Let Them Eat GREENS! Leafy Greens 101: How To Buy, Prepare, Store, and Cook with Leafy Greens


It’s easier than you might think to eat nutrient-dense leafy greens. I understand how intimidating bunches of kale, chard, and collards can look on those grocery shelves. Hey, I grew up eating iceberg lettuce – correction, I grew up eating a lot of junk – and the ONLY lettuce I ate was some iceberg drowned in “Thousand Island Dressing”!  So, I get it. I was also initially daunted about buying, cleaning, prepping, eating, and cooking greens. But now I love them, and buy heaps of kale and collards every week – and grow chard and kale in my garden in the summer. So I’m here to tell you—it’s doable.

There are VERY good reasons to include more leafy greens in your diet.  They are packed with vitamins, minerals like iron and calcium, antoxidants, fibre, phytonutrients and chlorophyll.  They are also a source of omega-3 fatty acids, have anti-inflammatory properties, and help the body detoxify!  This “Leafy Greens – Ranked and Rated” article from Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, details quite a lot of nutritional highlights and health-protective qualities of leafy greens.

Admittedly, it does take some time to get used to using and working with greens, familiarizing your palate with their flavors, and making them an everyday part of your diet if you are unaccustomed to them. Children especially notice the bitter notes of dark greens, so it is more challenging for them. But, like introducing other foods to children, repetition is key to acceptance. And for the adults, before long you’ll find yourself looking to eat more greens, actually loving them and wanting to have them at more than one meal. At least, I have.  And, you might not love them all… but I hope to help you find at least a few new varieties to enjoy!

So today, I want to help give you that “leafy-green-vibe”!  I will outline tips for buying, prepping, and cooking/eating different varieties of leafy greens.  I won’t touch on ALL the types of leafy green goodness available to you… but you’ll have enough not to make ANY excuses! 😉

Selecting and Buying Greens

First, when buying greens, make sure they are very fresh. Look for vibrant dark green leafies that are crisp and full, not wilted or yellowish.  And, go organic when possible. Non-organic spinach, kale, and collards are high in pesticides. Certain vegetables are worth buying organic, and greens are one of them.

In general, lettuces (romaine, red leaf, green leaf, butter, etc) and considered milder and sweeter tasting.  Spinach is a step up in bitterness from lettuces, with what some might describe as a ‘mineral’ flavor, but still less bitter and pungent than many leafy greens so easier for children (and many adults!) to eat.  Swiss chard (all colors) and beet greens taste a little more “assertive” with a slight ‘salty’ undertone.  While some like to eat them raw, you may prefer to cook them very lightly to balance that salty flavor and slightly chewy texture.  Collards and kale having a stronger ‘cabbage’ flavor as part of the cruciferous family, but also have more absorbable iron and calcium than chard, spinach, and beet greens – so they are excellent greens to include in your plant-powered diet. There are also quite a few varieties of kale with different taste profiles.  Curly (sometimes called green) kale is most common, and some think it has the mildest, most easily accepted flavor.  Then there is lacinato (or dinosaur or black) kale, and while it has a stronger flavor, I quite like the texture and look of dino kale!  Purple or ‘red russian’ kale is also available, and it has a slight floral undertone.   Kale works well raw in smoothies and salads (as we will discuss), but also lightly cooked in different entrees.  Then there are other “spicy” greens such as arugula, and mustard, and dandelion greens, which I like to say are more aggressive than assertive. 😉  Their flavors are strong and peppery, with some heat or bite, and so they aren’t always accepted by younger eaters – or adults.  Finally, we have the fresh leafy-green herbs, which are often forgotten when discussing leafy greens.  Fresh parsley (flat-leaf or curly), cilantro, and basil are also bursting with nutrition… and also flavor!  I eat fresh parsley daily, adding it to smoothies or wraps or salads – I’ve come to love it.  And, it’s one of the most nutritious greens, as Heather Nauta explains in this post and video.  Find that parsley love!

