Shopping the produce section can be intimidating if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
There’s spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula and more. What are the health benefits of each?
From a nutritional standpoint, you get a lot of bang for your buck with greens, Holly Dykstra, RD, registered dietitian with Corewell Health, said.
“They’re packed full of vitamins and minerals,” Dykstra said. “And most have a lot of vitamin A and vitamin C, which means they are excellent in terms of immunity.”
Greens are also packed with antioxidants and fiber.
Kale and spinach are a few of Dykstra’s favorites, as they’re easy to incorporate into almost any dish.
If you’re just looking to amp up your favorite romaine salad, she recommends trying fresh herbs like parsley or basil, which can easily change the flavor profile.
“A good way to explore different leafy greens is to start with romaine or iceberg salad, and sprinkle in a leafy green that you haven’t tried before,” she said.
Check out Dykstra’s list of leafy greens to incorporate into your diet:
Spinach comes in a variety of forms, all widely available. You can try fresh, frozen or—Popeye’s favorite—the canned variety.
“Spinach is neutral and easy to use,” Dykstra said. “You can put it in soup, a salad, a smoothie, or any dish, really. And it could be enjoyed cold or hot.”
Try tossing it with scrambled eggs or add it to just about any pasta dish. You can also saute it on its own, with a dash of garlic and olive oil.
“Spinach brings a great addition of flavor, color and nutrients to your plate,” Dykstra said. “It’s high in vitamin A, C, and calcium, and is very cost effective.”
Kale comes in a variety of styles—regular green leafy kale, purple kale, curly kale. It has a thick texture and a rigid stem, which you’ll want to remove before cooking.
“For raw kale, it can be helpful to massage the kale before eating it to make it more tender and easier to digest,” Dykstra said. “You can cook it steamed, baked, roasted, or even roast into chips.”
For some, it’s an acquired taste—but it’s also packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
“It can be harder to digest and can be a little tougher to chew,” Dykstra said. “It’s not always appealing to everyone. But if you’re just using it in a salad, try massaging it in an acidic dressing. This will break down the toughness.”
Arugula has a peppery flavor that can make meals or salads slightly more bitter, but it can also pop the flavor profile up quite a bit. It’s available fresh at most grocery stores and it isn’t terribly expensive.
This highly nutritious green is full of vitamins A and C, both of which are powerful antioxidants. It helps maintain a healthy immune system.
Arugula has a bit of a bite, but it can jumpstart a sandwich or wrap, Dykstra said. It’s also an awesome addition to any pasta dish.
Dandelion greens have a certain bitterness to them, but they offer a unique flavor profile and texture.
While they aren’t widely used in salads and meals, they definitely rank high in nutrition—they’re rich in iron, calcium, vitamins A, C, K and B2.
“Dandelion greens make a delicious side dish by simply sauteing or braising them and adding some extra virgin olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper,” Dykstra said.
Swiss chard comes in a variety of colors, making it highly versatile and a beautiful addition to any dish.
Red, white and rainbow are all options at most grocers.
“Swiss chard is very nutrient-dense, and has a good amount of fiber,” Dykstra said. “It is rich in vitamin K, A, and C. And iron, too.”
Swiss chard can be a little on the tough side. It’s not as bitter as arugula, but not as neutral as kale or spinach. It also has more fiber per cup than spinach.
Broccoli and broccolini
Believe it or not, broccoli and broccolini are considered greens.
“Broccoli is extremely versatile,” Dykstra said. “You can steam it, roast it and cut it up and mix into almost any dish, or eat it alone as a healthy side dish.”
It’s high in soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. It’s also a cost-effective ingredient and it’s easy to cook. Frozen broccoli has the same nutritional value as the fresh version.
Romaine and iceberg
Two classic go-to choices for salads: Romaine lettuce and iceberg lettuce.
You shouldn’t disregard these two, Dykstra said, as they have their own nutritional benefits. And eating any greens can offer more benefits than eating none at all.
A good choice for a basic lettuce use, romaine has fiber, potassium and vitamin C. It’s also a good source of magnesium.
“Romaine is super versatile and easy to find,” Dykstra said. “It is good for salads, sandwiches, a side of an enchilada or taco. And it adds color and crunch. You can also use it as a sandwich wrap instead of bread.”
Don’t overlook iceberg lettuce, either.
“It can be satisfying for people who like crunch,” Dykstra said. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s just, bite for bite, romaine and spinach will have more nutritional value.”
Iceberg lettuce has a high water content, as well as some fiber, potassium and vitamin C. It’s also a good source of magnesium.
Dykstra recommends using it as a sandwich wrap, if you want to go bread-free.
“If you want to amp up your nutrition bite for bite, go with romaine,” Dykstra said. “And if you want to eat lettuce, and like a crunch, go with iceberg. It’s better than eating no lettuce at all.”
There are plenty of ways to kick your salad up a notch, but not all ingredients are created equal.
Dykstra offers a handy short list of nutritious ingredients to add to salads: chickpeas, pepitas, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, shredded carrots, chia seeds and fresh chopped fruit.
Chopped red cabbage and red peppers can add a colorful crunch. Try English peas and chopped artichokes, too.
Think protein when building a salad, Dykstra said—you can add beans, lentils, salmon or chicken.
“You can make homemade whole grain croutons from leftover bread,” she said. “And try experimenting with fresh herbs like parsley, dill or basil. The sky is the limit.”