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:
- Smoothies and smoothie bowls
- Sauteed or steamed as a side dish
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Flavour Profile: Bitter, spicy
Best Used For: Stir-fries, soups, salads, stews, omelettes, frittatas, pasta
Cooking Tip: They are much less spicy when cooked.
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)
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!
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4 responses to “Guide to Dark Leafy Greens + How to Use Them”
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?
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/
Would love more about juicing these green vegetables
Hi Yolanda! You can certainly juice these green vegetables, too. If you’re new to eating some of these greens, start off with juicing the milder ones and then add in some of the bitterer options. Spinach, ginger, lemon, mint and green apple is a great combo to start with! Do let us know if there was a more specific question you have about juicing.