Refreshing salads! Garden-fresh tomatoes! Brimming farmers’ markets! If there’s ever a time to get excited about vegetables, summer is it. And while including more veggies in your diet offers plenty of health benefits – from better weight control to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease – less than 40% of us manage to fit in 5 or more servings daily, reports Statistics Canada.

The solution: Think of veggies as your entree, rather than relegating them to “side dish” territory, recommends Nicole Fetterly, a Victoria-based registered dietitian and co-owner of Down to Earth Dietitians. “By making vegetables the centre of your meal, you’re more likely to use them to fill half your plate.”

With fresh local produce hitting the market, summer is the perfect time to make that mindset shift and commit to eating more veggies.

1. Eat seasonal vegetables

Plan a weekly trip to the farmers’ market to take advantage of the locally grown fare sold there. Not only are local fruits and veggies more flavourful, but they also offer more health benefits. “Foods that are grown locally can be more nutritious if they’re more freshly picked, closer to home and in season,” says Fetterly. “As food travels and sits in storage, it loses nutrition day by day.”

Look for crops like tomatoes, summer squash, chard, basil and corn in the peak summer months, and fennel, kale, broccoli, winter squash and leeks as summer transitions into fall.

While farmers’ market fare isn’t always as easy on your wallet as what you find at the grocery store, market shopping has other benefits. You can often talk to the farmer to get a better understanding of their farming practices, advises Fetterly, so you know how your food is grown. And you’re also stimulating the local economy, which is a bonus for the overall health of your community.

2. Add unexpected produce

Shopping at local or farmers’ markets often gives you access to lesser-known vegetables you might not find at your grocery store. And these unfamiliar veggies can add more interest to your diet to lift you up out of a “veggie rut.”

Fetterly points to pattypan squash, a disc-shaped summer squash, or crookneck squash as novel alternatives to zucchini. Their slightly denser textures makes them perfect for grilling or roasting. Pick up unexpected leafy greens like mustard greens or sorrel to use in salads. And shop for heirloom miniature or fingerling potatoes. Their thin skins that make them impractical for mass transport to supermarkets also remove the need for peeling, says Fetterly, so you’ll get all the nutrition that’s in the potato skin.

3. Try your hand at vegetable gardening

There’s no fresher produce than the veggies picked fresh from your garden, and growing your own veggies makes healthy eating feel even more rewarding. Consider adding a vegetable garden to your backyard or look for community gardens in your area, and plant easy-to-maintain crops like tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and butternut squash.

If you don’t have access to an outdoor garden, try growing herbs like basil and mint in containers on your balcony or patio, or indoors. “Herbs are like any other leafy green,” says Fetterly. “If you eat them in larger quantities, they count as a vegetable.” Dress a handful of herb leaves in your favorite vinaigrette for an uber-flavourful salad, or add a handful of basil or mint to your smoothie.

4. Sneak more veggies into summer meals

While focusing on veggies automatically makes it easier to eat more, you can also get a little crafty to include more vegetables in traditionally less-veggie-packed meals. Here’s how:

  • Add shredded or grated vegetables to ground beef as a hamburger extender, or use grilled vegetables like a barbecued portobello mushroom or eggplant slice as a burger substitute.
  • Add finely chopped vegetables to your taco or fajita meat, and add even more vegetables as a topping.
  • Blend vegetables into your morning smoothie. Fetterly recommends a mix of avocado, cucumber, mint or basil for a refreshing option, with a little apple, melon or pear added if you need more sweetness.
  • Include vegetables in your sauces. Purée veggies into a fresh-from-the-garden tomato sauce, or blend herbs into a pesto or gremolata to serve over fish.
  • Bake zucchini or rhubarb into healthy snacks like quick breads or muffins.
  • Serve up summer soups. Minestrone and gazpacho can pack in lots of vegetables per serving, and they store well for yummy leftovers, too.

Just a few simple adjustments to your diet make it easy to include vegetables at every meal, so you can get the Health Canada-recommended 7 to 10 servings of veggies each day — and all the health benefits that go along with them.