How to Eat Cactus (+ 11 Healthy Nopales Recipe Ideas)

So you’ve heard about the amazing health benefits of cactus, but maybe now you’re wondering how to eat cactus! You’re not alone. 

As a Mexican-American dietitian, I like to highlight cactus as a healthy Mexican vegetable source. You can enjoy fresh cactus in a smoothie, a salad, or sauteed with other vegetables. 

But unless you live in California, Texas, Or Mexico, fresh cactus may not be widely available at your local grocery store. So you may not be sure how to access it, prepare it, or cook it. 

If you want to reap the health benefits of cactus but aren’t sure where to start this article is for you. We’ll go over which parts of the cactus are edible, how to prepare it, and share some healthy nopales recipe ideas to help you start eating and enjoying cactus! 

Let’s get started, shall we?

What foods come from cactus?

Did you know there are actually a variety of fruits and vegetables that come from cactus?  Here are some of the most popular ones: 

  • Prickly pear (tuna): The fruit of the prickly pear cactus. This fruit has a mild taste, and can come in purple, pink, or green colors. The deep purple tunas are a good source of an antioxidant called betalain (1)
  • Nopales: The green leaves (aka paddles or “cladodes”) of the prickly pear cactus. These leaves have a tangy flavor and are a very popular vegetable in Mexican food. 
  • Dragonfruit (pitaya): There are several types of pitaya. The main differentiator is what type of cactus they come from and also if they are sweet or sour. Sour pitaya is very common in Mexican food, but the sweet variety is most popular worldwide. 
  • Joconostle: Joconostle is another fruit of a cactus plant. It’s very similar to prickly pear, but it is more tart and is not eaten fresh as often as prickly pear. You are more likely to see joconostle cooked into a jam or syrup. 

There are certainly more types of edible cactus than this. But these are the 4 you are most likely to see in a grocery store. 

We’re going to focus the rest of the article specifically on nopales, because this is the part of the cactus that people aren’t as confident including in their diets. (Compared to the fruits that you can just eat as is). 

Where to find nopales

Nopales are actually quite common, and they may be more available to you than you think. Here are some of the most likely places you’ll find nopales. 

Major supermarkets

This is really dependent on where you live. Here in Southern California, I can walk into most major supermarkets and find nopales in the produce aisle. The best part is I can buy them with the thorns removed already! 

When I lived in the Midwest and the Southeast, I would never see nopales in the produce aisle unless I went to a dedicated Latino grocery store. 

Anyone living in the Southwestern US, California, or Mexico may have an easier time finding nopales at the supermarket. But even then, it may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. 

But even if you can’t find fresh nopales at your grocery store you may be able to find pickled nopales in the Hispanic aisle, next to other canned vegetables like pickled jalapeños. 

Latino groceries

A Latino grocery store is very likely to carry nopales. Even better, they’re likely to carry nopales in a few different preparations so you can choose what makes the most sense for you. 

You may find nopales with the thorns already removed and pre-sliced. You may find them pickled in the canned vegetables aisle, or you may find them completely fresh with the thorns and everything. 

Look in both the produce section and the canned vegetables aisle. 

In the garden

Of course you can always grow your own nopales! The prickly pear cactus can actually grow in a surprisingly large part of the United States, with hardiness down to zone 4 (for certain varieties). 

If you are growing and harvesting your own nopales, you will need to take special care to safely harvest and prepare the nopales without injuring yourself on the thorns. (Hint: Use tongs and very thick gloves)

How to prepare

You can eat nopales raw, grilled, pickled, and more. 

If you are starting with fresh nopales, check out this helpful guide on how to safely remove thorns before cooking. 

How to Eat Cactus

Like most vegetables, there’s no right or wrong way to eat nopales (unless you eat them without removing the thorns … that would be the wrong way!). 

