Just because the weather cools down, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the power of winter vegetables. Turn to seasonal vegetables that grow in the winter, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsnips, pumpkin, and winter squash.
When earthy tomatoes, plump zucchinis, and sweet bell peppers are in season at the farmers market, it’s easy to pump up the volume of fresh produce in one’s diet. But, once those last warm rays of summer expire, many vegetable offerings follow suit. Instead of purchasing fresh produce out of season—shipped from thousands of miles away or grown in heated greenhouses—it’s a more healthful, sustainable option to switch to seasonal produce. Winter vegetables include those that are harvested late in the season and endure well for a period of time, and cool-weather, hardy vegetables that grow in the winter during more temperate climates. For example, winter vegetables California style include a greater variety due a more mild climate—I can grow peas, carrots, radishes, lettuce, kale, and herbs all winter long.
Many winter garden vegetables were those that once filled root cellars of our great grandmothers and beyond, providing a source of nutrients to sustain people over the long winter. Winter vegetables include root vegetables, such as potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, and beets; allium vegetables, such as onions, garlic, and shallots; cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower; hardy greens, like kale, spinach and chard; and winter squash and pumpkins. There are many ways to enjoy this seasonal produce, from roasted winter vegetables to shaved salads to smoothies.
I chose five top winter vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsnips, pumpkin, and winter squash) to shine a light on this month, asking dietitian bloggers to share their top tips on how to to embrace these nutrient-rich vegetables this season.
Part of the cruciferous vegetable family, these petite cabbages grow along a stalk about three feet tall. There are many unusual varieties of Brussels sprouts, including purple, which you may grow in your garden or spy in a farmers market. A one-half cup cooked serving of these tiny vegetables is packed with vitamin A (12% DV), vitamin C (81% DV), and vitamin K (137% DV), in addition to glucosinolate compounds, which are linked with anti-inflammatory effects and potential cancer prevention (1).
“One serving of Brussels sprouts has all the vitamin K you need for the day, which helps lower inflammation and supports bone growth and the cardiovascular system,” says Megan Casper, MS, RDN, dietitian and owner of Nourished Bite Nutrition, based in New York City. Casper advises her client to not overcook Brussels sprouts, as they will lose some of their nutritional value and start to smell like “rotten eggs”. Casper adds, “Drizzle with oil, cut an ‘x’ into the core, and roast or try quickly steaming until tender.”
“I’m obsessed with Brussels sprouts, because they have a mildly bitter flavor and are packed with cancer-fighting sulfurous compounds. I love them shredded into salad and enjoyed raw or halved and roasted until caramelized and crispy,” says Abbey Sharp, Toronto Registered Dietitian and blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen.
Though roasting is one of the most popular ways to enjoy this vegetable, they also can be included in stir-fries, grilled vegetable skewers, pureed in cream soups, and served as a side dish with a flavorful sauce.
Another member of the cruciferous vegetable family, cabbage—with hundreds of varieties ground around the world—show up as a key feature in many food cultures, ranging from Asia to Europe to Central America. Can you imagine Mexican street tacos without a generous topping of crunchy white cabbage, German cuisine without sauerkraut (feremented cabbage), and Chinese stir-fry without its foundation of cabbage?
Cabbage is packed with a variety of phytochemicals, such as glucosinolates, with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. In particular, red cabbage may have even more benefits, thanks to the presence of anthocyanins. A one-half cup serving of cooked red cabbage contains an impressive cache of vitamin K (40% DV), vitamin C (35% DV), and vitamin B6 (10% DV). In addition to cancer protection (1), cabbage intake may be linked with heart health, thanks to reductions in cholesterol levels and an increase in blood antioxidant levels. (2)
“Cabbage is high in sulfur-containing compounds, which helps protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer,” says Casper. She suggests that cabbage becomes sweeter when it is harvested in cooler weather, and that it is one of the most budget-friendly vegetable buys. “Encourage your patients to try it steamed, sautéed, or chopped into a salad,” adds Casper.
Additional ways to use cabbage is as fermented cabbage (sauerkraut) in casseroles, sandwiches, or as a side-dish; shredded cabbage added to a slaw, sandwich, salads, wrap, or taco; Thai or Chinese style stir-fries with cabbage served with brown rice; cabbage casseroles, such as stuffed cabbage or slow-cooker cabbage; and in classic soups and stews.
One of the lesser-known root vegetables, parsnips deserve more recognition during the winter vegetable season. Originating from the East Mediterranean, these vegetables have a long traditional use in Europe, where potatoes usurped their prominence when the Spanish explorers introduced them from the New World. Pale yellow or creamy colored, parsnips stored well in root cellars, and packed a nutritious kick into diets. A one-half cup cooked serving of parsnips contains folate (11% DV) and vitamin C (17% DV), as well as fiber and phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
According to Toby Amidor, MS, RD Wall Street Journal best-selling cookbook author, during the first frost this winter vegetable converts its starch to sugar, giving it a sweet and nutty flavor. “Parsnips are also high in vitamin C, and an excellent source of folate and vitamin K. Although you typically see parsnips eaten cooked, you can also eat them raw by grating or cutting them into matchsticks and adding to salads or as part of a crudité,” adds Amidor. She suggests using parsnips in creamy winter soups, as they provide a slight, sweet flavor and natural thickening ability, roasting them, pureeing them into a mash, baking them, or using them in place of potatoes and carrots in any recipe.
Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, author of 365 Snacks for Every Day of the Year also enjoys recommending parsnips in the winter season. She notes, “They are so versatile to cook with and have less starch than a potato.”
While most people might think pumpkin is relegated to pumpkin lattes, jack-o-lanterns, and pumpkin pie, this winter vegetable has an important history in food traditions around the globe. Originating in North America, pumpkins are a cultivar of the squash plant, and have been used traditionally in many cultures, including Caribbean, South American, and Asian, where pumpkin is enjoyed in soups, stews, stir-fries, and dumplings.
Pumpkins are potent with nutrients; a one-half cup cooked serving contains vitamin C (10% DV), vitamin E (5% DV), and a rich supply of beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A (123% DV per serving), as well a source of fiber and minerals. Studies have found that beta-carotene-rich foods are linked with lower mortality (3).
“Pumpkin is an excellent winter vegetable because it’s readily available year-round. I keep it in cans on hand at all times. It’s easy to use, and a nutrition powerhouse, with vitamins A, C, E, riboflavin, potassium, copper and manganese,” says Catherine Brown, CDM/CFPP, Chef, Culinary Nutritionist, and Organic Grower. Brown suggests that clients try purchasing whole pie pumpkins, roasting wedges, and serving it as a side dish; or puree pumpkin into a silky-smooth pumpkin soup. She says you can also add canned pumpkin to hot whole grain cereal, chia pudding, or smoothies.
One quick way to use pumpkins this winter is to start with those people use to decorate their porches and mantles during the fall season. Simply split them in half, remove the seeds (save them for roasting), and bake them like you would other winter squashes. The cooked flesh can be used in soups, stews, muffins, breads, bars, cereals, smoothies, hummus, and beyond.
An array of winter squash (from the Curcubitaceae family) await discovery during the cool weather months, including acorn, buttercup, butternut, delicate, hubbard, and spaghetti squash. The hard outer shell means winter squash can be stored for long periods of time; once split open, they reveal vibrant yellow-orange flesh, a calling card for their rich carotenoid compounds linked with health benefits and disease protection (3). Depending on the variety, these vegetables contain varying amounts of vitamins A, B2, B6, C, and K; fiber, and minerals.
Winter squash can be traced back to Mexico. They become an important part of the agricultural traditions of the Native Americans dating back at least 1000 years known as “the three sisters”, in which maize, squash, and beans were planted together, forming the back bone of the traditional diet.
“My favorite vegetable in the winter season is squash, rich in vitamin A, fiber, and folate. There are so many beautiful varieties and versatile uses in cooking. Whether it is roasted, sautéed, or mashed, they make an excellent main and side dish,” says Katie Pfeffer-Scanlan MS, RD, LDN, clinical dietitian and blogger for One Hungry Bunny.
Judy Barbe, registered dietitian and author of Your 6-Week Guide to LiveBest, Simple Solutions for Fresh Food & Well-Being, suggests, “Roasted winter squash, such as butternut, hubbard, kabocha and acorn, can be served as a side dish, then tossed in tomorrow’s salad, stirred into pasta with a spoonful of ricotta, or pureed for soup. Cooked squash also freezes well.”
Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, CPT of Shaw Simple Swaps and author of Fertility Foods Cookbook, says that acorn squash has become one of her favorite winter vegetables to recommend. “During winter months, when people are notorious for popping vitamin C pills, I enjoy educating on the food first philosophy and including more whole foods in their diet.”
Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, host of the Liz’s Healthy Table podcast and blog, says, “I encourage people to include more vegetables in their diets, and spaghetti squash makes that recommendation easy. This nourishing winter vegetable is versatile, mild in flavor, and fun to eat. Once cooked, I shred it into spaghetti-like strands and then top it with all sorts of nourishing ingredients, including beans, sautéed bell peppers, and avocado; pasta sauce, grated Parmesan, and meat-free crumbles; and steamed broccoli and shredded low-fat Cheddar cheese.”
Maggie Moon, MS, RDN, of MIND Diet Meals, likes to showcase winter squash in a Korean dish called “hobakjuk,” which refers to zucchini or winter squash porridge, but most commonly refers to a porridge that celebrates the sweet winter squash called danhobak (also known as kabocha squash).
For other recipes featuring winter produce, check out:
- Royston KJ, Tollefsbol TO. The Epigenetic Impact of Cruciferous Vegetables on Cancer Prevention. Current pharmacology reports. 2015;1(1):46-51. Accessed on August 31, 2018. doi:10.1007/s40495-014-0003-9.
- Bacchetti T, Tullii D, Masciangelo S, et al. Effect of black and red cabbage on plasma carotenoid levels, lipid profile, and oxidized low-density lipoprotein. Journal of Functional Foods. 2014;8:128-137. Accessed on August 31, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S175646461400070X?via%3Dihub
- Long-Gang Z, Qing-Li Z, Jia-Li Z, et al. Dietary, circulating beta-carotene and risk of all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis from prospective studies. Scientific Reports. 2016;6(26983). Accessed on August 31, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep26983.