I get a kick out of hearing what other Iowa families serve at their holiday tables each year. Many Iowans celebrate Christmas Eve with a bowl of oyster stew or chili. One of my friends gave me his family’s traditional fruitcake recipe. Another family I know prepares a make-your-own waffle buffet on Christmas Eve, complete with whipped cream, strawberries and lots of maple syrup.

Now that spring is finally here, I’m planning to spend as much time as possible in the garden and on my bike. So I’m trying my best to keep my energy level up by getting enough sleep, taking the time to exercise most days and making a few healthy changes in my diet.

Specifically, I was inspired by the Iowa Beef Industry Council’s “30 Day Protein Challenge” to pay closer attention to how much protein I eat throughout the day.

I finally picked the first ripe tomato from my garden last night. So you know what that means: BLTs for supper. My husband has perfected the BLT sandwich - a big slice of juicy tomato, crisp lettuce, smoky bacon, a smear of mayo and a couple sprinkles of hot sauce.

It's hard to beat the flavor of a garden-grown tomato. Yet my tomato plants look a little rough this year. With all the heavy rain we received in early summer, my tomatoes came down with blight and started losing leaves.

Luckily, the plants still blossomed and set fruit, but I learned that I should have sprayed the tomatoes with a fungicide early on to prevent blight.

A few years back, I attended a gardening seminar where an Iowa State University Extension entomologist discussed common pests in home gardens. He recommended prevention measures, such as sprays to combat Japanese beetles, which love to eat roses and fruit trees.

But the decision whether or not to apply chemicals in a home garden should depend on your "tolerance" for pests, he told us.

Personally, I don't care if I get a bumper crop of tomatoes. If the bugs get in the tomatoes before they're ripe, I choose not to spray, because gardening is my hobby and I can always buy tomatoes from the produce stand down the road.

Unfortunately, farmers don't have the luxury to just let their crops get eaten by pests. That's why farmers work with their agronomists to determine their "tolerance" for pests and apply any necessary chemicals at the right time, and at the right amount, using precision technology.

In this issue of the Iowa Dish, we take a closer look at how farmers use Integrated Pest Management to keep crops healthy. We'll also offer tips on how to properly wash fruits and vegetables to ensure they are safe to eat.

In addition, we'll learn about a Des Moines-area corporate garden project that is supplying garden-fresh veggies to Iowa food pantries. We will also meet the American Honey Queen, who hails from Iowa, and visit a unique restaurant in eastern Iowa where guests can dine in the hayloft of an historic barn.

So if you have any tomato-growing tips, or want to complain about how bad your tomatoes are looking too, send me an email. We gardeners are always hoping to grow the perfect tomato.

With such a cool summer this year, August feels like an early kick off to fall. In a few short weeks, the first of the early season apples will arrive at Iowa farmers markets and orchards.

I like to visit local orchards almost every weekend in the fall so I can stock up on apples. Once I bring those beauties home, I whip up batches of applesauce, apple butter, dried apples (using a food dehydrator) and, of course, apple pies. There's something blissful about slowly stirring a pot of applesauce over the stove, while watching my favorite football team score a touchdown on TV.

Speaking of football, I saw a group of high school athletes walking to an early morning football practice while I was driving to the office today, which definitely means that back-to-school time is here.

In this issue of the Iowa Dish, we offer tips for packing a safe and healthy school lunch that even picky eaters will enjoy. And even though summer temperatures have been mild, we'll take a closer look at how Iowa farmers keep their livestock cool and comfortable in hot and humid weather.

In addition, we will show how several Iowa farmers are extending their growing seasons past the first fall frost by growing tomatoes indoors. Plus, we will share the results from the latest Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index ™, which covers what influences Iowa grocery shoppers.

So take advantage of these mild fall days and plan a trip to an Iowa apple orchard or farmers market. To find an orchard near you, visit the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association's website.

Stay Cool: How To Pack a Safe School Lunch for your Kids

Now that summer is winding down, Iowa students are returning to class, but they might not always like what's on the school cafeteria menu.  If you regularly pack lunches for your kids at school, or if you pack a lunch for yourself at work, remember to follow safe food-handling practices to prevent the potential for food-borne illness.  Read more.

