Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How to Shop a Farmers' Market

This post was originally published at

Shopping a farmers’ market is an art form not to be taken lightly. It’s a different world from that of most other shopping experiences, and requires a whole different approach if you’re going to get the most out of it. Things aren’t arranged by what they are, but by who makes them. And there’s no one running around that you can ask for a particular item who will say “Oh yeah that’s in aisle 5.” The layout of a farmers’ market demands a little more right-brained thinking than your average trip to Stop & Shop. But for all that it’s also less stressful and time consuming if you know how to do it right. Here are a few pointers:

1. Make a List
Actually, make two lists. I’m an if-it’s-not-written-down-I’ll-forget-it kind of gal, but if you prefer to do this in your head, go for it. The first list is Stuff I’m Running Out Of. You know, like toothpaste, and milk. Some of this will be more likely to be found at the market than others, obviously, but it’s good to keep the whole list in mind, because you never know.
The second list is what your week looks like. Are you gonna be pretty busy, or have more free time? Are you having people over for dinner? Going to a party? Will you need to pack lunches for work? Take a brief look at your calendar and make a rough assessment of what days you’ll have time to cook and what days you’d rather heat up leftovers. Is there a gift occasion coming up for someone in your life? Birthday? Housewarming? That kind of thing?

2: Make a Pass
There are very often two or more vendors selling similar products, so you want to assess the situation before you make any commitments. If you’re looking for, say, lettuce, you’re likely to find about twelve different varieties, so do a little comparison of prices and levels of freshness before you make your decision. And remember: the person who grew it is right there, so ask them the questions that are important to you: What’s the different between red lettuce and green? Does your farm use pesticides? How long is this vegetable in season? Will I be able to get it next week?

3: Match Up Your Information With Your Lists
Is there a particularly tempting cut of meat anywhere? Great. Build a meal around that and think about vegetables you saw on your first pass that would go well with it. Some vendors will bring recipe cards with them. If one looks interesting, see how many of those ingredients you can get while you’re here.
How many items from your Stuff I’m Running Out Of list can you check off? You might be surprised. You’re almost certain to find some great sandwich bread if you can learn to live with slicing it yourself. Depending on the size and scope of the market, you may even be able to pick up pantry staples like pasta, jam, and honey.
What kinds of non-grocery vendors are there? A lot of times you’ll see hand-crafted jewelry, soaps, or chocolates. These make great gifts.

And finally- the fun part- what impulse purchases do you just have to make? That scone that you’re going to enjoy on the walk home? The strawberries that look so good you’re gonna have to bake a cheesecake just so you can put them on top? Go for it! Just remember to keep track of how much you’re spending. Five or ten bucks at each table doesn’t seem like much until you realize all the money in your wallet is gone.

Once you’re done at the farmers market, you can fill in the holes on the rest of your list at the supermarket or drug store, and that should be easy with the week’s menu roughly planned out. Just remember not to ask the clerk at CVS whether the tomatoes in the Campell’s soup are freshly picked.

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