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Top 5 Winter Squashes and How to Pick the Best Ones

The top winter squashes and how to pick them.

Fall is here, and that means store bins full of winter squash in varying sizes, colors and shapes. While you may recognize some, others might make you wonder, How in the world do you eat that?

Just like ancient grains and heirloom tomatoes are noted for their unique places in our culinary past, winter squash has a long history that should be celebrated. According to the Smithsonian, some varieties of squash were first cultivated 12,000 years ago in Ecuador, while in America they date back to the Iroquois Indians.

Squash are full of nutrients and (believe it or not) easy to work with when you know the best way to use them. They not only bring beautiful color to your plate, but they also provide carbohydrates, fiber and more. Generally speaking, a cup of cooked, cubed winter squash contains about 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrates, two to six grams of fiber, less than 100 calories and a veritable alphabet of vitamins — A, B, C, D, K and more.

While there are nearly a dozen different varieties of winter squash, some are more popular at supermarkets and farm stands. Here are the top five varieties and tips on how to select and prepare them:

1. Hubbard Squash
1 cup (cooked and cubed) = 15.25 grams of carb, 6.8 grams of fiber, 71 calories

Hubbard squash are available in a broad spectrum of colors, ranging from dark green to bright orange. When selecting from a collection of these large, thick-skinned squash, look for one that is firm and blemish-free with a shiny, deep-colored skin. Like other yellow/orange winter squash, Hubbard squash are rich in vitamin A.

2. Butternut Squash
1 cup (cooked and cubed) = 21.5 grams of carb, 6.6 grams of fiber, 82 calories

Like Hubbard squash, butternut squash are large with thick skins and should be free of blemishes with no soft spots. However, unlike other squash, the thick, firm skin is beige. While you may be intimidated by the large size and tempted to purchase it already cubed or pureed, give it a try with this simple trick: Wash and pierce the squash several times and then microwave for two-and-a-half to three minutes. Then simply use a vegetable peeler to easily remove the thick skin and dice the softened flesh to roast, boil or steam -- and then possibly puree it to prepare a dish like Thai Butternut Squash Soup.

3. Sugar Pumpkin
1 cup, mashed = 12 grams of carb, 2.7 grams of fiber, 49 calories

Sugar pumpkins are also called "pie pumpkins." They're usually small with a smooth texture. (They're technically a "gourd," but part of the same family as squash.) These aren't the larger ones that are generally used for carving or decorative purposes, which are edible, but tend to be watery and less sweet.

And don't let the name fool you: Sugar pumpkins are not sweeter or higher in carbohydrate than other winter squash. They are, however, a brilliant source of vitamin A, and a serving (quarter cup) provides a hefty dose of heart healthy fat. Try roasting the seeds to use in salads, trail mixes and more.

4. Acorn Squash
1 cup (mashed) = 21.54 grams of carb, 6 grams of fiber, 83 calories

Easily recognized by its unique acorn shape, this winter squash is delicious when used in a variety of ways. Look for acorn squash that is deep in color (white, green or gold), firm and blemish free. While you don't eat the skin of any winter squash, the skin of acorn squash is a bit thinner and slices easily with the skin on for roasting in halves or wedges.

5. Spaghetti Squash
1 cup (cooked and cubed) = 10 grams of carb, 2.2 grams of fiber, 42 calories

The winter squash lowest in carbohydrates and calories, spaghetti squash has gained popularity for its ability to serve as a substitute for real spaghetti when its flesh is scraped into stringy strands. Short on time? You can also microwave your spaghetti squash:

- Use a knife or fork to poke holes all over the squash.
- Microwave on high for eight minutes.
- Turn it over and continue microwaving until the squash feels tender; about five more minutes.
- Remove and let stand for five minutes.
- Cut the squash in lengthwise sections and remove the seeds.
- Using a fork, scrape the flesh lengthwise to create spaghetti-like strands.

Using spaghetti squash in place of true spaghetti save calories, reduces your carb intake and provides a boost of vitamin A. When topped with a pesto or primavera sauce with plenty of vegetables, you'll have a plate full of fiber-rich nutrients!


Readers -- What are your favorite ways to eat winter squash? Do you have any tips or tricks for cooking with them? Have you tried swapping in spaghetti squash for real spaghetti? Was the taste and texture comparable or better? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Allison Stowell, M.S., RD, CDN, is the registered dietitian for the Guiding Stars Licensing Company, a company devoted to helping you find the good, better and best choices at the supermarket. A working mom of two, Allison enables individuals to make positive, sustainable changes in eating habits by stressing conscious eating, improving relationships with food and offering a non-diet approach for reaching and maintaining an ideal body weight.

Visit her blog to read more, and connect with Allison on Twitter.

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