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Winter Vegetables

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many winter-season vegetables taste better after a frost
  • As temperatures drop, the cold causes the plants to break down energy stores into sugar, leading to a sweeter flavor
  • Vegetables that taste best in winter include kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, mustard greens, parsnips, collard greens, and cabbage
 

7 Foods That Will Taste Better Now Than They Will All Year

January 26, 2015 | 51,499 views

By Dr. Mercola

When you take a trip to your local grocery store, it's easy to take the displays of fresh produce for granted – along with the fact that out-of-season produce is available virtually year-round. Pineapples in the Midwest in the middle of winter? Green beans in February?

No problem, if you live near a supermarket. Yet, there's something to be said for choosing your produce seasonally. That is, focusing your meals around the foods that are naturally at their peak of ripeness.

Eating Seasonally Tastes Good and Is Good for You

According to the ancient science of Ayurveda, seasonal eating helps with digestion, because it favors easier-to-digest foods in the winter when your body is hard at work burning energy to keep you warm (and therefore theoretically has less energy to devote to digestion).

Seasonal produce will be fresher, too, which means its nutrients won't have time to degrade like the same food left to sit in cold storage for days or weeks. One study found that in-season broccoli (fall) contained nearly twice as much vitamin C as out-of-season (spring) broccoli.1

The seasonality of the broccoli had an even bigger impact on vitamin C levels than whether it was organically or conventionally grown. When you eat seasonally, you're also supporting the environment and your local community, because to get in-season foods you often have to shop locally.

In 2010, thousands of chefs voted cooking with seasonal locally grown produce as the top food trend … but there's nothing "trendy" about it. People have been eating seasonally since the beginning. As the Cleveland Clinic put it:2

"Eating foods when nature produces them is what people the world over have done naturally through most of history, before mega-supermarkets dotted the landscape and processed foods became ubiquitous.

Seasonal eating is also a cornerstone of several ancient and holistic medical traditions, which view it as integral to good health and emotional balance."

7 Foods That Taste Best in Winter

Perhaps best of all, seasonal produce will be at its peak in flavor, too, even if it's in the middle of winter. Many winter-season vegetables taste better after a frost. This is because as temperatures drop, the cold causes the plants to break down energy stores into sugar, leading to a sweeter, tastier flavor.3

With that in mind, the seven foods that follow taste best in the winter, making them ideal to add to your seasonal shopping list.

1. Kale

One cup of kale contains just around 30 calories but will provide you with seven times the daily recommended amount of vitamin K1, twice the amount of vitamin A and a day's worth of vitamin C, plus antioxidants, minerals, and much more.

This leafy green also has anti-inflammatory properties that may help prevent arthritis, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases – plant-based omega-3 fats for building cell membranes, cancer-fighting sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, and an impressive number of beneficial flavonoids.

Kale has a 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio – an exceptionally high amount of protein for any vegetable, and one reason why it has recently been acclaimed as the "new beef."

Surprisingly, like meat, kale contains all nine essential amino acids needed to form the proteins within your body: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine – plus, nine other non-essential ones for a total of 18.

Kale's sometimes-bitter flavor becomes sweeter in winter and, impressively, kale can survive temperatures as low as 10 degrees F.4

2. Brussels Sprouts

Like kale, Brussels sprouts become sweeter in winter, so if you think you don't like them, try them again now. One cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contains just 56 calories but is packed with more than 240 percent of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for vitamin K1, and nearly 130 percent of the RDA for vitamin C.

Plus, Brussels sprouts are a good source of fiber, manganese, potassium, choline, and B vitamins. They even contain protein. But not only do Brussels sprouts contain well-known antioxidants like vitamin C…

They also contain others that are much less known – but equally as important, like kaempferol, isorhamnetin, caffeic, and ferulic acids, and the relatively rare sulfur-containing compound called D3T (3H-1,2-dithiole-3-thione).

This means that when you eat Brussels sprouts, you're helping your body to ward off chronic oxidative stress, which is a risk factor for many types of cancer and other chronic diseases.

You can steam Brussels sprouts and toss them with olive oil, Parmesan cheese, or butter. You can roast them and quarter them, then toss them like a salad with onions, feta cheese, and balsamic vinegar.

If your Brussels sprouts become overly "smelly," mushy, or turn a muted green, they're probably overcooked. Ideally, they should be bright green with a slightly crisp texture and pleasant, nutty/sweet flavor, even after they're cooked.

3. Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi is German for "cabbage turnip," which is actually a spot-on way to describe this vegetable's flavor. This is a great plant to add to your winter garden, as it thrives in cool weather. When planted several weeks before a frost, you can expect a harvest in just a few weeks.5

This root vegetable is a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, along with such nutrition superstars as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.

Glucosinolates, which are sulfur-containing compounds found in kohlrabi, appear to have anti-cancer, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, and antibacterial benefits.

