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Farmers market stands and supermarket produce aisles are piled high this time of year with winter squashes of all sorts, including butternut squash. This oddly shaped vegetable—with its long neck and bulbous bottom—is sometimes dismissed as a starchy side dish, but it shouldn’t be. With just around 80 calories, 21 grams of carbohydrates, and 4 grams of sugars in 1 cup of squash, cubed and cooked, it supplies an impressive array of nutrients.
An A-Plus for Vitamin A
“The orange flesh inside the squash is a dead giveaway that it is packed with beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A,” says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., R.D., senior clinical dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. You get 127 percent of the daily value for vitamin A in a 1-cup serving of butternut squash.
But as an antioxidant, beta carotene has other health benefits. “Beta carotene is essential for vision and many other biological functions,” says Walter Willett, M.D., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “There’s strong evidence that these carotenoids help reduce the risk of breast cancer and also reduce the rate of memory loss in older adults.” Research shows that a diet rich in carotenoids may also help reduce chronic inflammation in the body, thereby possibly lowering the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and cancer.
A serving of butternut squash also contains more potassium—a mineral that helps regulate blood pressure—than a banana, along with about 30 percent of the daily value of vitamin C and small but significant amounts of calcium, iron, niacin, and vitamin E.
A Hearty Helping of Fiber
A cup of butternut squash cubes clocks in at about 7 grams of fiber—making a sizable contribution toward the 25 to 30 grams you need per day. “Fiber has many positive health effects, including limiting weight gain, lowering cholesterol levels, and reducing risk of type 2 diabetes,” Willett says.
The seeds you find inside your winter squash are also rich in fiber—5 grams in 1 ounce—as well as healthy fats. Butternut squash seeds can be roasted just like pumpkin seeds. Use them to add some crunch to salads or as a nutritious snack.
Give Other Winter Squashes a Try
Butternut squash isn’t the only winter squash worth eating. “It’s good to mix up the types of squash you eat—or vegetables in general, for that matter—because even similar types supply a different mix of nutrients,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. For example:
• Acorn squash. It has less vitamin A than butternut, but it provides even more fiber (9 grams per cup) and potassium (896 mg).
• Pumpkin. This squash has beta carotene but also contains more than twice as much alpha carotene as butternut squash. Alpha carotene is also converted to vitamin A, and some studies have linked it to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer, and a longer life overall.
• Spaghetti squash. This yellow squash is lower in calories and carbohydrates than the denser winter squashes, but it’s also lower in fiber and carotenoids. Use it as a substitute for real spaghetti, though, and you’ll get just 42 calories in a 1-cup serving instead of about 200 calories.
Healthy Ways to Serve Winter Squash
Even if you’re fairly confident wielding a sharp chef’s knife, winter squashes can be a bit intimidating to prepare. But they don’t have to be.
A little time in the microwave can soften that tough skin just enough to make it easier to slice open. Pierce the skin eight to 10 times, then place it in a baking dish and cook in the microwave on high for about 5 minutes. Once it has cooled enough to handle, you can slice and finish cooking it. “I sometimes microwave a whole butternut squash for 20 minutes,” Hunnes says. “That’s enough to fully cook it, so after I slice it I just roast it in the oven for a few more minutes to crisp it up.”
You can skip the softening and cutting steps altogether by buying packages of fresh or frozen precut squash. You will pay a little more for it, but it can be a good option when you’re in a hurry. Canned butternut squash and pumpkin are also convenient choices. Just avoid pumpkin pie mix, which has added sugars.
Winter squashes are delicious paired with sweeter spices—such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and allspice—and baked in the oven. Butternut squash and pumpkin in particular are very versatile if you cube the squash, steam it, and then purée the flesh, using a blender, a food processor, or an immersion blender.
You can mix the puréed squash into sauces, soups, even smoothies. Consider, for instance, blending it with apples, a nut butter, a plant milk, and cinnamon. You can also blend some into mac and cheese. It adds a creamy texture and numerous nutrients, but children are unlikely to notice or taste it.
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If you are planning a plant-based holiday meal, halved acorn or butternut squashes stuffed with a protein such as quinoa can be a filling main dish, Hunnes says.
Spaghetti squash “noodles” can also be turned into a pasta-replacing main course. Soften the spaghetti squash in the microwave, then slice in half and bake for about 40 minutes before using the tines of a fork to scrape out the flesh into spaghetti-like strands. You can top the spaghetti squash "noodles" with marinara sauce and serve them in the bowl that remains after you scoop the flesh out of the halved squash. Or you can serve it with garlic and olive oil, or tossed with sautéed kale and chickpeas.
Below you’ll find two easy, healthy winter squash recipes from CR’s test kitchen.
1 small butternut squash (about 1½ pounds)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups nonfat milk
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup instant polenta*
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
2. Slice ends from squash and halve lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out seeds and discard them (or rinse and save to roast later).
3. Brush squash halves with oil and season with pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet, cut-side down. Roast until very soft, about 45 minutes. Let cool, scoop flesh into a bowl, and mash lightly.
4. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring milk, broth, and kosher salt to a simmer. Stirring constantly, add polenta in a slow, steady stream (to avoid lumps). Stir over medium heat until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in squash, cheese, and sage. Serve warm.
Makes 6 servings.
*You can use regular polenta, but that will increase the cooking time for the polenta to approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 180 calories, 2 g fat, <1 g saturated fat, 35 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 6 g sugars, 8 g protein, 170 mg sodium.
Maple-Glazed Squash Slices
1 medium acorn squash (about 1 ½ pounds)
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons real maple syrup (not pancake syrup)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
2. Slice ends from squash and halve lengthwise. Use a spoon to hollow out the center; discard seeds (or rinse and save to roast later).
3. Slice squash into ½-inch-thick slices. Transfer squash to a bowl.
4. In a small saucepan, melt butter. Stir in syrup, salt, and spices. Pour some of the mix over the squash and toss to coat.
5. Arrange squash on a baking sheet and pour remaining syrup mixture over the slices. Bake for 15 minutes. Flip slices and bake until squash is tender, about 5 minutes longer.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 24 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 6 g sugars, 1 g protein, 125 mg sodium.
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