Squash has been a part of North American diets for a long time — more than 8,000 years, to be exact. First cultivated in Central America, it spread far and wide across the continent. Its many varieties are what food scientists call the Cucurbita family, which includes zucchini and pumpkin as well as butternut and, yes, acorn squash.
There are many reasons why acorn squash became so popular. One is its signature flavor. Somehow savory and sweet at the same time, acorn squash fares just as well in a side dish with onions as it does in pies and cookies.
Acorn squash is a winter squash, meaning that it grows longer on the vine before harvest. This extra growing time lets the skin gets hard and tough, giving it a longer storage life. You can store it for up to three months — or even longer as long as the conditions stay dry and cool, ideally between 50 and 60 F.
Acorn squash is rich in antioxidants, which can neutralize potentially harmful molecules called free radicals. These antioxidants can help to protect people against health issues like arthritis, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.
Other health benefits of acorn squash include:
One half-cup serving of cooked acorn squash contains 9% of your recommended daily dose of vitamin A — and then there’s the vitamin A that your body synthesizes from acorn squash’s alpha- and beta-carotene. Your body uses that vitamin A to nourish your cornea and produce the moisture your eyes need to work properly.
Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
Acorn squash provides one of the best possible ratios of heart-healthy vitamins to calories. Some studies have shown that carotenoids like those in acorn squash can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease — but only when those carotenoids come from foods. Supplements don’t appear to have the same benefit.
Some studies have shown that the beta-carotene in acorn squash, along with other similar nutrients, can help protect the skin from sun damage and related cancers. Evidence is still preliminary, though, and more studies need to happen to figure out the best possible dosing.
A recent study showed that consuming foods high in vitamin A can reduce the risk of squamous cell skin cancer by up to 15%.
Acorn squash also contains high levels of carotenoid pigments, the chemicals that give it its yellow-orange color. Your body can take these carotenoids, including beta-carotene and its close cousin alpha-carotene, and convert them into even more vitamin A. Some studies also show that carotenoids can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Acorn squash is also a good source of these vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamins B1 & B6
- Dietary fiber
- Folate (folic acid)
Nutrients per Serving
A half-cup of baked acorn squash (one serving) contains the following nutrients:
Things to Watch Out For
Acorn squash is a starchy vegetable, meaning it’s higher in carbs than non starchy ones, like broccoli and spinach. If you’re watching your carbs, limit acorn squash to one cup or about 25% of your plate.
How to Prepare Acorn Squash
Acorn squash is easy to prepare. Start by choosing a squash that has a smooth, dry skin with no soft spots or cracks. The squash should be noticeably heavy and have a rounded, dry stem. If there’s no stem, bacteria can get into the squash and spoil it.
Before buying, test the squash by running your finger along the skin. If pieces of the skin flake off, leave it behind — it means the squash didn’t ripen enough.
To get your squash ready to eat, wash it thoroughly and slice it in half vertically. Remove the seeds, season to taste, and bake it until a fork slides through it easily. If you’d like, you can season it before baking. Try:
- Olive oil, salt, and pepper
- Maple syrup and thyme
- Honey, rosemary, and nutmeg
- Melted butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg
Feel free to experiment with the many ingredients that compliment acorn squash. Some, like cinnamon, have powerful health benefits of their own.