Younger, more tender leaves from all greens are typically a little sweeter than more mature, robust leaves. I prefer to use mostly spinach, chard, collards, and kale, as they are best accepted by my whole family, but if you like those peppery greens, by all means, rotate them as much as the others. Kale and collards are also hardier greens, so I find that they are often fresher in the store, and refrigerate better. But some days the chard is the freshest at the store—or the spinach… so shop with freshest in mind. After buying your greens, keep them refrigerated in a plastic bag (unless already packaged). If they aren’t in a plastic bag, they will dehydrate quickly and become limp.


Preparing and Storing Greens

When you are ready to use your greens, give them a good wash! Get them submerged in a sinkful of cool water (unless you’ve bought triple-washed spinach, which just needs a quick rinse and salad-spin). Separate the leaves, and agitate a little with your hands to remove any soil and debris, and any bugga-buggas!  Kale especially can house little critters, so get a good wash through those leaves. Then shake off the water and transfer the greens to a salad spinner. You can use other methods to wick away the water, but I find a salad spinner most effective. Spin until mostly dry, then you’re ready to use them.  If not using right away, whisk away as much moisture as possible, then refrigerate.  I keep lettuces/spinach in my salad spinner.  For hardier greens like kale and collards, I lightly wrap in a clean tea towel and then pop in a ziploc bag, leaving it open.  This helps keep the leaves from drying out but also not getting wilted from excess moisture.  If you want to freeze greens like kale and collards for smoothies, you can do so (I prefer them fresh, but it’s up to you).  Remove the leaves from the stems (as described coming up), tear in pieces, and store in ziploc bags to freeze.

oh-so-cozy kale, ready for a ziploc bag to chill out!

For sturdy greens with tough stalks (e.g., kale, collards), you will want to remove the leaves from the fibrous stalk. You may even want to remove some of the lower portion of stalks from chard and larger spinach leaves (not from baby spinach), where it becomes thicker and more fibrous. You can do so by “stripping” the leaves. Hold the base of the leaf at the stalk in one hand, and then using your other hand, run your fingers from the base of the stalk to the tip to strip off the leafy portion. You can then discard the stalks—or use them in stock bases, if you make homemade vegetable stock. Now that you have the leafy portion, you can use them whole for smoothies or sandwiches, or chop some more to use in salads or soups, for instance. I like to julienne leafies for salads, and roughly chop them for soups or sautés. You’ll get the feel once you get going, based on how you want to use the greens, how large the leaves are, how tender, how bitter, and so on (applications follow!).

Cooking Methods For Greens and Recipe Ideas

There are many ways to eat greens—raw or cooked—and I’ll cover many of them here. My first tip though is to start simple. Simple is best, and not intimidating. After you do simple, then you can get more creative with greens and schmancy up some recipes. But here are some simple ways to eat them daily:

Green Smoothie. The almighty green smoothies—they have changed my life, and my morning routine. I swear they are the most efficient, easiest way to eat greens– and probably the most delicious way to eat them raw. In Let Them Eat Vegan I have an entire green smoothies tutorial – with tips to help you make them taste delicious, and to balance the components so they aren’t too fruit-heavy (but also not too bitter).  Check it out, it’s ‘Go Green’ with Smoothies,” starting on p.26 of LTEV.  You can get started with my “Apple-A-Day” Green Smoothie!  And, you can read more about the goodness of green smoothies in this post from Julieanna Hever, MS, RD.

Apple-A-Day Green Smoothie from Dreena Burton

Salads. I know salads seem obvious, but some tweaking might be needed here. See, some greens such as spinach and chard are milder in flavor. Many of us have had a spinach salad, for instance; no big deal. But have you ever had a kale salad? That’s a different story. Some greens are bitterer than others. Kale is one of those greens, and chard to a lesser extent. So, when adding rich, dark leafy greens to a salad, chop them finely and mix with other greens or lettuces. I prefer to julienne such greens as lettuce and chard. Once you become adjusted to the flavor of bitterer greens, use them as a base for a lunch salad. Tip: Take a nutritious, thick, and flavorful dressing that will coat and and add substance and heft to these tougher greens.  Some ideas include Raw-nch Dressing, Citrus Tahini Dressing, Creamy Cumin-Spiced Dressing (all in LTEV).  Think of kale as your new romaine, and these thick, flavorful dressings as your new Caesar!

