Since Dole’s Get Up And Grow! Initiative is all about showing the link between fruits and vegetables and a happier, healthier life, we sat down with our own Jenn LaVardera, MS, RD, to talk summer produce. As the Nutrition and Health Communications Manager for the Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI), Jenn is our resident healthy-eating expert and helped inspire the development of the recipes being sampled at all 480 Get Up and Grow! Tour stops this summer.

What are some tips to planning – and loving! – a healthier summer menu featuring fresh fruits and vegetables?

Variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s also the secret to happier, healthier eating! Since any one dish can’t possibly provide all the nutrients you need, I recommend an assortment of produce to round out your diet, and maximize the flavor potential. Eating one plate of anything, can get boring, so how about preparing a platter with a little of everything you like, like a mixed veggie stir fry or fruit salad?

What are the best fruits and vegetables to put on the backyard grill? 

I love grilling thick, meaty vegetables like mushrooms or eggplant because they so perfectly take the place of a burger. (In fact, they may make you forget you’re not eating a real hamburger!) Grilled romaine is another favorite because the smoky flavor from the grill gives it an absolutely amazing taste. One of my new “go-to” recipes is Grilled Romaine with Balsamic Glazed Strawberries that is part of the Get Up and Grow Tour Recipe Booklets we’re distributing at Tour stops. For fruit, you can’t beat a grilled banana. The custardy texture and extra-sweet flavor is so decadent and delicious, you’ll forget how healthy it is.

Do you have a summer eating routine? 

I have a pretty simple routine that pays big taste and nutrition dividends: lots of fruit with yogurt for breakfast, a big salad for lunch, a piece of fresh fruit with nuts as an afternoon snack, and lean protein with lots of vegetables for dinner. Eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice dessert – I treat myself every night to some natural sweetness like a mango or a fruit-based dessert. Dole’s Grilled Banana Parfait that we’re sampling on the Get Up and Grow Tour is the perfect healthy summertime indulgence. It’s a lighter option that’s packed with nutrients from the bananas and berries.

If a Dole Nutrition News reader is planning the ultimate healthy-eating summer party, what would you recommend?

Party food is notorious for being heavy and unhealthy, but Dole is out to prove that it is possible to serve healthy options that your guests will love. From dips to snacks to appetizers to full-course meals, we can show you that fruits and vegetables can serve as the basis for an amazing party menu. Check out Dole’s Party Ideas Board on Pinterest for some delicious ideas, or our Summer Grilling Board for inventive ways to bring nutrition to your backyard, beach or camping BBQ.

Any other summer eating, meal-planning or entertaining advice you want to offer?

While it’s important to eat healthfully, it’s just as vital to live healthfully too – and this should apply to summer entertaining, too.  Incorporate backyard games like badminton, crochet or bocce into your party plan to encourage guests to get up and move. Frisbee, volleyball, horseshoes and tetherball are also fun games that encourage physical activity and social interaction.

Can you give us a preview of some of the fruit and vegetable research and trends you’re studying at the Dole Nutrition Institute? 

Right now we are researching different fruits as fuel for exercise and finding bananas are the best thanks to their mix of carbohydrates. We should be publishing the results soon! We also have new research on how fruits and vegetables may activate our own immune response, leading to a sort of “heightened sense of surveillance” against potentially harmful compounds. As for trends, fruits and vegetables as the main course instead of just as a side dish is popular new concept. More and more chefs at even the trendiest restaurants are letting produce be the star and using animal protein as a garnish. This is an exciting development that will help expose more North Americans to the benefits of a plant-based diet. At the Dole Nutrition Institute, we’ll continue our fruit and vegetable research and report our findings in the Dole Nutrition News. So keep reading!

Published July 1, 2015