March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
There's a reason you hear so much about eating dark leafy greens. Vegetables such as kale, chard, collard greens and spinach are bursting with nutrition. But many parents find their kids are reluctant to eat them.
The Nutritional Benefits of Greens
The USDA's MyPlate specifically recommends adults and children over 9 eat one and a half to two cups of dark green vegetables per week. Nutrient-dense dark leafy greens are high in several vitamins and minerals, but at just 10 to 25 calories per half-cup serving, are low in calories. "The family of dark green leafy vegetables deliver vitamin A, vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber, folate, vitamin K, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium," says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN. "So they really make the most of every calorie."
These nutrients perform a variety of functions in the body, including promoting good vision, supporting immune function, acting as an antioxidant that may help prevent some types of cancer, and regulating blood pressure.
I Bought Leafy Greens — Now What?
Fresh greens can be stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for three to five days. While some bagged greens from the grocery store are already washed, not every variety for sale has been cleaned. "Those from a farmers market may have dirt and sand in the leaves," says Academy Spokesperson Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, LDN. To clean your greens, Krieger recommends submerging the leaves in a large bowl of cold water and swirling the leaves to allow the dirt to sink to the bottom of the bowl. Then, lift the leaves from the bowl and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
Or, if you have one, Academy Spokesperson Kristen Gradney, RDN, LDN, recommends using a salad spinner to quickly clean and dry greens. Gradney also suggests cleaning and blanching large batches of greens, and storing the blanched greens in the freezer for future use. For quicker cooking, Gradney recommends removing the tough stems by folding a stack of leaves in half lengthwise and running a sharp knife along the stem.
4 Tips for Kid-Friendly Leafy Greens
"People often get intimidated by cooking and eating darker varieties of greens due to their intense flavors," says Academy Spokesperson Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD. Try these tips for enhancing the flavor of different varieties to make them more enticing:
- Academy Spokesperson Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, says you can overcome the bitterness of collard and mustard greens by braising them "low and slow" (at a low temperature for an extended period of time), and adding a pinch of sugar at the end of cooking. Haas also says to remove the tough stems to reduce cooking time and avoid over-cooked greens.
- For kale, be sure to choose the right variety. Tougher curly kale is best for adding to soups or stews or for braising, says Haas. Tender lacinato and baby kale are best in salads.
- Preserve nutrients by sautéing greens, rather than boiling. Krieger recommends sautéing blanched greens with olive oil, onion and garlic to add flavor. Lemond recommends adding chopped nuts for additional heart-healthy fats. Haas says you can sprinkle lemon zest over the sautéed greens to brighten the flavor, but she warns not to use lemon juice, which will turn the leaves brown.
- Make a salad with tender greens such as spinach or baby kale. To expose kids to dark greens, Lemond recommends tossing together a salad made half with familiar lettuce and half with a dark green. Add a citrus-based dressing, which will help balance the strong flavor of the greens and aid in the absorption of iron found in the greens.