Kale-Slaw with Curried Almond Dressing

Try Kale-slaw with Curried Almond Dressing, this Spring Kale with Sweet Mustard-Miso Dressing from Christy Morgan.  Also, ever try a dandelion greens salad?  Now’s your chance, this Bittersweet Salad with Apples and Dandelion Greens from Ricki Heller looks incredible!

Pestos. Pesto is one of my very favorite recipes to make, basil pesto in particular, and usually with cashews, Brazil nuts, and/or walnuts. When basil isn’t as abundant but still available in grocery stores, you can modify your pesto recipes by substituting spinach, or even Swiss chard, for some of the basil. While I’m not generally a fan of a pesto made entirely with spinach, some partial substitutions work beautifully, along with earthy nuts such as walnuts or pecans. My Spinach Herb Pistachio Pesto (also in LTEV) has become one of my favorite pesto creations.

Brief Cooking Methods. Most greens benefit from only very brief cooking. Overcooking turns their vibrant green to a murky green-gray color, and also changes the flavor. I prefer the color and flavor of greens when they’re cooked quickly, just to wilt and warm through the greens. Greens also lose some of their nutritional value with prolonged cooking, so brief is best, especially for more tender greens such as Swiss chard and spinach, and the leafy portions of such greens as bok choy or beet greens. Sturdier, hardier greens such as collard greens and kale usually take a little longer to become tender and pick up a brighter green color. Here are some ways to quickly warm or heat through greens—remember, cook until the color has just perked up and the leaves have softened; this is when the flavor is best.

Chips.  Is it possible to talk about kale without talking about kale chips?  I don’t think so. If you have a dehydrator, you have many recipes to choose from.  These Sun-Dried Tomato Cheezy Chips from Oh She Glows look crazy-good.  Don’t have a dehydrator?  Try my “Oven-Dehyrated Kale Chips“!

“Oven-Dehydrated” Kale Chips

• Sautés and Stir-Fries. Adding some chopped, torn, or julienned greens to a lightly oiled pan (or with smidgen of water), with a touch of salt, pepper, and a little grated or minced fresh garlic, shallot, and/or ginger, if you like. Let the greens soften into the oil over medium heat for a few minutes (just a minute or two for delicate greens such as spinach, longer for tougher greens such as kale). The leaves wilt down considerably, so you may want to use far more than you think!  Note that if your greens are still a little damp, you will not need to add much/any water.  And, keep in mind that the greens will also release some water as they wilt.  Other seasonings you can add: splash of tamari or coconut aminos, squeeze of fresh lemon juice, zest of lemon or orange, tiny drizzle of pure maple syrup (just a 1/2 – 1 tsp to finish greens, if they taste slightly bitter to you), drizzle of toasted sesame oil, few drops vegan worcestershire sauce, etc.  Try this beautiful African Collard Stir-Fry for an exciting flavor twist!

“Simple Swiss Chard” along with “Orange Sesame Tofu” and “Coconut-Lime Rice” from eat, drink & be vegan

Soups and stews. Many soups offer the perfect opportunity to get greens into your meal. Consider the stew you are having, and whether the flavors or ingredients would suit adding something like Swiss chard or collard greens. If so, add them just before serving, letting them wilt ever so slightly into the hot soup, and then serve immediately. As mentioned, brief cooking can improve the flavor and texture of greens – overcooking can ruin flavor. Try Beans ’n’ Greens Soup from LTEV and also many other soups and stews recipes.  Try this Black-Eyed Pea and Collard Greens Chili from JL goes Vegan!

Pasta. Much like soups, pasta can be even more delicious with the addition of some greens—especially if the pasta has a generous sauce just looking for something to cling to! Again, add close to serving, tossing the greens through the finished pasta and sauce to warm through. Try the wilted greens option in Tomato Artichoke Pasta in LTEV, for instance, or with other pasta sauces that you love.  Even a simple marinara or jarred tomato sauce can be tossed through hot pasta with julienned greens to wilt pasta down before serving (and I must mention that Brazil Nut Parm would top the dish off splendidly)!  And, how about lasagna with greens?  Look at this magnificent Vegetable Lasagna with Kale from Manifest Vegan.

