Dark, leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses. “They’re really high in a lot of nutrients that are most essential for health,” certified nutritionist and cookbook author Gena Hamshaw says. “You’re getting a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.”
But so many of us don’t eat nearly enough of these amazing veggies. “People think if they’re eating a lot of salad, they’re maximizing their leafy green intake, but cooking them is far more nutrient-dense than a big old salad of arugula or baby spinach,” Hamshaw says. Plus, many of us fall into a spinach or kale rut — we aren’t sure what to do with collard greens or even know that we can eat beet greens.
Reinvigorate your eating plan and boost your health with these seven dark leafy greens, then use our cooking tips to help them taste their absolute best. Aim for at least 1 serving daily, which is 1 cup cooked or 2 cups raw.
Some have proclaimed kale the king (while others have declared it a passing fad), and it’s likely because it’s high in many of the nutrients found in all leafy greens, including protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and K. It’s also the one of the best leafy greens for lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants key for eye health.
Tip: It may sound odd to massage a vegetable, but in this case, it helps break down kale’s tough fibers. Massage yours with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, then serve it topped with other vegetables, beans and avocado, suggests Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of “Plant-Powered for Life.”
Many associate spinach with Popeye arms and iron, but ironically, spinach has anti-nutrients (compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients) that can mess with the absorption of its iron and calcium, Hamshaw explains. The solution: Cook it, which lowers the levels of those anti-nutrients. In each cooked cup, you’ll get 35% of your daily iron and 24% of your calcium.
Tip: Spinach shrinks when it’s cooked, so you can pack a lot into one serving. Hamshaw suggests adding it to a tofu scramble just before serving (so you don’t overcook it). Palmer likes to simply sauté it with garlic, mushrooms and extra-virgin olive oil.
These big, sturdy leaves are surprisingly high in protein. Cooked, a cup of collards provides 5 grams, plus 8 grams of fiber and more than a day’s worth of vitamin A.
Tip: “These pungent greens have such a rich flavor that complements dishes such as beans, cornbread and grits,” Palmer says. “They’re a true Southern superstar!” Try making traditional Hoppin’ John, which is braised collard greens with black-eyed peas and rice, typically served on New Year’s Day.
In addition to vitamins A and K, Swiss chard is also high in vitamin C. When cooked, a cup of this leafy green packs more than 40% of a woman’s daily vitamin C. Palmer recommends the rainbow version for an “even wider range of phytochemicals linked with color.” Those nutrients are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
Tip: “I love this sautéed with pasta and white beans for an easy Mediterranean-style meal,” Palmer says. Hamshaw likes to chop it super fine and stir into risotto at the end of cooking.
You may not think of cabbage as a dark leafy green, but it is. “Rich in vitamins, this has cancer-fighting compounds, so it’s a good idea to include it in your diet more often,” Palmer says.
Tip: “Baby bok choy is more tender than regular bok choy, so it’s great in stir-fries,” Hamshaw says. “And I use napa cabbage to make a raw slaw that I put on tacos and tostadas.”
The next time you make a recipe that includes beets or turnips, add the greens or save them for later. “It can seem like a pain to wash and chop these greens, but they’re every bit as nutritious as the others on this list, and it’s a great way to use a vegetable rather than throwing it in the trash,” Hamshaw says. A cup of cooked beet greens has almost 4 grams of protein, a cup of turnip greens has 5 grams of fiber and both are good sources of calcium.
Tip: “This is root-to-stem cooking,” Hamshaw says. If she doesn’t immediately use the greens, she’ll store them and add them the next time she makes soup.
According to a 2014 study, this delicate green is tops when it comes to nutrient density. Researchers ranked 41 fruits and vegetables based on their levels of 17 nutrients that we need for health. Watercress outshined all the others, including kale and other greens, broccoli, pumpkin and cauliflower.
Tip: Watercress is mainly used in salads, where it lends a peppery kick, but you can toss it into brothy soups, like miso.