Nutrition: There are so many ways to love pumpkin

Pumpkin is a fruit in the strict botanical sense, having characteristics such as a fleshy part enclosing seeds, and tending to grow from flowers.

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Once upon a time, when my kids were little, and with encouragement from my English-major brother, we read classics together in a seasonal sort of way. “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” around Easter time, “A Christmas Carol” during chilly December evenings, and in the fall, it was “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Notwithstanding the scary parts, Sleepy Hollow painted glorious, nostalgic scenes of autumn. There was harvesting and bountiful food, "…the yellow pumpkins … turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies.”

Today’s pumpkin and pumpkin flavors enhance a growing list of foods, well beyond pies: muffins, bars, quick breads, pancakes, soups, smoothies, ice cream, pudding, pasta, coffee beverages and even beer. It can easily be cooked into sweet or savory dishes.

USDA statistics support the popularity of pumpkin, noting an increase in production value from 74.7 million U.S. dollars in 2001 to $178.7 million in 2018. Pumpkin is available in a wide range of sizes, shapes, colors, textures, tastes and uses.

We consume the pumpkin flesh in a pureed form, and snack on the seeds, often from these varieties:


Styrian Pumpkin: Developed in Austria and the source of pepitas or pumpkin seeds without hulls, sometimes called naked pumpkin seeds. One variety is named Lady Godiva.

Select Dickinson: Most common pumpkin used for processing.

Pumpkin is also a familiar decorative accent in the fall, carved-up for jack-o-lanterns or paired with ornamental or Indian corn. Interesting varieties in addition to the standard-size orange include:

Jumbo Pumpkin: Atlantic Giant, with contest-winning weight of more than 2,000 pounds.

Miniature Pumpkin: Baby Boo (white), Munchkin, and Sweetie Pie (cutest names ever)

Cinderella Pumpkin: Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo — imagine her enchanted carriage with the twirly vine wheels. An heirloom variety from France.

But is it a fruit or vegetable? Pumpkin is a fruit in the strict botanical sense, having characteristics such as a fleshy part enclosing seeds, and tending to grow from flowers. It is classified as a winter squash in the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes cucumbers and melons. However, pumpkin is not particularly sweet, hence commonly thought of as vegetable and counted as a vegetable serving.

Either way, Americans have a startlingly low intake of fruits and vegetables, with only 25% at best getting the recommended number of servings per day, even with counting potatoes! There are signs of change, however. Broccoli has been reinvented as a roasted version. Cauliflower is incorporated into many new products, such as pizza crust. And kale has gone mainstream, with okra on the horizon. Yes, this could be a moment for pumpkin. It has a lot to recommend it.


Pumpkin is a good source of vital nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium, copper, manganese and fiber. It’s remarkably high in beta carotene, a carotenoid that the body transforms into Vitamin A. Pumpkin is also a source of lutein and zeathanthin, compounds linked to lower risks of macular degeneration and cataracts.

It does indeed make “the most luxurious of pies” as noted by Washington Irving. It’s also yummy as a soup and in cookies. Try it in these moist and sweet muffins. You can make this recipe ahead — it freezes beautifully.

Mini Harvest Muffins

A delicious little treat

1 cup pumpkin puree, unsweetened

1 ½ cups 1 minute rolled oats

1 tsp. baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice


2 eggs (preferably large), lightly beaten

¾ cup packed brown sugar

¼ cup flour

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 Tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

2 Tbsp. pepitas, chopped

Optional: ¼ cup dried cranberries or for topping


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using a mini muffin pan (24 little muffins) spray with non-stick cooking spray or line with individual paper mini muffin cups.

Mix dry ingredients together: oats, baking powder and soda, pumpkin pie spice, flour and brown sugar.

Add eggs, vanilla extract, and canola oil. Don’t over mix

Lastly, blend in chocolate chips

Spoon into prepared muffin cups to ¾ full.

Top with a sprinkle of dried cranberries

Bake for 18 minutes.


Cool on wire rack

Mary W. Zbaracki, MPH, RD, LD, CDE, CNSC, is a dietitian for St. Luke's.

Mary Zbaracki 1.jpg
Mary W. Zbaracki is a dietitian for St. Luke's.

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