Grains and Beans.  Whole grains and beans offer endless possibilities to incorporate greens.  When hot, you can easily mix in chopped greens and they will almost instantly wilt from the heat of the grains or beans.  Add a punchy sauce or gravy, and dinner is ready!  And, you can make beautiful and impressive grain and bean dishes utilizing greens, like this Lentil-Kale Risotto, these White Bean, Spinach and Walnut Phyllo Rolls, or these Dolmades, Deconstructed (such an inventive lady, that Ricki Heller)!

Steam. Greens can be steamed in just a matter of minutes, and then are particularly delicious topped with some kind of sauce, such as a tahini sauce, Moroccan Carrot Dip or “Raw-nch Dressing” (from LTEV), or Creamy Curried Almond Dressing.

Wraps! Sturdy leaves like kale and collard leaves make beautiful and nutritious ‘wrappers’ for all sorts of fillings, like these Chickpea Salad Rolls.  I like to use them raw, but you can also very lightly blanch them – just for a few seconds – and then shock them in cold water to stop the cooking.  And, crispy, smaller lettuce leaves (including endive) also make great “boats” for fillings.  You don’t have to wrap the leaves around the fillings, simply add spoonfuls of fillings and pick up to eat!

How To Make a Collard Wrap by Dreena Burton, Plant-Powered Kitchen, #vegan #glutenfree


Keep Trying

Maybe you’ve tried a few ideas, but are still not convinced. Try again. I know it took a little time for me to get used to working with greens and eating them daily. So, keep at it, and try another technique or another recipe. Think outside the greens box!  For instance, would you have ever thought to put collard greens on a pizza? Or, how about chard or dandelion greens in a quiche?

As I always say about eating new healthy foods… keep on keeping on!  You will get the leafy-green-vibe, sooner or later!

What are your favorite leafy greens, and favorite ways to eat them.  If you have an all-time fave recipe link, please share!


  1. Marie Therese Truel says

    Thank you so much for all the information. Are avocados considered greens? Can I eat them? I´m on Warfarin.
    Again, thank you so much,Terry

  2. says

    Thanks for such a great article about leafy greens. I’m loving eating and juicing leafy greens like Kale, Swiss Chard, Collard Greens and Spinach. I gave up eating regular lettuce when I compared it nutritionally to other leafy greens.

    I’ve tweeted this article out to all my followers. Hopefully it will convince a few more of them to eat their greens!

    Thanks again for such a great article!

    Denise :-)

  3. says

    Such a great informative post! Can you believe I just had sauteed kale for the first time this past weekend? And that I’ve never made it before myself? I can’t stop thinking about that kale! It was so good. Just a simple saute with some oil and garlic like you suggested. I think I need to make my own tomorrow!

    I usually have my greens every morning in my smoothie and then sometimes as you recommend as a wrap or in a salad, so I don’t usually think about it for dinner…except for a romaine salad. My next mission is to get the boys hooked on sauteed greens. I take that back, I do incorporate it into soups. It adds lovely color and texture. I do love my soups!

    Thanks for being so fabulous.

  4. Rudy says

    Your article is great as it is although, personally, I would have also incorporated a juicer! I easily consume 3x as much veggies and fruits than the average American diet AND there are many simple and delicious ingredients!!
    My daily juice is: kale, green apple, carrot (optional: beet)

    Unfamiliar greens can be intimidating but your article will certainly help me out for the next time I incorporate a new leafy vegetable to my food pallet!

    My favorite green smoothie –
    Spinach, bok choy, banana, coconut milk, milled flax and chia seeds, walnuts

  5. Mie says

    Thank you for the great article. I’ve been a huge fan of your books, and I spend literally every day looking in your book and make at least one dish a day out of them. Your green smoothie chapter in LTEV is excellent! (it can stand alone as a book!) My question to you is whether you’ve ever tried using beets in your smoothie. I know it’s kind of tough raw, but it’s so sweet and the color is irresistible! Thanks!

