While Popeye’s biceps bulging after downing a can of spinach may have been just a narrative quirk to bestow superhuman power upon the fictional sailorman, there is something resonant about the iconic image. Of course, we can’t see our muscles perform acrobatics upon ingestion of iron-rich vegetables, but it’s almost as if our bodies break out in quiet little happy dances each time we eat leafy greens.
Greens are one of the best foods to eat regularly; they are rich in fiber and offer many vitamins, minerals, and plant-based compounds. They provide nutrients that, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “help protect you from heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.”
And that’s not all. A 2018 study found that people who eat one to two servings of leafy vegetables a day may experience fewer memory problems and other cognitive declines. The study, part of the Memory and Aging Project at Washington University in St. Louis, found that those who included 1.3 servings a day of these leafy goodies into their diet slowed down their cognitive rate of decline to a point where it was the equivalent of them being 11 years younger (compared with those who didn’t eat the greens). And that’s just one study of many.
Leafy greens—the broad term for plant leaves eaten as a vegetable—are low in carbohydrates, sodium, fat, and cholesterol. And as we continue to learn, over and over, a diet heavy in plants is also a diet that is good for the planet.
With that in mind, it couldn’t hurt to eat more leafy greens—and green vegetables in general. Here’s where to start.
Once found almost exclusively in European markets, in the United States, arugula started off as a hallmark of fancier food—but it has become much more widely available in recent years. It is easy to spot by its small, flat, jagged leaves with long stems and often strong, peppery taste. It is mostly used in salads but can be sautéd, too. It is a popular addition to pizza, where its peppery, herbaceous crunch works in lovely concert with a hot, cheezy slice.
And consider this: Arugula contains roughly eight times the calcium, five times the vitamins A, C, and K, and four times the iron as the same amount of iceberg lettuce. If it’s too spicy for your taste, it can be blended with other salad greens to calm down the flavor.
We know beets primarily for their gorgeous fuchsia roots, which are sweet, earthy, and highly versatile. But don’t forget their humble greens! Beet greens taste a bit like the roots themselves with a slightly sweet and bitter edge and are great for steaming or sautéing. While the root bulb can endure patiently in cool storage, the greens wilt more quickly and should be eaten as soon as possible. To use the greens, remove them from the roots to prevent wilting, and then remove the leaves from the thick stems. Beets are grown in more than 30 states, and though they are usually available year-round, the peak season is June through October.
Bok choy is a type of cabbage that looks more like smooth, bulbous romaine. It is an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin A, and a good source of folate. Look for heads with deep green, glossy leaves and bright white stalks; brown areas can mean they were stored poorly and may have lost flavor. Baby bok choy can be cooked whole; older bok choy can be chopped before cooking. Tear the leaves from the stalks, slice the stalks crosswise, and cut the leaves coarsely. Bok choy can be used in salads, or it can be steamed, braised, sautéed, or stir-fried.
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable rather than a leafy green—although eating its microgreens would qualify. Nonetheless, we are including it here because it is perhaps the least challenging vegetable of all. It is widespread, subtle in flavor, and often doused in butter or cheese sauce. What’s not to love? The most common type is the Italian variety, but other varieties are increasingly available, including:
- Romanesco is light green and slightly marine-creature looking, with pointed, cone-shaped florets.
- Chinese broccoli is a bit bitter, with thick stems and flat leaves with thick stems and small florets.
- Broccoli rabe (AKA rapini) is bitter, with spiked leaves surrounding small stalks of florets.
- Broccolini is the newest kid on the broccoli block. It has long stalks that are thinner and more tender than those of regular broccoli.
When shopping for broccoli, pick bunches that have rich color as that indicates maximum nutrient value; the more vivid green, purplish, or blue-green florets contain more beta-carotene and vitamin C than yellow or fading ones. Avoid broccoli with open, flowering, or discolored florets and tough or insipid stems. Store broccoli unwashed in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Broccoli can be eaten raw, or it can be steamed, stir-fried, boiled, roasted … you name it. It’s an excellent source of vitamins K, C, and A, as well as folate and fiber.
Poor cabbage. This workhorse of the kitchen is so utterly devoid of glamor. But cabbage is a wonderful cruciferous vegetable that should be loved just as much as kale and its trendy brethren. Cabbage is a great source of cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin C and is wildly low in calories. Plus, it’s cheap and truly versatile; it can be eaten raw in slaws, added to lettuce salads, used in place of pasta in pasta salads, tossed into stir frys, simmered into soups, stuffed and baked, fermented into kimchi, and about 1 million other ways. Switching up between green and red varieties helps add a variety of phytonutrients to your diet.
