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NUTRITION: Add colorful squash to your fall meals

Roasting winter squash is one way to prepare this nutrient-rich vegetable.

Fall is a great time to add sweet, rich-flavored winter squash to your meals and snacks.

There are many different winter squash varieties but the more common ones in our area include acorn, butternut and hubbard. Winter squash is different than summer squashes such as zucchini because these varieties are more mature, have a thick skin and often are orange in color.

The orange color is an outward sign of squash's nutrient content. In fact, winter squash provides numerous health benefits that may help reduce the risk of heart and respiratory disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. These nutritional components include high levels of beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A; a good source of vitamin C; a good source of fiber; antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds; and polysaccharides that help regulate blood sugar

To choose a good squash, pick one that is heavy for its size, has a thick, hard skin and no cracks or soft spots.

Winter squash are easy to store and prepare. Uncut winter squash keeps for three to six months when stored in a cool, dry place. A cut squash will last about a week in the refrigerator.

Microwaved, baked and roasted are some common preparation methods. Be sure to rinse the squash under running water before it is peeled or cut.

• Microwave: Take half of a squash (skin may be left on), wrap in plastic wrap and microwave for about five minutes or until tender. This will create steam, so be very careful when removing the plastic wrap. Seeds and skin can easily be removed after it is cooked and cooled.

• Bake: Place unpeeled squash halves or pieces on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for 40-50 minutes or until tender

• Roast: Place halves or pieces on a baking sheet with the flesh side down or roast skinned chunks by themselves or with other vegetables by coating them with a little olive oil and some seasonings. Place in a 400 degree oven for 40-50 minutes or until tender

Other suggestions:

• Add grated, canned or leftover cooked squash to muffins and breads.

• Puree winter squash as a base for a thick, hearty soup.

• Sprinkle a little brown sugar on your squash.

• Use halved, cooked squash and stuff with other ingredients like rice, corn or beans.

• Make fries out of butternut squash.

• Drizzle olive oil and add a little pepper or other low-sodium seasoning on cooked squash and eat as a side dish.

• Save the seeds and make a healthy and delicious snack. Separate seeds from the pulp before baking. Allow seeds to dry. Place in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil and bake at 160-170 degrees for about 15-20 minutes or until tender. Seeds can be drizzled with olive oil and seasoned before baking. Enjoy seeds as a snack or add to a salad or trail mix.

Winter Squash Soup

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2½ pounds winter squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks

1 tablespoon honey

5 cups low-sodium chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional: fresh parsley, chopped for garnish

Melt butter and oil in a large saucepan. Add onions and celery, gently cook until very soft, about 15 minutes. Add the squash and cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Add honey and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until the squash is tender. Remove from heat. Use a blender or food processor and pulse until smooth (add more stock or water if soup is too thick). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reheat before serving. Add parsley to garnish if desired.

Nutrition Facts: Servings, 4; calories, 270; protein, 7; carbohydrates, 40; total fat, 10 grams; saturated fat, 5 grams; fiber, 7; sodium, 310 milligrams.

Teresa Farrell is a registered and licensed dietitian with Essentia Health.