
- Sauté leafy greens like kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, collard greens and cabbage with garlic and a splash of reduced sodium tamari style soy sauce and brighten with a dash of brown rice vinegar or squeeze of lemon juice. See this for specific instructions.
About the Author
Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, LD
Lisa Markley, MS, RDN, LD, is an integrative dietitian culinary nutrition expert with nearly two decades of experience working towards improving the health of others. She is passionate about educating others how to harness the healing power of food and healthful lifestyle changes.