When I was a kid, my mom would do her best to try to get me to eat my vegetables. I wasn't unusually picky, but the slimy texture of things like cooked spinach made my skin crawl, so in order to get me to eat the stuff, she'd disguise it in other foods I loved, like fruity smoothies. Even though the color of the drink always seemed a little suspicious whenever my mom added spinach, it still tasted so good. Channel your inner Popeye and enjoy plenty of the power food, because the best ways to eat spinach both taste good and keep you healthy.
If you aren't really a huge spinach fan, my guess is that you probably want to get the absolute maximum health benefits out of the leafy green on the few occasions you do choose to eat it. Thankfully, a new study has the answers you're looking for: According to the research, which has been published in the scientific journal Food Chemistry, the best way to absorb all of the green goodness is to enjoy it in a smoothie or a juice. The study's researchers looked specifically at the way that different preparation methods affect how much lutein — an antioxidant found in leafy greens — is absorbed by the body once you eat the food.
Regardless of the cooking method used, heating up spinach appeared to significantly reduce the vegetable's lutein content, the researchers found. The longer and hotter the veggie was cooked, the lower the antioxidant levels. So, if you're looking to capitalize on lutein's benefits, your best bet is to liquify the raw version of the green.
“Best is not to heat the spinach at all. And even better is to make a smoothie and add fat from dairy products, such as cream, milk or yoghurt," postdoc Rosanna Chung, principal author of the study, said in a Linköping University release. "When the spinach is chopped into small pieces, more lutein is released from the leaves, and the fat increases the solubility of the lutein in the fluid." So it seems like the spinach and fruit smoothies that my mom was able to pass off as delicious were actually super healthy, too.
In case you're wondering what in the world lutein actually does for you, here's a little bit of background: According to the American Optometric Association, getting plenty of lutein is crucial for keeping your eyes healthy. Since your body doesn't naturally make enough of the carotenoid, eating it is important for sharp eyesight. There's no official recommendation for how much lutein you should eat per day, as per the organization, but "most recent studies show health benefits in taking 10 mg/day of a lutein supplement." Just for reference, one cup of cooked spinach contains about 20 grams of the antioxidant, so if you aren't a huge fan of supplements, it's definitely possible to get plenty of lutein from the real deal.
Smoothies are always a great option if you're eating spinach straight-up, but if you feel a little bit squeamish about mixing veggies and fruit, you can opt for a savory dish instead and still keep all of the no-cooking rules. This creamy green gazpacho recipe from Epicurious is just the thing to satisfy a salty craving and deliver plenty of nutrients. Not only does it call for over a cup of fresh greens, it also mixes in half of an avocado, which checks the box for including healthy fats.
You can also make raw, liquified spinach into a delectable pasta dish (I'm not kidding). You might not realize it, but pesto's beautiful green color comes from tons of raw basil, which is then pureed with other tasty ingredients until it becomes the spectacular pizza or pasta topping you know and love. Swap out the basil for spinach in this pesto recipe from Bon Appétit, and you'll hardly even notice the veggie flavor alongside all of the toasted pine nuts and fresh parm. Because if anything can make spinach better, it's cheese.