With the biggest food holiday of the year on the horizon, there are fall wreaths, pumpkins, pie-scented candles, and colorful little gourds everywhere. And some of these decorative staples are just as good for you to eat as they are pretty to look at. While you shouldn’t waste your time trying to cook up those bendy little gourds, the pumpkins—and tons of other types of winter squash (yep, pumpkins are a type of squash), like butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and delicata squash—deserve some major real estate on your Thanksgiving plate.
Here are five important nutrients squashes add to your plate.
1. Vitamin A
A food’s orange hue indicates it contains carotenoids, which are chemical compounds that turn into vitamin A in the body, says Kimszal. These carotenoids, including beta-carotene, are powerful antioxidants, and vitamin A is crucial for maintaining healthy vision. Take just one look at the orange-y color of pumpkins and butternut squash and you know they’re loaded with these compounds.
One cup of cubed pumpkin has about 200 percent of your daily value for vitamin A, and a cup of butternut squash packs nearly 300 percent, according to Kimszal. (Women need 700 micrograms a day, while men need 900.)
Everyone should shoot for about 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day, but most only clock in around 15 to 18 grams, according to the CDC. Not only does fiber keep you from feeling ravenous again minutes after eating, but it’s also key for digestive health.
3. Vitamin C
We all know vitamin C is important for our immune systems, but did you know most types of squash, like acorn and hubbard, provide about 20 percent of your daily vitamin C?
If you want some extra antioxidant power, a cup of butternut squash boasts about 50 percent of your daily vitamin C needs, says Alix Turoff, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., C.P.T. (Men need about 90 milligrams a day, while women need about 75.)
The next time you make squash, save the seeds! A cup of roasted pumpkin seeds provides about two milligrams of iron, which your blood needs to transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, says Turoff. That’s a little more than ten percent of women’s daily iron needs (18 milligrams) and a quarter of men’s (eight milligrams).
Looking for another reason to chow down on seeds? They contain tryptophan, an amino acid your body uses to create the hormone melatonin, which helps you sleep, says Turoff. Tryptophan also plays a role in your production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which can help boost mood, adds nutritionist Keith Kantor, Ph.D.
Butternut squash seeds are some of the highest in tryptophan, with a ratio of 22 milligrams of tryptophan per gram of protein. Talk about a mood and snooze-boosting snack!
How To Put More Squash On Your Plate
If you want to keep things simple, you can bake or broil just about any squash with herbs and spices for a perfect fall side dish. Smaller squashes, like acorn squash, can just be halved, cooked, and eaten straight out of the skin with a spoon, while larger squashes, like butternut squash, are best peeled and cubed. Spaghetti squash, which can be scraped out in noodle-like strings once cooked, also makes for a perfect healthy pasta alternative, says Mearaph Barnes, R.D., co-founder of Roots Reboot.
Squashes are also great in soups, like Kimszal’s coconut broccoli butternut squash soup, because they’re hearty and slightly sweet.
And, of course, there’s always pumpkin pie. Want to make yours a little healthier this year? Blend a can of 100-percent pure pumpkin puree with 10 ounces of silken tofu and 10 to 12 pitted dates in the food processor, says Barnes. Then, add powdered cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon to taste. Pour the mixture into a whole-wheat pie crust and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.