Every food lover knows they should shop at the farmers’ market, but how to approach it is a different story. Because the setup is so much different than a standard supermarket, the experience can be intimidating for newcomers. Instead of going in blindly, it’s worth taking a bit of time to figure out your strategy. These seven pointers will have you shopping like a master in no time.
1. Get your breakfast and ingredients at the same place
The age-old advice to never go to the store hungry doesn’t apply when you’re shopping at the farmers’ market. These open-air stores feature just as many food vendors as they do farmers anymore. In some cases, the stands at the farmers’ markets serve some of the best breakfasts and lunches in town. They’re also hot spots for events featuring chefs, so keep an eye on your specific market’s calendar.
Don’t feel like you’re missing out if you’re not in a major metropolitan area, either. Even smaller locales offer great options for morning meals, sometimes from the farmers themselves. Or go the DIY route by purchasing some honey, cheese, and bread. Now you’re ready to shop.
2. Browse, then shop
In most cases, a market is going to have multiple farmers selling the same produce. Before you immediately pounce on the first beautiful basket of beans you see, take a lap around the entire market. You may be surprised to see just how much prices can vary from one table to the next. According to Cooking Light, surveying first is also a great way to craft your shopping list.
And remember, price isn’t the always indication of what you should buy. Those bargain berries might not be such a good deal if they aren’t sweet. In just about every case, farmers are happy to offer samples before you commit your cash.
3. Know what produce to expect
As much as you love tomatoes, seeking them out in May would be foolish. Ditto for trying to get great apples in July. You may be able to find certain specimens earlier than usual, but there’s a good chance the flavor will be lacking. Instead, educate yourself before you go. Some farmers’ markets even have websites that post what produce will be available based on what they hear from farmers.
Knowing what to expect also largely depends on your area because the growing season for different states can vary quite a bit. If you’re scratching your head about what this means for your particular area, check out this great guide from Sustainable Table.
4. Talk to the farmers
Though it’s generally fun to chat with the farmers, that’s just a small part of why you should. They are the ones who grew the fruits and vegetables, so they can tell you everything you want to know about how they were grown, treated, and transported. If organic food is a priority, be sure to ask. Just because a stand doesn’t bear the seal doesn’t mean they don’t adhere to the standards. Serious Eats explained many small properties simply can’t afford the costly certification, so they skip it.
Farmers can also give you the inside scoop on what you’ll see in the coming weeks. Maybe they’re experimenting with a new variety of pepper you’ve never heard about and want to try. If you know ahead of time, you’ll be able to plan accordingly on your next visit.
Another great reason to chat up the growers is to get some cooking tips. Most of us get stuck in ruts, so this is a great way to find out about some new ways to prepare old favorites. It also works for fruits and veggies you’ve never seen before. If you have no idea how to cook something, just ask.
5. Bring your own bags
Though a lot of farmers come prepared with plastic shopping bags, this isn’t always the case. If you haven’t yet invested in reusable totes, now is the time to do it. For starters, it’s better for the environment. One recent report estimated the ocean will contain as much plastic waste, which includes plastic shopping bags, by 2050 if our current trend continues. And who needs yet another crinkly plastic bag anyway?
If you’re planning on buying meat or other more perishable items, RachaelRay.com recommended bringing ice packs. For those interested in purchasing a huge haul, a cooler is a great option.
6. Stock up on small bills
The farmers’ market is not the place to rely on your debit card, so be sure you have cash. Even if there’s an ATM nearby, you’re better off planning ahead so you have small bills. Most of the items you’ll be buying are pretty inexpensive, so this speeds up the transaction process. The Kitchn pointed out some farmers might not even be able to make change for bigger bills if you arrive earlier in the day. This is also a great opportunity to use up the mountain of change sitting on your bedside table.
7. Be adventurous
Even if you’re not a picky eater, it’s easy to find yourself always buying the same things at the grocery store. One of the best reasons to shop at the farmers’ market is access to unusual produce you would never find in a regular supermarket. Because you’ve (hopefully) made friends with a farmer or two, they can help you find things you might like based on your favorites. You might not even know your favorite cruciferous vegetable exists.
Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec