I'm a sucker for farmer's markets. I love strolling past the stands, my reusable fabric totes slung over my shoulder and steaming cup of coffee in hand, fantasizing about the amazing meals I could make with heirloom tomatoes, crisp kale leaves, pasture-grazed pork, etc. Hungrily (because of course we're waiting to get breakfast from the artisanal sweet roll guy at the end of the aisle), my husband and I start grabbing whatever looks good, handing over fistfuls of dollar bills to fill our bags with fruits, vegetables and cartons of gorgeous brown eggs.
And then, cue the screech of a needle ripping across a record, we realize that in the space of 15 minutes, we've somehow spent $42 on 3 heirloom tomatoes, a loaf of artisan bread, a rasher of house-cured bacon and a bunch of chard. How did that happen?
Believe it or not, there's a way to shop at a farmer's market without blowing your food budget. Here are some of my favorite tips:
Do a walk-through first. Everything is going to look gorgeous and delicious when you first arrive at the farmer's market (especially when you're hungry — which reminds me of another well-proven grocery shopping tip, which is don't shop on an empty stomach). Keep your wallet closed until you walk past a good portion of the stalls first and start mentally formulating a list of what you want. You'll be more likely to buy items that can actually work together to create some meals, than ending up with sacks of random (albeit good-looking) produce.
Buy produce at its peak. You can do advance research to see what's in season before you go (Epicurious has an excellent seasonality map), but another easy way to tell what's peaking is to look around at the market. If a bunch of stalls have a similar selection of, say, strawberries or zucchini, you can bet they're at their peak. Plus, with more competition amongst fellow farmers, prices are more likely to be fair. Compare prices and quality at several booths before you pick which is the best buy.
Buy in bulk. Some farmers will offer a discount if you buy a large quantity of a fruit or vegetable, so don't be shy about asking what their policy is. What to do with all those veggies? Split the haul with a friend, or preserve them by making jam, pickles, or other jarred goods.
Shop towards closing time. Most farmers are loathe to lug their goods back home, so prices might be better, especially for highly perishable items like tender greens or ripe peaches.
Even using these tips, you can expect to pay a little more for farmer's market produce than its supermarket counterparts — but I hope that won't stop you from patronizing your local farmer's markets. You could perhaps cutback elsewhere — for instance, dining out one less time each week, or making a point of buying foods like granola, beans, or coffee in bulk — and think instead about the good you're doing to the environment:
- You're supporting and encouraging small farmers, most of whom take good care of their land and use minimal (if any) chemicals to raise their crops.
- You're eating locally, which helps conserve energy and other resources that are exhausted by shipping goods across the country.
- You're eating fresher produce that is more likely to have more nutrients than those that were picked before they were ripe and transported thousands of miles to your supermarket.
Do you have additional tips for buying at the farmer's market? Share them with us by commenting below!