    • Dreena says

      Thank you so much, Mie. I really value that feedback, and wish that smoothie section might ‘jump out’ a little more in the book! I have used beets in smoothies! Not often, but I’ve experimented. I especially like them with raspberries and other red berries/fruits. How do you like using them best? :)

      • Mie says

        You are welcome! I wish I could show you my copies of your books to prove how much I’ve used them. I haven’t used beets in my smoothies yet, but I was going to try them with your apple a day green smoothie recipe plus something tangy like a lemon. The idea of adding those red ingredients sounds perfect though! Can’t wait to try it tomorrow!

  6. Kim says

    Time for an escarole recipe! I grew up with dishes of escarole braised with cannellini, olive oil and tons of garlic. Throw in some broth and you have a delicious soup/stew.

  7. Gigi says

    Unlike you I grew up eating greens because my dad had a garden:). We ate everything. Leaves from the radish, carrots, from dandelions found in the fields where cows would graze. Now what I considered totally normal at that time, I heard the “eew” of my 7 years old. Yes 35 years ago we ate much healthier, I did not know what a pizza and ketchup was until I was around 10 years old. I love kale. Though I’m still a new vegan trying to figure it out, I prefer to cook it than having it in my smoothie:) maybe one day…. Thanks for your article, very informative. Ps: tonight on the menu was your almond roasted cauliflower… It was delicious. I tend to cook it with my steamer but it was a good alternative.

  8. pat says

    thank you, thank you for this wonderful post. have just discovered i like kale and your suggestions will make me LOVE kale. I’m alone in my house on that. dh is not much of a veggie eater.

  9. says

    What a fantastic post!!! I love it, so inspiring and tons of amazing ideas here!! I also love putting various greens on pizza :) but haven’t tried it in vegan quiche yet… actually, I haven’t tried vegan quiche at all… must get on that :) Thank you for spreading the parsley love!!! <3

  10. Laurie says

    Beautiful post!! Thank you for taking the time to put all this information together for us!! I’m addicted to massaged kale salads and always have jars of water with leafy kale, parsley and cilantro coming out of them in my fridge. It looks like my own little garden in there! Lately, I’ve had a bunch of dental work done and green smoothies are fueling my day! Thanks for all you do, Dreena!

    • Dreena says

      Thank you so much Laurie! I bet your fridge looks pretty with that garden when you open it up. :) Hope you get past the dental stuff soon!

  11. Karen G says

    I’m a newbie to Green Smoothies. Just when I FINALLY got over my aversion to kale, the hard reality of winter set in, making it really difficult to find organic in my locale. I just bought “Rainbow Chard” as a sub (which is a mix of various chard colors, apparently) I used the entire leaf, stalks and all. It wasn’t horrible tasting, but I see by today’s post I should have not used the stalks.
    Question – is it “bad” to use the stalks?
    Thanks for an excellent post!

    • Dreena says

      Karen, you didn’t do anything wrong – certainly not! I’m sure some people use the stalks. I just find them very tough and fibrous and bitter, so I choose not to. And, I found with green smoothies that I started with spinach and chard, and then worked up to using collards and kale. Now, I love using kale and collards – but there is a balance for flavor that comes from using certain fruits. I outlined a lot of tips and steps in Let Them Eat Vegan, how to balance the bitterness with the fruits, and adding nutritional boosts if you want them, etc. Rather than come up with a number of ‘recipes’, I offer the techniques, and then some suggested ratios for a number of different green smoothies for people to try. Once you get the hang of it, they can and do taste wonderful!

      • Karen G says

        Dreena, thanks for the reply. I have noticed that I waffle back and forth between green smoothies and quinoa porridge this winter. It seems to be driven by what is available for me to purchase at the time I shop, which is why I bought the chard in the first place. Since I don’t have the really fancy blender yet, I have gotten used to my smoothies being thick and full of fiber. To offset and un-sweet flavor, I found I like the “Vanilla Bean” flavor of Plant Fusion protein works well for my sweet cravings. I don’t like to waste any fruits or veggies, so I put in my smmothies what I need to use up first and tweek from there.

