We all know leafy green veggies are good for us, though it’s not always clear why. The blogosphere seems to sing the praises of greens without actually providing any information on how they can benefit your body. Things get even more confusing when you encounter an ingredient you don’t recognize. It doesn’t do any good to buy five bunches of collard greens if you have no idea what to do with them. We’re here to help with our guide to seven of the healthiest greens. We’ll let you know how these veggies keep your body feeling its best and what you can do to turn them into some tasty dishes. By the end of this list, you’ll be an expert on all things leafy and edible.
Though arugula is a good go-to green when you’re looking for a peppery kick, watercress is a nice way to change things up every now and then. It’s loaded with vitamin A to keep your peepers healthy, vitamin C to help protect your immune system, and bone-building vitamin K. While watercress might not pack quite the concentration of nutrients as some other greens, it wins the slimming competition at just 4 calories per cup. Need another reason to dig in? One study suggested watercress is one of the best foods for reducing your risk of chronic diseases.
Salad is a natural choice for this spicy green, and it’s also one of the healthiest options since there’s no cooking to diminish the nutrients. Try this avocado and watercress recipe from Epicurious for an elegant addition to your dinner table. While most of us save the veggies for the second half of the day, getting some greens at breakfast is a smart way to make sure you’re eating enough produce. This savory scramble from Martha Stewart will definitely give you something to smile about in the morning.
Though it’s commonly seen on tables throughout Italy, escarole never really caught on stateside. Like most other members of the chicory family, this green is a total powerhouse. It’s loaded with vitamins A, K, and C, plus folate to help protect your heart and ward off depression. Escarole is also one of the most fiber-rich greens you’ll find, with a full gram per raw cup. Cook it, and you’ll score even more of the filling nutrient. Studies about fiber consumption have linked it to scores of health benefits, including a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.
Perhaps the most famous recipe featuring escarole is Italian wedding soup, which combines a flavorful broth with meatballs and plenty of the hearty green. Since it stands up so well to cooking, escarole is also great as a sautéed side dish, like Fine Cooking’s version with raisins and pine nuts. Though you can find bagged versions of this green, it’ll stay fresher longer if you buy a whole head.
3. Collard greens
Though collards are nearly synonymous with southern cooking, they actually originated in both Asia and the Mediterranean. It’s not really clear how they ended up in the U.S., but they’re now a staple. And good news if you’re a fan of those stewed greens — they’re pretty potent when it comes to nutritional value. According to Medical News Today, one cup of cooked collard greens is loaded with vitamins, iron, and a surprising amount of calcium. In addition to keeping your body feeling great during everyday life, some studies suggest a high intake of cruciferous vegetables, like collard greens, can reduce your risk of prostate cancer.
Classic stewed collards might sound rich, but they’re a lot less gut-busting than they seem. Most recipes only require a little bit of bacon or ham to give the broth tons of rich flavor. Try this simple version from Food Network’s Melissa d’Arabian. Any leftovers make a great breakfast topped with some over-easy eggs. You can also use the greens for a creative twist on pesto. Toss it with pasta, cooked potatoes, or spread some on a sandwich.
All those health-food fanatics are right, kale really is a superstar veggie. This green will give you more nutrients than just about any other food, including sky-high levels of vitamins A and K. It also has an impressive amount of iron. Don’t forget to include some oil or avocado with the green, though, because most of those vitamins can’t be absorbed by your body without a little bit of fat.
No matter what variety of kale you go with, there are tons of ways to use it. Tuscan kale, also called dino kale or lacinato kale, is perfect for making chips. Try this easy oven method from Beard & Bonnet, which only takes about 20 minutes. Sautéed kale and raw salads are pretty common, but the green can also be a delicious addition to a main dish. Give it a try with this hearty sausage lasagna from Martha Stewart.
If you’re after a slimmer waist, consider adding chard to your grocery list. This green contains a mere 7 calories per raw cup, plus good doses of vitamin C and iron. One important thing to note about this green is it contains a compound that can make it more difficult for your body to absorb calcium. That doesn’t mean you should leave chard off your plate, just consider having it separately from your yogurt.
Though chard is perfectly fine to eat raw, some people find the taste a tad too bitter. Cooking mellows the flavor and also leaves a lot of room to experiment. Try a twist on a classic cabbage roll or turn the green into a fragrant Indian dish.
6. Beet greens
Though grocery stores always have piles of loose beets on hand, many also carry bunches with the greens still attached. Many people skip them because they’re pricier, but they’re actually kind of a bargain since you get two vegetables in one. The leaves are only 8 calories per raw cup, and they’re loaded with vitamins and a fair amount of iron, which could give your exercise routine a boost. Nutritionist Yuri Elkaim told Men’s Fitness, “A good source of iron, which is essential for oxygen transport in the blood and myoglobin in our muscles, beet greens can help increase your energy levels to help you power through a workout.”
The slightly bitter flavor of beet greens pairs well with bold flavors. Think vinegars and salty cheeses. Try a simple sauté with bacon and balsamic vinegar as a side for any of your favorite proteins. The New York Times’ farro salad uses both the root and the greens for a dish that’s as smart as it is delicious. Be sure to thoroughly wash the greens before using them as they’re often caked with a fair amount of grit.
It turns out mom was right about spinach. This staple veggie might not quite match the health benefits of the ever popular kale, but it actually has a few advantages over today’s most trendy green. It contains more fiber, iron, and magnesium, a key nutrient for everything from regulating muscle function to stabilizing blood pressure. Spinach could also be the key to staying sharp as you get older. A recent study from Rush University found folks who ate two servings of leafy greens were less susceptible to cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Spinach is available in a number of different varieties, including frozen, which makes it easy to incorporate into nearly any dish. Work it into your morning meal by whipping up an easy omelet or try it as a base for a hearty steak salad. You can also toss a handful into just about any pasta, grain, or soup.