Summer brings garden-fresh fruits, vegetables and great opportunities to eat healthy. The American Heart Association recommends we eat at least 4½ cups of fruit and or vegetables every day. This ensures we get enough fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

Produce right from the garden or farmers market are at the peak of ripeness and offer the most nutrients along with great flavor. Growing your own vegetables allows you to choose varieties that you can't find in supermarkets. Heirloom tomatoes are abundant in Northland gardens, but you usually don't find these varieties in the supermarket because they do not hold and ship well. Fresh produce in the grocery store is often picked and shipped before it is ripe, so it won't be overripe when it arrives.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Eating raw, fresh produce is a treat of summer. Many may believe raw produce is healthier than cooked, frozen or canned. This is true when it comes to vitamins and some of the B vitamins that are lost with cooking. However, cooking can increase the nutrients that our bodies can absorb. Cooking is crucial to our diets because it helps us digest food without expending large amounts of energy. It also softens foods, so nutrients can be more easily absorbed.

Tomatoes are known for lycopene, which has been linked to decreasing the risk of cancer and heart attacks. Cooking tomatoes actually boosts the amount of lycopene available to our bodies. The heat breaks down the plant's thick cell walls and aids our uptake of nutrients bound to those cell walls.

Cooked, rather than raw, carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage and peppers supply more antioxidants, such as carotenoids. Cooking carrots also increases the level of beta-carotene, which plays an important role in vision, reproduction, bone growth and regulating the immune system.

Frozen produce often is higher in nutrients than fresh produce that was harvested many days before. That's because the produce is harvested at peak ripeness and frozen within a few hours, preserving the quality and nutrition. Canning, like cooking, will decrease the water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and the B vitamins.

Fruits and vegetables are healthy whether they are raw or cooked. Summer provides a precious opportunity to eat fresh, raw produce at peak ripeness and ultimate flavor. Try this Summer Tomato, Onion and Cucumber Salad. Cut up some fresh vegetables and eat them with Creamy Spinach Dip, made with fresh garden spinach. I've adapted these recipes from eatingwell.com.

Summer Tomato, Onion and Cucumber Salad

3 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon honey

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 medium cucumbers

4 medium tomatoes, cut into eighths

¼ cup onion, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh herbs, chopped (parsley, chives, dill or tarragon)

Whisk vinegar, oil, honey, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Remove alternating stripes of peel from the cucumbers; slice into thin rounds. Add cucumbers, tomatoes and onion to the dressing. Toss gently. Add herbs and toss again.

Nutrition Facts: Servings: 6; serving size, 1 cup; calories, 50; total fat, 2 grams; saturated fat, 0 grams; cholesterol, 0 milligrams; sodium, 50 milligrams; potassium, 350 milligrams; carbohydrates, 6 grams; fiber, 1 gram; protein, 1 grams.

Creamy Spinach Dip

¼ cup green onions, chopped

5-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, rinsed

½ cup reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)

½ cup low-fat cottage cheese

¼ cup plain Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

5 ounces fresh baby spinach

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1/8 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Add onion and water chestnuts to food processor bowl. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Add cream cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, lemon juice, Tabasco and pepper. Pulse until just combined. Add spinach and chives; pulse until creamy.

Nutrition Facts: Servings: 10; serving size, ¼ cup; calories, 50; total fat, 3 grams; saturated fat, 1.5 grams; cholesterol, 10 milligrams; sodium, 80 milligrams; potassium, 150 milligrams; carbohydrate, 3 grams; fiber, 1 gram; protein, 4 grams.

Bonnie Brost is a licensed and registered dietitian in the Wellness Program at the Essentia Health St. Mary's Heart & Vascular Center in Duluth. Contact her at bonnie.brost@essentiahealth.org.