  12. says

    I learned back in college that the easiest, cheapest way to get some greens in my diet was to keep a bag of frozen spinach on hand at all times. I’ve branched out to fresh greens since then, but I still keep a few kinds frozen greens in the fridge! There’s no easier way to add a cup or two to a smoothie, stir-fry, or a pot of soup. Great for busy people and anyone on a budget, or just someone who gets overwhelmed by washing/stemming/chopping/watching leaves shrink into nothing when cooked.
    Robin recently posted..Creamy Beans and Barley aka Accidentally DeliciousMy Profile

  13. says

    Fabulous post! I’ve been sharing it far and wide, so much good information and great links and recipes. Thank you for putting all of this information in one handy place!

    • Dreena says

      Oh, thanks a bunch Ricki. And, thanks for your incredibly creative recipes – I don’t have any with dandelion greens myself. 😉 Time to turn over a new leaf??! ha!

    • Dreena says

      Thanks Matt! And, I think many of us get in comfort zones with greens, I know I do. There are still quite a few I haven’t experimented much with, so we’re all always learning a little – or a lot!

    • Dreena says

      Ha, good timing then, Janet! That’s great – hopefully it will help a few others you know too. That kale recipe sounds like the perfect balance of bitter to sour to sweet – with texture to boot! Well done!!

  14. Tiffany says

    Wow!! Thank you for such an informative post! :) Truly means a lot that you take the time to offer ideas and share your knowledge with readers.

    • Dreena says

      Willow, I find greens are SUPER pricey this time of year (for us in Canada) – even the regular bunches, not prebagged/preboxed – and hey, we need some healthy shortcuts sometimes, don’t give yourself heck for that! Thanks for the kind note. :)

  15. says

    I love greens! I buy big bags of a Spinach Power Blend it’s called, spinach, baby bok choy, baby red & green chard, I make a huge salad daily for lunch. I love all the recipes you posted, greens sure are versatile aren’t they? I can’t wait to make some of the smoothies from LTEV.

  16. says

    Thanks for the mention Dreena. I want to remind Lynn that because there are so many greens, you don’t have to eat the ones that don’t appeal to you.

    Because of my body chemistry I cannot eat chard. It does not agree with me. So I skip it.

    I love arugula, beet greens and almost every other green. My husband, on the other hand, cannot stand arugula because all he tastes is bitter. So, keep this in mind.

    You don’t have to like every green that there is. Eat the ones that you like and remember to get variety.

    Great blog post.
    Jill, The Veggie Queen recently posted..By: LOVE Your Veggies with the Veggie Queen | She ScribesMy Profile

    • Dreena says

      You’re most welcome Jill, your article is fabulous! And, thank you for mentioning that about not loving all greens – I feel the same way, and before reading your comment said the same to Lynn… arugula and mustard greens not my thing. And, I remember you once reassuring me that it was okay not to like nori too. Our girls LOVE sushi, and I almost have to leave the room when they eat it. Oh well, I get my fair share of other greens, and can use kelp granules, so it’s about working with some balance I suppose. Thanks for the comment and again, for the great greens article. xo

  17. Kathy says

    Amazing blog so chock full of information and inspiration. I love kale so much, it’s time to branch out a little. Thanks so much Drenna!

  18. Lynn says

    Thanks so much for this, Dreena! I think it’s time to put an end to my aversion to bitter greens. I LOVE raw kale (and spinach and romaine) but the last time I tried swiss chard and arugula (2 years ago) they ended up in the compost. Ugh, I hate wasting food, but I’d say it’s time for a second attempt. Thanks for the nudge!!

    • Dreena says

      Lynn, I also do not like arugula. (shhh!) 😉 I figure there will probably be some greens that many of us do not like – and if we are eating many others, then we are still getting plenty of variety! Funny, b/c many restaurants offer arugula salads that are vegan, and I’ll eat them if in a pinch, but boy they’d better have a great dressing, ha!!

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