Chard, Swiss Chard
Swiss chard is the ostentatious one in the produce aisle. You can’t miss its big bright red or green leaves attached to a rainbow of stalks—they’re like the Vegas showgirls of the vegetable world. Available from spring through the fall with a peak from June through October, look for Swiss chard with crisp stalks and vibrant leaves. Chard is an excellent source of vitamins A and C; it is slightly sweet with a subtle bitter bite and can be kept in the refrigerator for about two days. It can be used interchangeably with other greens but is great steamed for just a few minutes so that it retains the color and nutrients that it likes to flaunt.
A southern staple, collard greens are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and a good source of folate; they are at their peak harvest from January through April. Shop for collard greens that are bright, crisp, and intact, then store them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. They can lean toward the bitter side, but blanching them quickly in simmering water can help lessen their strength. Cook in a skillet over medium heat with a little olive oil until just wilted, or steam. The traditional Southern method is to simmer them slowly for a long time with a ham hock, resulting in very soft leaves with little bitterness.
Although long maligned as a pesky weed, dandelions are noble, happy plants that are delicious, versatile, and one of the most nutritionally dense greens you can eat. So there! Along with a host of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, they also have long been prized for their medicinal properties. They are potassium-rich and have a strong diuretic quality. They have long been used to treat digestive disorders and to treat arthritis and eczema. And did we mention they are delicious? Mature greens may be on the bitter side, but worth it. Add greens raw to salads, saute them, and use them for fritters. Cream of dandelion soup is unique and delicious—and don’t forget to use the flowers for dandelion wine.
At some point in recent history, kale went from ugly duckling to prom queen and is now so trendy it may be officially headed for a backlash. But we hope not. This superfood is a nutrition powerhouse rich in vitamins A and C and many of the antioxidants that health experts implore us to consume. Although most often lumped into the bitter green family, it is a little smoky but actually not that bitter, and it gets sweeter during the winter months. Look for crisp, tender, and bright leaves. Baby kale will be much more tender and is great to eat raw, but more mature kale stripped from thick stalks and massaged with dressing is its own kind of delicious. Use kale in salads, quickly sautéed until just softened, cooked slowly with garlic and vegetable broth; use it in place of spinach in creamed spinach, or roast it for kale chips.
Another member of the cabbage family and popular in Asia and Europe, this versatile vegetable is rich in fiber, vitamin C and glucosinolates, which break down into compounds that are thought to protect against certain types of cancer. Kohlrabi looks like a mix of a small cabbage ball and fennel root; it tastes like a mix of broccoli and radish. It can be eaten in a wide number of ways.
These ones are assertive; mustard greens can be tough, bitter, and spicy … in the absolutely best way! They are sassy. They come in red or green and are a staple of Southern cooking; most commonly braised or slowly cooked, yet young, tender raw leaves can be a notable addition to salads. Mustard greens are a gold mine of vitamins K, C, and A, along with folic acid, phytonutrients and essential minerals. When purchasing, look for crisp green leaves, and once home, they can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, heaped praise upon radicchio for its medicinal properties, noting that it was helpful in purifying blood and a natural sedative. Modern researchers praise it for its extraordinary phenolic content; in one study, of 40 vegetables tested, radicchio placed in the top four. This member of the chicory family brings to mind small, pretty decorative heads of red cabbage but with a more delicate texture and a completely different taste. It somehow manages to be both bitter and sweet (but mostly bitter). Most radicchio is imported from Italy and is thus expensive, but increasingly, specialty farmers are producing it for the American market. Radicchio is generally added to salads but is lovely sautéed or served in warm salads as well.
One of our most cherished and popular greens, spinach is a superfood beyond compare. And while its iron content has been endlessly debated, it has virtues far beyond that which made Popeye such a strapping sailorman. Spinach is an excellent source of vitamin A and a good source of vitamin C and folate; and, importantly, it’s readily available. You will find spinach in a range of textures, from small, smooth baby leaves to large, thick, and crinkled mature leaves, and it is available year-round. Young leaves are mild and tender and are good for salads or quick sautés, while tougher leaves are abundant in flavor and have a great chewy texture. Look for firm, deep green leaves without spots or blemishes. Sand and dirt love to hide in spinach’s many nooks and crannies, so use several water baths or rinses to remove all grit.
Don’t throw out the greens of your roots. Most are surprisingly tasty and provide an excellent source of vitamin C. Turnip greens have a peppery turnip taste and can be used in place of kale or other root greens such as beet greens. When ready to use, remove leaves and discard stems; if they seem very tough, you can blanche them before cooking by dipping them quickly in boiling water. Southern tradition pairs them with a slow cook and a piece of pork, but a quick sauté in the skillet is a fine way to treat them as well.
This lovely green grows wild on the edges of streams; it’s one of spring’s first leafy greens to emerge. It is characterized by its small, glossy round leaves and almost succulent-like stems, not to mention its wonderfully peppery taste. Watercress is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating just three ounces a day boosts your levels of certain antioxidants by 100 percent. It is delicious raw in salads but can also be sautéed or used to make watercress soup, among other uses.