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Delicious and Nutritious Winter Squash

Each garden season provides a bounty of delicious and nutritious foods and the fall season is no exception. Apples and pumpkins immediately come to mind, but autumn brings many other superstars as well.

Winter squash, for example, is plentiful now. Common varieties include acorn, patty pan, butternut, delicata, and spaghetti squash. Unlike summer squash, these varieties have a sweeter flavor and, because of their thick skin, can be stored for up to three months. All types of winter squash pair well with other fall flavors such as cinnamon and ginger and fall fruits like apples and cranberries. And of course, like other yellow and orange vegetables, winter squash is super nutritious.

When choosing winter squash, look for ones that are firm, heavy for their size, and have dull skins (not shiny). They should be hard without cracks or soft spots. Store uncut winter squash in a dark, cool, dry place. Wash squash thoroughly under cool running water just before cutting. Once cut, store in the refrigerator and use within one week.

Winter squash can be baked, roasted, steamed, sautéed, or microwaved. To prepare acorn or butternut squash, cut in half, remove seeds and strings, and drizzle with olive oil. Place cut side down on a baking sheet and bake for 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees. Alternatively, these squash can be peeled, then cubed or sliced and roasted at 450 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until soft. Squash with thick hard rinds, especially butternut, can be very difficult to cut. To soften, poke holes in the rind with a fork and microwave for 2-5 minutes. Delicata squash have thinner skins so they can be sliced and cooked without peeling first. Patty pan squash are best steamed whole and topped with butter and Parmesan cheese. Spaghetti squash can be baked whole and cut in half immediately after cooking. Discard the seeds and rake out the strands with a fork to serve with your favorite pasta sauce.

While winter squash is delicious on its own, feel free to experiment with low-sodium seasonings such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, marjoram, or nutmeg. Combining with apples or nuts provides additional flavor and crunch. Leftover squash can be mashed and frozen in one-cup portions for quick use in pies, breads or muffins.

In addition to winter squash, the fall season also features turnips, beets, cabbage, sweet potatoes, collards, and other dark green leafy vegetables. Fruits such as apples, pears, persimmons, grapes, dates, and cranberries are plentiful this time of year as well. When added to salads, eaten fresh, or in combination with a savory meat dish, these fruits really bring fall to the table.

Written By Tracy Davis, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Rutherford County Center

There’s a lot to love about popcorn. It’s a fun, quick treat; a fluffy and crunchy textural delight. It is enjoyable freshly popped and hot OR at room temperature. Popcorn is the perfect canvas for all sorts of flavors, sweet and savory – and often, both together! It is a nostalgic snack, evoking memories of movie nights, cinematic adventure, and happy gatherings. But did you know popcorn is also a nutritious, gluten free whole grain?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies a whole grain as all parts that make up a kernel – the bran, endosperm, and germ. Popcorn passes! In fact, a 3 cup serving of popped popcorn is considered one whole serving from the grain group. This is good news, as consuming whole grains has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease; one of many beneficial reasons the USDA encourages us to make at least half of the grains we eat whole. Furthermore, because popcorn is  – well, corn – it is a gluten free food. This is particularly important for our friends and family who have gluten intolerances and celiac disease – an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and products that contain these ingredients.

Keeping nutrition in mind, popcorn isn’t necessarily a ready, set, snack! situation. It certainly can be  – there is nothing wrong with having an occasional snack simply to snack and enjoy  – however, flavoring is an important component to pay attention to if you’re looking to keep it healthy. Any number of additives may offset your pursuit. “Nutrients” do not always = nutrition, as is the case with items like sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats.

When watching the Recommended Daily Value (RDV) of nutrients, it is worth noting the percentages (%DV) of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats. These are the big three, as reducing overall intake of these items has been linked to the prevention of chronic diseases, like heart disease and hypertension. Take, for example, this label from a popular buttery brand. A serving size (about 5 cups popped) contains 30% RDV of saturated fats and 20% RDV of sodium. Accounting for individual health goals, these are significant amounts toward daily intake. However, fear not….

