Make the most of this nutritious squash.
Credit: Photo: Nigel Cox

Thanks to the holidays, pumpkins are everywhere. In addition to being a tasty part of everything from pasta sauce to cheesecake, fall's famous fruit is good for you. "They're loaded with nutrients," says Beth Kitchin, M.S., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. One cup contains 2.7 grams of fiber, 564 milligrams of potassium, and 1.4 milligrams of iron. It also provides calcium, folate, and beta-carotene. Other pumpkin pointers:

Be choosy: Make sure your pumpkin is firm all the way around, says Gail Damerow, author of The Perfect Pumpkin. "If the bottom or stem end gives at all when pressed, it's past prime," she says. Look for one that's small, about five to eight pounds. Smaller ones are tastier because they're bred specifically for cooking.

Canned versus fresh: Preparing canned pumpkin is quicker, but fresh tastes sweeter. When it comes to nutritional value, fresh packs more fiber, but the heat used during the canning process causes more "bioavailable" beta-carotene to form. That means the body can process the nutrient more effectively, Kitchin says.

Quick prep: Removing the seeds after steaming is easier than doing so beforehand. "Steaming makes the flesh softer, but it also causes the pumpkin to fall apart more easily, so it may be messier," Damerow says. She likes to quarter, steam, and mash the flesh, mixing it with black pepper or brown sugar to serve as a side dish. You can also puree or whip the flesh and use it as an alternative to mashed potatoes. For a healthful snack, roast the seeds. Like the rest of the pumpkin, they're delicious and good for you-they contain protein, fiber, iron, and potassium.

Storing the bounty: A healthy pumpkin should keep for a month at room temperature, Damerow says. Put it in the fridge, and you'll increase its shelf life to four months. "If you have a storage area where the temperature is close to 50 degrees, such as a pantry or root cellar, and the relative humidity is around 55 percent, you can keep pumpkins for six months or longer," she says. One more option: Steam them when they're in season, then freeze until needed. You'll have "fresh" pumpkin for up to one year.