The Perfectly Healthy Pumpkin

For most of us, pumpkins—especially when baked into pies—are an essential part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Lucky for us, they're also packed full of nutrition, adding a healthy touch to our holiday meal.

A little history

People have prized pumpkins for centuries. The name "pumpkin" originated from the Greek word pepon, which means "large melon."

Pumpkins have been associated with Thanksgiving since the Pilgrims learned from the American Indians just how versatile the pumpkin is. The Indians dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. They also roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them, and toasted the seeds.

The first pumpkin "pie" was served when the colonists sliced off a pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices, and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in hot coals.

Packed with nutrients

Pumpkins are packed with vitamins and fiber, and they're low in calories. A half-cup serving contains less than 50 calories and delivers between 3 and 5 grams of dietary fiber. Plus fresh pumpkin is an excellent source of vitamin A.

Vitamin A is essential for maintaining good vision; proper bone and tooth development; and a healthy immune system. Some research has suggested that vitamin A inhibits certain cancers—including lung, skin, and digestive system cancers—by disrupting the processes that turn normal cells into malignant ones. But other research suggests that excess amounts of vitamin A, over a period of time, can increase the risk for hip fracture in older women.

To keep pumpkin-based treats as healthy as possible, reduce the fat in your recipes. For instance, you can substitute evaporated skim milk in place of sweetened condensed milk. You get the same consistency without all the fat.

You should also cut back on sugar, reducing the amount by 25 or even 50 percent: 

Selection, storage and preparation

It's important to appreciate the differences between what we think of as "carving pumpkins" and "cooking pumpkins."

The best carving pumpkins are the large, dark orange variety. Cooking pumpkins, on the other hand, are typically smaller and lighter in color. They're denser than carving pumpkins because they contain less water. The flesh is sweeter.

Choose a pumpkin with a fresh, green stem. A brown, dry stem indicates that the pumpkin was picked a while ago. Look for a pumpkin with one to two inches of stem left. If the stem is cut down low, the pumpkin may decay more quickly.

Avoid pumpkins with blemishes and soft spots, and store your pumpkin in a cool, dry spot; dampness will cause it to rot prematurely. Stored correctly, your pumpkin could last from 60 to 90 days.

To prepare fresh pumpkin puree, start by removing the seeds and stringy membrane. Cut the pumpkin meat into pieces, then boil the pieces in a large saucepan until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Peel the outer skin, placing the cooked meat into a blender or food processor. You'll get about a cup of pumpkin puree for each pound of pumpkin.

Now comes the good part: use the puree as your recipe suggests, or use it as a one-to-one substitute for any recipe calling for solid pack canned pumpkin (1 cup puree equals 1 cup canned). The puree freezes well, too—so why not place some in the freezer, and recreate the healthy holiday feeling in a month or two?