Every Halloween, people across North America go out in search of the biggest, roundest, most knobby pumpkin they can find for a Jack-O-Lantern. The elaborate designs and many carving contests are a testament to the tradition, but most people forget that the pumpkin is a gourd we can eat and use in other ways.
Pumpkins are packed with antioxidants, nutrients, dietary fiber, and protein.
“For holiday treats, you can’t go wrong with pumpkins,” says Dina Aronson, MS, RD, a nutrition consultant and author based in New Jersey. “Pumpkin is very high in antioxidants, potassium, and vitamin A, and quite low in sugar-only about 2 grams in a whole cup-and naturally low in sodium.”
“In particular, it contains the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, important for eye health.”
When most people think of eating pumpkin, they think pie. But there are many ways to enjoy the sweet gourd. Aronson recommends using pumpkin cubes in soups and casseroles, rather than pies and breads.
Mashed pumpkin is also a delicious and nutritious alternative to mashed potatoes. One cup of mashed pumpkin, boiled and drained, is just 49 calories and contains 3 grams of dietary fiber, 2 grams of protein, and a whopping 245 percent of your daily intake of vitamin A. And it’s fat-free.
If you like pumpkin but can’t handle a whole cup of it mashed, blend equal parts mashed pumpkin and mashed potatoes for a more nutritious side dish.
Roasted pumpkin seeds are also popular around Halloween because it’s relatively easy to save them as you clean out the pumpkin guts. Pumpkin seeds have an intense nutty flavor and are packed with omega-3, omega-6 and many more fatty acids, L-tryptophan, and essential minerals such as zinc, magnesium, and iron.
“Low in salt and sugar and high in health-supporting nutrients, pumpkin seeds are one of the most nutritious snacks you can find,” says Aronson. “Eat them raw or freshly roasted out of hand or sprinkle on salads, hot and cold cereals, and vegetable dishes.”
To roast pumpkin seeds, preheat your oven to 160ºF-170ºF, and remove any pulp before spreading the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Pop the pan in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes. The low oven temperature will help preserve the oils that make pumpkin seeds a nutritionally dynamite snack.
Many people sprinkle salt on pumpkin seeds before roasting them, but it’s not a good idea. Sodium increases blood pressure and results in inflammation caused by water retention. “If you’re roasting them yourself, try sprinkling on your favorite sweet or savory spice, such as cinnamon or cumin,” Aronson suggests.
Pumpkin packs a nutritional punch, but the oils and vitamins in pumpkin seeds and pulp are also great for your skin. Slough off dead skin cells-which make your complexion appear dull and grey-with a pumpkin scrub that will make your skin baby soft.
In a coffee grinder or food processor, grind 1/4 cup of roasted pumpkin seeds to a fairly fine but still grainy consistency, and place the ground seeds in a jar. Add 1/4 cup of pureed pumpkin pulp to the ground seeds and mix well.
If you don’t want to go to the bother of roasting the seeds, just blend 1/2 cup of the seeds and pulp-that stringy mess where the seeds are found-in the food processor and place in a jar. Mix in two tablespoons of raw sugar for a granular texture.
Apply about a third of the scrub mixture to your face, massaging it into the skin in a light, circular motion. Stored in your fridge, the remaining mixture should last a couple of weeks.
Whether you soak up its nutritional value or pamper your skin with its oils, pumpkin is a super squash that can help your body weather the chilly winter that is fast approaching.