Here are some of the most popular ways to eat nopales in Mexican food:

  • Grilled: grilled nopales are a common side dish at carne asadas
  • Sauteed: Add sauteed nopales to scrambled eggs, or make a taco filling out of them. 
  • In a salad: Fresh or pickled nopales work well in a salad. 
  • In a juice or smoothie: Nopales are a very common ingredient in Mexican green juices. 
  • In functional foods: A lot of foods are adding powdered nopal for color and added nutrition. This includes tortillas, chips, and more. 

11 Healthy Nopales Recipes

While the options with nopales are really endless, you may need a few recipe ideas to get you started. Here are my favorite nopales recipes that are healthy and flavorful:

Breakfast ideas:

As a dietitian, I love to have my clients start the day off with a serving of vegetables when they can. This makes it so much easier to get the recommended daily amount of vegetables in a day. 

Plus, one study showed people who added nopal to their breakfast saw better blood sugar control (2).

  • Nopal smoothie with cucumber: All the green smoothie lovers out there should really give a cactus smoothie a try! It adds a pleasant tanginess that goes well with pineapple and citrus flavors. 
nopal smoothie with cucumber
Nopal smoothie with cucumber and pineapple
This nopal smoothie is so refreshing with cucumber and pineapple added.
Check out this recipe
nopal smoothie with cucumber
nopalitos con huevos (scrambled eggs with nopales)
  • Jugo verde: not all jugo verde recipes feature nopales, but many do. This one adds lime juice and more veggies for a nutritious start to your day. You’ll want to add an extra protein for a complete breakfast though (I recommend hard boiled eggs). 

Lunch ideas

  • Easy nopalitos salad with black beans: This salad uses pickled nopales and canned black beans, making it lightning-fast to prepare and perfect for meal prep. Serve with tostadas for a light and easy lunch. 
nopalitos salad
Nopalitos Salad with Black Beans
A super quick and easy salad packed with fiber and plant protein. Perfect for meal prep!
Check out this recipe
nopalitos salad
  • Quesadillas with nopales: Another super quick way to add nopales to your lunch, thanks to jarred nopales. All in all, this meal should take about 5-10 minutes and provides a good amount of protein and vegetables. 
  • Avocado stuffed with nopalito salad: Talk about nourishing! Get a veggie-packed lunch with this nopalito salad. This recipe works well for meal prep, too. Make the salad on Sunday, and serve with avocado on the day of (up to 3 days later). 
  • Warm Cactus Salad: This warm cactus salad would make a great side dish. It would also work well on a tostada or rice bowl!

Dinner ideas:

  • Nopales asados: If you’re already grilling, it couldn’t be easier to get an extra veggie in by just throwing the nopales on the grill, too! A whole, grilled nopal looks striking on the plate and takes less prep work from you!
  • Nopales tacos: nopales tacos are a very authentic Mexican way to enjoy a vegetarian meal. Serve with a side of beans for extra plant-based protein. 
  • Nopales en salsa de chile ancho (nopales in red chile sauce): These nopales work as a side dish for countless meals. They’re featured here served with eggs or over tortitas de papa (potato cakes). I also think these would be really good spooned over Mexican rice.
  • Nopales a la mexicana: pretty much any vegetable can be served a la mexicana for a quick side dish. Nopales are no exception! Make this simple side and serve with your favorite Mexican main dish. 

Final Thoughts

By now you should have some ideas on how to eat cactus, and a handful of nopales recipe ideas to try! 

The paddles of the prickly pear cactus, nopales, are a tasty and super nutritious vegetable that you’ll find in a lot of Mexican dishes. 

You can enjoy nopales at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Add it to a smoothie, a salad, or throw them on a grill! 

As a Latina dietitian, I know how hard it is for my clients to find recipes that help them meet their nutrition goals, are tasty, and easy to make. 

That’s why I’m launching a meal planning app just for Latinas, featuring weekly meal plans designed by me (a Registered Dietitian) and a library of over 50 Latino recipes (and counting). 

Get on my email list to learn more:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top