How to Cook Greens in Your Healthy Diet

Salmon with kale in pan
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Greens are a perfect addition to a healthy diet. The nutritional benefits leafy greens are numerous and there are many ways you can prepare these delicious vegetables.

When it comes to cooking greens, they can generally be divided into three groups, depending on how much cooking they require. Whether you're looking to enjoy raw salad greens, quick-cooking greens, or hearty greens, we have some tips that will help you out.

Salad Greens

Salad greens are usually eaten raw and typically fall into the category of "lettuce." Herbs and a few other greens such as spinach can also be considered salad greens.

In general, the darker the color, the more nutritious salad greens are. Iceberg lettuce, for example, is extremely low in nutrients compared with its more colorful relatives. Romaine lettuce has 17 times the vitamin A and 6 times the vitamin C as iceberg lettuce.

When you have a choice, a variety of greens is always best, as each has its own variety of nutrients. You can take some inspiration from the greens found in a bag of spring mix, which is common at many grocery stores. By mixing a few lettuce varieties with spinach, swiss chard, radicchio, and similar greens, you can maximize the nutritional value.

The real nutritional downfall of a salad comes from the toppings, particularly the salad dressing, so you need to choose wisely. The best salad dressings have healthful oils such as olive oil, which has many nutritional benefits.

Soy and corn oil have a lot of omega-6 fat and it is best to steer away from them for the most part. Mayonnaise is made mainly from oil as well. Many use a soy oil base, so check the label to see what type of oil it includes before you buy it.

Your best option is to actually make your own dressing. It's incredibly easy to do right in the bowl, too. Start with vinegar and lemon or lime juice. Add salt, pepper, and seasonings as desired, then whisk in some oil (about three times the oil as vinegar). Add this to your salad greens and toss the mix to coat everything well.

Quick-Cooking Greens

What we would classify as "quick-cooking greens" can be eaten either raw or lightly cooked. Spinach is the most obvious example of this category. It takes only seconds to cook a young tender spinach leaf. 

Chard (Swiss chard) is a quick-cooking green that can also be eaten raw, though it isn't usually. Chard is available in many colors, which are often milder-tasting than the more traditional Swiss chard. The stems can be cooked along with the leaves or eaten raw. For example, you can put them in tuna salad instead of celery. If you haven't tried chard, you may be surprised by how delicious and versatile it is.

Chard and the more familiar spinach are good places to start with cooked greens, as they are so easy, and not as bitter as some others.

Beet greens are actually related to chard and spinach. They are also quick-cooking and delicious. Escarole, dandelion greens, and sorrel are also relatively quick-cooking greens you might want to try.

While cabbage isn't very leafy, it can fit into this category as well, even though it is related to the heartier greens kale and collards. After all, what would a healthy coleslaw be without uncooked cabbage?

A benefit to cooked greens is that they shrink a lot so you can easily get lots of nutrition from them. Generally, six cups of raw greens become approximately one cup of cooked greens. Most of these quick-cooking greens take just a few minutes to cook. 

Hearty Greens

People have been getting over their resistance to hearty greens such as kale and collard greens, and that's a very good thing. Give them a try if you haven't already because they offer the most nutritional benefits of all the greens. Over time, they may even become favorites.

Kale and collard greens are the most common examples of hearty greens. They do require cooking, although not as much as many people think. Yes, you can cook collards for an hour, but if you cut the greens from the fibrous stems, they can be tender in 10 to 15 minutes. Kale is also nice when cooked for that amount of time.

Washing and Storing Greens

The easiest way to wash greens is to put them into a lot of water and swish them around. This allows the dirt to sink to the bottom. It's really easy if you use a large pot with an insert to drain pasta. After swishing the greens, remove the insert and give it a really good shake. Let the greens dry for a few minutes before storing.

Ideally, the greens should be dry or nearly dry. Store them in a bag with as much of the air pushed out as possible. You can also retain a nice amount of moisture by placing a barely damp paper towel in the bag. Place the bag in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator.

How to Cook Greens

Greens can be braised—cooked fairly slowly in a small amount of liquid, usually a flavorful stock—or sautéed—cooked quickly in a small amount of oil. They can also be steamed or boiled, but most people like to add other flavors which go well with greens. This is easier with braising or sautéing.

Another way to make greens is to bake them with cheese gratin-style. They're also excellent when baked with eggs and cheese as in a spinach casserole.

Greens can also be thrown into almost any soup or skillet dish, especially the milder-tasting greens such as chard.

The Best Flavor Pairings

When you read recipes for greens, certain ingredients emerge again and again. That's because they go so well with greens. Any combination of these will usually be a winner:

  • Smoked meats, including bacon, sausage, prosciutto, and smoked turkey
  • Smoked paprika or chipotle
  • Garlic
  • Lemon or vinegar
  • Hot chiles in some form (dried pepper flakes, hot sauce, etc.)
  • Anchovies (You can't taste the fish, but they really make a difference.)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Dairy, such as cream and cheese

A Word From Verywell

Use these tips as inspiration for adding more leafy greens to your diet. If you haven't tried some of these greens yet, give them a chance in a few different recipes. You may find that cooking certain greens in a particular way is just what you need to truly enjoy them.

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