Pumpkins, squashes and gourds are some of the fun, edible and ornamental fruits of the fall. They have been grown in North America for thousands of years. Native Americans ate pumpkins roasted, boiled and stewed, and they roasted the seeds for food as well. Most pumpkins are now used for jack-o-lanterns. People love to decorate with them and eat them. They are not only found orange, but also in other beautiful colors such as pale peach, blue green and maroon.

Pumpkins, squash and gourds are part of the family known as cucurbita. Pumpkins, squash and gourds are technically fruits, according to botanists. They are the seed-bearing structure of flowering plants. However, we in nutrition consider them to be vegetables.

No matter which food category you put them in, we all need to eat and enjoy more pumpkin and squash. Most of us do not eat enough dark orange and gold vegetables.

Pumpkins are a very nutrient dense food, with ½ cup of mashed pumpkin containing 24 calories.

The fiber and potassium in pumpkin is good for the heart and to help manage high blood pressure, which also is good for digestion.

These orange-fleshed fruits of the plant are rich in pigments called carotenoids that our body converts to vitamin A. We need vitamin A for our eyes, skin and normal cell growth.

Most people use canned pumpkin from the store, but food can be prepared from fresh pumpkin as well. In fact, every part of the pumpkin including the stem can be eaten.

Pumpkin and winter squash have a long shelf life. Store pumpkin and squash in a cool, dry place. Do not wash it before storing because that can shorten its storage life. When stored correctly, it can last several months.

For roasting, look for a sugar pumpkin. These are a smaller variety that are ideal for cooking due to the thin skin. The standard jack-o-lantern pumpkins have a thicker skin.

You can bake a pumpkin or squash by first running water and scrubbing with a vegetable brush if needed. Poke holes in the skin with a knife. Place it in a baking pan and bake at 350 degrees until tender. Bake small squash or pumpkins about 45 minutes or large squash about 90 minutes. Remove the skin and seeds, then mash, season as desired and serve.

You can also microwave your pumpkin or squash by rinsing and cutting it into chunks. Place it in a microwave safe container and cook on high for about seven minutes until tender. Raw squash and pumpkins can be very hard. Be cautious about injuring yourself.

You can freeze squash or pumpkin by mashing. Chunks of cooked squash or pumpkin can be pressure canned. You can visit the National Food Preservation Center online for information on how to can properly.

Make your own pumpkin puree. It can be used in smoothies, pasta sauces, spreads or baking.

Do not throw out the pumpkin or squash seeds. Try roasting the seeds. Rinse them with water and pat dry with a paper towel. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the seeds in a bowl, add a small amount of oil and stir. Sprinkle with seasoning salt and/or your favorite spice. Bake on the baking sheet for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, until the seeds are golden brown.

 Kathy Smith is a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent in Parker County.

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