Winter Squash, Pumpkin, and Sweet Potato

holiday sweet potatoes

When it comes to this time of year, winter squash, pumpkin, and sweet potato are nutritious choices to add some great flavors and autumnal colors to your table. AICR Nutrition Advisor Karen Collins MS, RDN, CDN, describes the types of winter squash and the difference between them, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes, as well as recommends delicious AICR recipes.

Q: How do the various kinds of winter squash differ in nutrients and what is recommended preparation?

A: Winter squash comes in many sizes, shapes and varieties; almost all contain compounds called carotenoids. Two of these, alpha- and beta-carotene, promote cell-to-cell communication, reducing risk of uncontrolled cell growth that can lead to cancer. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two “cousin” carotenoid compounds that are concentrated in the lens and retina of our eyes. They protect eye health by filtering out high-energy UV rays, known as blue light, that can create damage. Winter squash is also a good source of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber, all with about 75 calories per serving, about a cup of cooked squash cubes.

Other squash each have slightly distinctive flavors and textures, and all make savory additions to soup, stir-fries, stews, curries and mixed oven-roasted vegetables. Each can be baked, steamed or microwaved to serve stuffed, puréed or in chunks, often accompanied with sweet spices (cinnamon, ginger), fruits (such as apples or cranberries) or nuts.

Spaghetti squash is a little lower in calories, fiber, and the nutrients noted above. Its preparation is unique, too, since after cooking you can pull its strands out with a fork to serve like spaghetti. Acorn squash are small with a very hard rind, so simply cut in half and bake without peeling. Butternut squash is sweet and moist with a slight nutty flavor, and the skin is easy to peel, so this is a great choice when you want chunks to roast or add to stews. Buttercup squash has a delicious sweet flavor, but because it can be a bit dry, use it in moist dishes like soups. Don’t be afraid of large squash like hubbard, because you can freeze the leftovers raw, in slices, or after cooking in cubes or puréed.

This simple sauté of butternut squash is one of many ways it can be enjoyed. Roasted and then sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, this unexpected combination is flavorful and full of cancer-fighting carotenoids. Fresh sage brings out the sweetness in the squash.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms and Fresh Sage

  • 3 cups cubed butternut squash, 1/2-inch (1 lb.)
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 oz. package fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt
  • 4 fresh sage leaves, coarsely chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In medium size bowl, toss squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
  3. Arrange butternut squash on baking pan. Roast until fork tender, about 25-30 minutes. Set aside.
  4. In large skillet, heat remaining oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, garlic and pinch of salt and sauté 4 minutes. Add sage leaves and continue sautéing 2 minutes. Mix in squash. Continue to sauté another minute. Season to taste with pepper and serve warm garnished with cheese.

Makes 4 servings

Per serving: 121 calories, 7 g total fat (1 g saturated fat), 14 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g protein, 2.5 g dietary fiber, 25 mg sodium.

Q: How do pumpkin, winter squash and sweet potatoes compare nutritionally? What are healthy ways to prepare them?

A: Pumpkin and winter squash (including acorn, butternut and hubbard) are in the same plant family, and their nutrient content is similar. As with sweet potatoes, the deep orange color of pumpkin and winter squash signals that they are very high in compounds called carotenoids. In laboratory studies, carotenoids function as antioxidants and aid in controlling cell growth, which could mean they help reduce cancer risk. Human studies link higher consumption of foods containing carotenoids with lower risk of some cancers. All of these vegetables are also packed with potassium, which seems to promote good blood pressure control. They are all are good sources of vitamin C, too, with sweet potatoes containing the highest amounts. Sweet potatoes are richer in natural sugars and starches than many other vegetables, making them higher in calories. One-half cup of sweet potatoes has about 90 calories compared to 30 to 40 calories in one-half cup of pumpkin or winter squash.

Many recipes with these vegetables include so much butter, margarine, sugar or syrup that they become quite high in calories. However, those additions are not necessary to enjoy the wonderful flavor of these vegetables. For a quick-and-easy way to boost nutrients and color to your meal, add puréed frozen or canned winter squash or pumpkin to soup, stew or even smoothies. (Just be sure that canned pumpkin is pure, unsalted pumpkin and not sweetened pumpkin pie mix.) Cubes of fresh squash, pumpkin or sweet potatoes are delicious in stir-fries and stews and mix well with many different flavor combinations. All three choices are also terrific roasted in the oven, either alone or with other vegetables, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil; and you can cook them by steaming as well.

Just one whiff of apple cider-glazed sweet potatoes with toasted pecan-coconut topping guarantees this redo of a classic comfort dish will be a family favorite at Thanksgiving and year-round. Sweet potatoes rich in beta-carotene are also high in fiber that can slow absorption of carbohydrates and help reduce sugar surges after meals. Aromatic pumpkin spice is a convenient combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves — a must-have in your pantry.

Cider-Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Pecan and Coconut Topping

  • 2 large sweet potatoes (2 lbs.), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (6 cups)
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider 
  • 2 Tbsp. packed light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 tsp. pumpkin spice
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup toasted coarsely chopped pecans
  • 1/4 cup lightly toasted sweetened coconut flakes

Directions:

  1. In large pot of boiling water, cook sweet potatoes 10 minutes. Drain in colander and set aside.
  2. In large skillet over medium-high heat, combine cider, sugar, butter, spice and salt. Bring to boil, stirring often. 
  3. Add potatoes and reduce heat so liquid is simmering. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  4. Add cranberries and continue cooking until liquid is reduced to syrupy glaze and potatoes are tender, about 10 - 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If glaze becomes thick before potatoes become tender, thin with small amount of cider. 
  5. When potatoes are desired tenderness, transfer to serving dish. 
  6. Sprinkle with pecans and coconut and serve. 
Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 200 calories, 6 g total fat (2 g saturated fat), 35 g carbohydrate, 2 g protein, 4 g dietary fiber, 100 mg sodium.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 35 minutes

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, is AICR’s Nutrition Advisor. Karen is a speaker, writer and consultant who specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes®, through her website and follow her on Twitter @KarenCollinsRD and Facebook @KarenCollinsNutrition

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