Kohlrabi can be cooked as you would carrots or turnips, but it can also be eaten raw (and this may be the best way of all).  Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), told TIME:6

"Kohlrabi's chemopreventive effects makes it particularly healthy … Kohlrabi contains isothiocyanates which are effective against cancer. The chemopreventive compounds are more bioavailable from fresh–about three times as much as from cooked–kohlrabi.

 The higher bioavailability is associated with a higher chemopreventive activity, which might be the reason why raw kohlrabi is preferentially consumed by health-conscious people."

4. Mustard Greens

Mustard greens have a peppery flavor that's better after a frost, and they make a perfect warming food on a cold winter day. Notably, they are a phenomenal source of vitamin K1 (providing 922 percent of the recommended daily value in just one cup) and vitamin A (96 percent of the recommended daily value).

Mustard greens are another standout member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, with research showing they rank second only to Brussels sprouts in terms of the cancer-fighting glucosinolates they contain.  

If you're trying to balance out your cholesterol levels, mustard greens may help, as they bind to bile acids in your digestive tract. According to the George Mateljan Foundation:7

"When bile acid binding takes place, it is easier for the bile acids to be excreted from the body. Since bile acids are made from cholesterol, the net impact of this bile acid binding is a lowering of the body's cholesterol level. It's worth noting that steamed mustard greens (and all steamed forms of the cruciferous vegetables) show much greater bile acid binding ability than raw mustard greens."

5. Parsnips

Parsnips are root vegetables that resemble carrots but are whitish in color and have a sweet, nutty flavor. Their flavor is best after a hard frost. Parsnips are rich in nutrients like fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamin C. Eating foods rich in potassium is important because this nutrient helps offset the hypertensive effects of sodium. An imbalance in your sodium-potassium ratio can lead to high blood pressure and may also contribute to a number of other diseases, including heart disease and stroke.

6. Collard Greens

Collard greens outshined even mustard greens in their ability to bind to bile acids in your digestive tract, which may help support healthy cholesterol levels.8 Plus, like mustard greens, they're rich in vitamins K1 and A, along with cancer-fighting glucosinolates that support healthy detoxification and fight inflammation. Collard greens also contain a wealth of antioxidants, including not only vitamins C and A but also vitamin E, caffeic acid, ferulic acid, quercetin, and kaempferol. This will help your body to ward of chronic oxidative stress, which may contribute to chronic disease and premature aging. Like the other winter vegetables mentioned, collard greens become sweeter after a frost.

7. Cabbage

Some types of cabbage can be grown in temperatures as low as 26 degrees F.9 What is cabbage good for? Cabbage contains powerful antioxidants like vitamins A and C and phytonutrients such as thiocyanates, lutein, zeaxanthin, isothiocyanates, and sulforaphane, which stimulate detoxifying enzymes and may protect against breast, colon and prostate cancers. Cabbage also contains a wealth of anti-inflammatory nutrients to help keep inflammation in check.

Among them are anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that's particularly plentiful in red cabbage, although all types of cabbage contain anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Cabbage also contains healthy amounts of B vitamins, including folate (which is better than the synthetic form known as folic acid found in many supplements), vitamin B6, vitamin B1, and vitamin B5. B vitamins are not only important for energy, they may also slow brain shrinkage by as much as seven-fold in brain regions specifically known to be most impacted by Alzheimer's disease.

Starting a Winter Garden

Many people assume that the best time to start a garden is in early spring. Depending on where you live, however, you can garden virtually year-round. Even in the northernmost areas of the US, a wide variety of vegetables can be grown during the winter, especially with the assistance of a few simple temperature-shielding strategies, such as cold frames, cloches and row covers. For your winter garden, your most important date to know is your "first frost" date. You'll want to plant your seeds early enough that the plants will be established before getting subjected to a light freeze. So your first step is to check your hardiness zone to see when your first frost is expected.

Most winter veggies are planted in mid to late summer so they are strong and ready for when the temperatures drop, and then ripe for harvest in winter or early spring. Timing this depends on how long each plant takes to reach maturity. And, remember, some vegetables, such as those listed above, develop a better flavor after a frost, so you'll need to plan accordingly. The following tables list the best vegetables for a winter garden and how long it takes each to mature, on average.

There are certain varieties of each veggie that are more suitable for cooler temperatures, and the seed packet often gives you this information. If not, make use of the staff's expertise at your local nursery—they usually know what varieties perform best in your area and are usually eager to help. With a bit of planning, next winter you can be feasting on parsnips, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and more, all grown right in your own backyard.

90 Days to Maturity

Beets CarrotsParsnips Rutabagas
Brussels sprouts Globe onions Garlic Cabbage
BroccoliCauliflower Fava Beans  

60 Days to Maturity

Early carrots Leeks Turnips Kohlrabi
Early cabbage Collard greens Swiss chard Peas
Kale     

30 Days to Maturity

Chives Radishes Leaf lettuceSpinach

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