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The school year has come to a close, which means now is the perfect time for picnics and barbeques. This kickoff to the unofficial start of the summer is also the debut of summer foods, including the ever-loving pasta salad. The best part about pasta salad is its diversity. Do you want a creamy white dressing or a vinaigrette? Olives or no olives? Meat or no meat? Cheese or no cheese? Macaroni, penne, bowtie or other shape of pasta? And what type of veggies? The options are endless.

Pasta salad is an easy way to get in your vegetables and whole grains. Try using whole grain noodles to pack in more nutrients, such as B-vitamins, dietary fiber, folate and magnesium. Vary your veggies and therefore, nutrient intake, with tomatoes, carrots, squash, broccoli, onion, bell pepper, asparagus and more. A creamy dressing made with mayonnaise is generally going to drive up the calories; substitute plain non-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt for a lighter, healthier version. Of course, a dressing made with oil and vinegar is a great choice as it includes healthy unsaturated fats. Skip the cheese and meat to force down the unhealthy saturated fats. If the bold tasting olive is not your thing, try sundried tomatoes or roasted piquillo peppers. Give your taste buds the power to make decisions on swapping out ingredients!

Pasta salad tastes the best when it's had time to sit and allow the flavors to develop. Make it several hours ahead of time, or even overnight, cover and place in the refrigerator. Use it within three to five days. Pasta does not freeze well because it becomes limp and mushy once thawed. I guess that means you'll just have to have a party so that it gets eaten!

Easy Pasta Salad (Printable PDF)

1 lb. whole wheat pasta, such as penne or macaroni noodles

¾ cup fat-free ranch dressing

½ cup plain low-fat yogurt

1 Tablespoon dried dill weed

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

2 baby zucchini squash, diced

1 cup shredded carrots

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and cool. In a large bowl, stir the ranch dressing, yogurt and dill weed until blended. Add the cherry tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and pasta. Stir until coated. Serve chilled.

Yield: 12 servings

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 170 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 130 milligrams sodium, 31 grams total carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 7 grams protein

Source: University of Illinois Extension- Illinois Junior Chef program