Guide to Dark Leafy Greens + How to Use Them

Dark leafy greens are a true workhorse of the vegetable world: they contain a payload of nutrients that support good health, including antioxidants, healthy fats, fibre, anti-cancer compounds, amino acids, anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, blood-building minerals and an array of vitamins and minerals. Sometimes we have a tendency to stick to the dark leafy greens that are safe and familiar, but there are a wide variety of them and they can be used in a multitude of fun and delicious ways in the kitchen.

Let’s talk about leafy greens and exactly how to use them.

Health Benefits of Dark Leafy Greens

Dark leafy greens are a spectacular source of nutrients. Generally, most dark leafy greens have:

  • Fibre, which helps to support our digestive tract and produce beneficial bacteria.
  • Antioxidant Vitamins A, C and E. These help to support the digestive tract lining,  boost the immune system, protect us from free radical damage and reduce inflammation.
  • A suite of B vitamins that boost our energy levels and help us manage stress.
  • Vitamin K for bone health and proper blood clotting.
  • Minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium, which support energy levels, relax our muscles and reinforce bone health.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids, essential fats that are highly anti-inflammatory. These are the good fat sources!
  • A small amount of protein – a macronutrient important to healing and repair.
  • Certain dark leafy greens, like dandelion or mustard, have bitter compounds that stimulate digestion.
  • Glucosinolates, which are compounds that have anti-cancer properties and help us to detoxify.

Dark leafy greens also have nutrients that help us balance our hormones, reduce acid reflux, combat inflammation and sleep better at night.

Guide to Dark Leafy Greens

This handy guide will help you discover the range of leafy greens and how you can use them!

Generally, dark leafy greens are wonderful in:

Spinach

Flavour Profile: Spinach is a very mild tasting green. It’s a good ‘beginner’ green and is very kid-friendly.

Best Used For: Smoothies, salads, soups, stews, juicing, omelettes, pizza, pasta, pesto

Cooking Tip: Spinach is delicate – high heat and lengthy temperatures will cause nutrient loss. When cooking, take your dish off the heat, stir in the spinach and let it wilt.

Kale

Flavour Profile: Moderately bitter and fibrous

Best Used For:  Kale chips, juicing, salads, pestos, pizza. Is available in curly and flat form, both are great to use.

Preparation Tip: We recommend massaging kale with lemon, olive oil and salt if having it raw to help break down the leaves. Save them stems for juicing or to add to blended soups.

Collard Greens

Flavour Profile: Moderately bitter

Best Used For: Juicing, as an alternative to bread for wraps or lettuce cups, ‘cabbage’ rolls, stews, one-pot meals

Cooking Tip: Collards are a tough green and can stand up to long and slow cooking (think of the Southern classic dish of cooked collard greens).

Swiss Chard

Flavour Profile: Slightly bitter; some people find it mild (but not quite as mild as spinach), crunchy

Best Used For: Salads, juicing, smoothies, soups, pasta, stir-fries, savory oatmeal

Cooking Tip: Don’t toss the stems! The can be chopped up finely and added to salads, or cut them into larger pieces and use them in stir-fies.

Dandelion Greens

Flavour Profile: Very bitter, peppery, earthy

Best Used For: Salads, omelettes, sandwiches, side dishes, smoothies, savory oats, stir-fries

Cooking Tip: Be hard core and gain the digestive benefits by eating it raw; otherwise, it’s nice to have dandelion lightly sautéed or steamed.

Beet Greens

Flavour Profile: Slightly bitter, chewy, earthy

Best Used For: Stir-fries, side dishes, salads, pestos, stews, veggie burgers

Cooking Tip: A short blanching will make beet greens much more palatable.

Turnip Greens

Flavour Profile: Pungent, sharp, spicy

Best Used For: Stir-fries, potato salad, soups, stews, as a replacement for bread

Cooking Tip: Turnip greens are hardier and can stand up to longer cooking. Many southern recipes pair turnip greens with apple cider vinegar, which can be used in 20 awesome ways.

Mustard Greens

Flavour Profile: Bitter, spicy

Best Used For: Stir-fries, soups, salads, stews, omelettes, frittatas, pasta

Cooking Tip: They are much less spicy when cooked.

Arugula

Flavour Profile: Spicy, peppery

Best Used For: Salads, pestos, omelettes, pasta, sandwich/burger topping, juicing, smoothies

Prep Tip: Most of what you see in stores is baby arugula, which is much less spicy. The leaves are delicate – ensure they are stored properly so they don’t wilt (see tips below)

Watercress

Flavour Profile: Peppery

Best Used For: Salads, soups, stews, smoothies, juicing, sandwich/burger topping, pestos

Purchasing Tip: Don’t forage for it in the wild – it can be easily contaminated by environmental pollutants and other animals.

How to Make Dark Leafy Greens More Palatable

As we noted in the guide above, many dark leafy greens have bold, bitter, spicy or peppery flavours. The taste is so strong because all of the nutrients they contain! Don’t despair – there are more ways to make them tastier:

  • Build up your tolerance. Bitter foods are fantastic for digestion and for the liver. The more we eat them, the more we become accustomed to their flavour.
  • Lightly steam or blanch them. This helps to temper their strength.
  • Pair them with an acid. Lemon/lime juice and vinegars will help reduce the bitterness.
  • Add salt. A good sea salt helps break down the cell walls of dark leafy greens, making them easier to chew and digest.

Buying Dark Leafy Greens: What to Look For

Whether you’re buying from the farmers market, grocery store, local co-op or food stand, or growing them yourself, here are some things to look out for.

  • Find greens that are brightly coloured and unblemished with brown or yellow spots.
  • Ensure greens are firm, not soggy or wilted.
  • Stems should be relatively moist and crisp, not dried out.
  • Aim to purchase greens when they are in season and locally grown – they will be fresher and travel fewer miles to reach you.

How to Store Dark Leafy Greens

Because no one want to eat soggy spinach!

  • Wash greens well, removing any dirt (or bugs that have crept in).
  • Ensure they are really, really dry before storing.
  • Greens that have stems (kale, chard, collards, etc.) can be stored in a glass jar with water (like a vase of flowers), covered with a plastic bag and fastened.
  • Greens without stems can be stored directly in your salad spinner (don’t actually spin them until ready to use), or wrap them in a towel and place them in a bag.

More produce storage tips here.

Dark leafy greens are a wonderful addition to your diet. Explore different kinds of leafy greens in a variety of recipes and see which ones you enjoy the most!

Dark Leafy Greens

Image: iStock/Elenathewise

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2 responses to “Guide to Dark Leafy Greens + How to Use Them

  1. Iris

    I have just found your site and feel it has credibility. I have always loved strawberries and blueberries on my steel cut oatmeal for breakfast. I have had digestive issues recently and a newbie to food combining. Is this truly a digestive food combining no no and if so what can be eaten in steel cut oats to make it have a a flair?

    1. Thanks for visiting us! Digestion can be complex and unique to each individual, so we recommend working with someone to come up with recommendations that are best for your digestion.

      In terms of making oatmeal exciting, you could add fresh fruit, dried fruit, nut/seed butters, spices, superfoods (here are some of our faves: https://www.culinarynutrition.com/our-5-favourite-superfoods/), dairy-free yogurt, fresh homemade nut/seed milk, etc. There are a lot of possibilities!

      You may also find this article about digestion interesting: https://www.culinarynutrition.com/digestive-phase-important-nobody-ever-talks/

Let us know what you think!