Extending the Tomato Season

Iowans crave the taste of fresh-picked tomatoes all year long, not just in the summer. But while tomatoes thrive in Iowa's hot summer weather, they can't survive past the first frost of fall.  So farmers are adopting new technology to extend the growing season in Iowa for tomatoes and other fresh produce, such as lettuce, cucumbers and herbs. Read more.

GMO Benefits Win Over Iowa Grocery Shoppers

Nearly nine out of 10 Iowa grocery shoppers say their purchasing decisions would be influenced by knowing that crops developed with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can produce foods with improved nutritional content, according to the recently released Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index™.  The scientific survey, which was conducted online by Harris Poll, also showed that a large majority, 84 percent, of Iowa grocery shoppers would be influenced to buy foods made with GMO crops when they learn that the technology allows farmers to reduce pesticide use. Read more.

Early summer is by far my favorite time of year in Iowa. First of all, the weather is perfect. The temperatures are mild, the high humidity hasn't kicked in and the mosquitoes aren't yet buzzing around in full force.

Plus, I'm catching up on all the outdoor activities I missed so much during the brutally cold winter. I'm spending a lot of time on the bike trails and in my backyard garden. I'm also traveling to family get-togethers, where we gather outside around the grill, listening to the chirping birds and smelling the sizzling hamburgers while we marvel about how fast the grass is growing. (What else can we Iowans complain about when we can't gripe about the weather?)

In this edition of the Iowa Dish, we take a closer look at the prices for steaks, Iowa pork chops and other grilling favorites and why they are higher. We share summer grilling tips from an Iowa dietician and tell you about a new app to help grill foods safely.

In addition, we introduce you to an Iowa family that is making yogurt on the farm with milk from their Holstein cows. Plus, be sure to check out the latest Iowa Minute video on how cows can now milk themselves with the newest robotic milkers.

We're also sharing a winning recipe from the Iowa Farm Bureau Cookout Contest, held annually at the Iowa State Fair, for a beef roast on the grill. It's a budget-friendly cut of meat that's full of flavor.

If you have a favorite grilling recipe, or you have a question about farming in Iowa or about food in general, feel free to email me at TheIowaDish@ifbf.org. We may cover the topic in a future issue. Enjoy the summer!

Welcome to The Iowa Dish!
With the holiday season fast approaching, and the Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings just a few days way, we're excited to share our latest e-newsletter, The Iowa Dish.

When entering our recent "Iowa Farmers Feed Us" grocery giveaway, you told us that you were interested in learning more about food and farming in the state.

Our goal with "The Iowa Dish" is to spark a conversation about how our food is grown and raised, and to introduce the Iowa farmers who work to feed families here at home and abroad. Plus, we'll serve up quick bites on food safety, nutrition and meal trends. And of course, we'll share some of our favorite in-season recipes.

We've got a lot more recipes and information to share as well as future contests, so please look for our semi-monthly e-newsletter in your email inbox. We look forward to dishin' with you about Iowa food and farming.

Teresa Bjork, sr. features writer, Iowa Farm Bureau

Let's Talk Turkey
While Thanksgiving turkeys get all the attention this time of year, Americans actually eat more turkey year-round nowadays compared to our grandparent's generation.

Here in Iowa, our farmers are on the leading edge of the deli turkey trend. Read more.

USDA Organic

What do the labels mean?
If you're into bargain shopping, then you are probably checking out the grocery store ads right now, trying to find the best deal on a Thanksgiving turkey. Is it worth paying more for a "gourmet" bird with all the labels? Read more.

Sizzlin' Trend: Turkey on the Grill

With the growing popularity of year-round outdoor cooking, more Americans are planning to grill, smoke or deep-fry their turkeys this year to free up oven space for their favorite Thanksgiving sides. Read more.

Antibiotics: Is Meat Safe? Find out more here.

Do you have a question or topic that you would like me to cover in a future issue of The Iowa Dish? Drop me a note here.