There are so many ways to enjoy a healthy popcorn snack, and a variety of recipes to try. Take this Simple Stovetop Popcorn from the Med Instead of Meds Program, an eating pattern that champions making your grains whole. Looking for something a little sweeter? Check out this Popcorn Treats recipe from USDA MyPlate. If you’re interested in tackling something a little more gourmet, try this Peanut Caramel Popcorn from Oldways. Maybe spicy is more your style? This Chili Popcorn is worth your while!

Written By: Amanda Butalla, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, NC Cooperative Extension, Ashe County Center

A lot has been happening over the last few years. A lot has changed and a lot of us have had multiple things to deal with at once, making changes and dealing with the unexpected. It is okay to take some time for yourself. There is no wonder that airlines tell you in an emergency to put the oxygen mask on your own face before helping others. If you don’t take care of yourself, then you won’t have any energy left to take care of the people who depend on you. So, make sure you are staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, getting physical activity, and make sure you take some “me time” every once in a while. Our mental health is just as important as our physical and emotional health. Everyone gets overwhelmed at times and worn down. We also feel like we are alone but in reality, everyone is going through their own struggles. Life is hard and it is full of choices. So, choose you and take care of you. 

Try the following recipe courtesy of the South Dakota State University Extension

Tuna Apple Salad Sandwich – serves 4 

1 apple (such as Fuji) 

1 can (12oz) chunk light tuna (drained) 

2 Tbsp low fat plain yogurt 

2 Tbsp reduced fat mayonnaise 

½ cup raisins 

¼ cup chopped walnuts 

1/8 tsp ground black pepper 

8 leaves lettuce 

8 slices whole-grain bread. 

Cut apple in quarters; remove cored and chop. In a medium-size bowl, mix all salad ingredients, except tuna. Gently fold in tuna. Make sandwiches, using lettuce and whole-grain bread (toasted, if desired), and fill with tuna apple salad. 

Nutrition information: 380 calories, 10g fat, 550mg sodium, 27g protein, 7g fiber

Written By Jennifer Brown, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Granville and Person County Centers

Have you ever wondered how long your frozen food will last? Or, can you eat a canned good after the expiration? Maybe even which method of storage is the best? Well, if you have ever wondered about any of these things, keep reading for more information on food storage. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), proper home food storage helps maintain safety and food quality by keeping flavor, color, texture, and nutrients in food. 

Pantry items   Many staples and canned foods have a relatively long shelf life. However, foods stored for longer than recommended times or beyond the date on the package may change quality, color, and flavor. 

Home Food Storage – Dry Foods

Refrigerated foods   Refrigerators should be kept at a temperature of 40°F (4°C) or below. At that temperature, bacterial growth is slowed and quality is maintained. Time limits will keep refrigerated food from spoiling or causing someone to become ill. Because product dates are not a guide for the safe use of a product, here are a few tips to follow:

  • Purchase the product before “sell-by” or expiration date. 
  • Follow handling recommendations on product. 
  • Keep meat and poultry in their package until just before using. 
  • If freezing meat and poultry in its original package longer than 2 months, cover these packages with heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper. Or, place the package inside a freezer bag. 

More “Dates” – 

  • “Best if Used By” on the package-labeling if the date is simply related to optimal quality, not safety. If the products have changed noticeably in color, consistency, or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them. 
  • “Use By” date labels you see on packaged foods relate to the quality of the product, but predicting when food will no longer be of adequate quality for consumption is not an exact science. 

Freezer – Freezers should be kept at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. Because freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, the following recommended freezer storage times are for quality (flavor, color, texture, etc.) only. It is also very important to purchase thermometers for both your refrigerator/freezer. You can find them in the housewares section of department, appliance, culinary, and grocery stores. Buy two! Place one in your refrigerator and one in your freezer. 

Two more tips: 

  • Place the thermometer in the front of the refrigerator/freezer in an easy-to-read location. 
  • Check temperature regularly — at least once a week. 

NOTE: If the freezer compartment isn’t a separate freezer compartment but a compartment inside the refrigerator, it may be impossible to obtain a 0ºF temperature. One sign of this will be soft ice cream. Plan to use food within a few weeks. 

Written By Toi Degree, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Rowan County Center