It is finally summer, which means fun in the sun, enjoying time outdoors, and — best of all — farmer’s markets. Farmer’s markets are some of the best places to get organic, locally sourced, fresh and in-season produce and meats, not to mention other items such as flowers, vegetable plants and craft items. Since the farmers drive directly to the markets with their produce, there is less transport and refrigeration involved, meaning you are getting the best food closest to home with the least amount of processing. This makes the food taste better, and it’s better for you, the environment and the farmers that produce it. However, farmer’s markets can be daunting if you’re new to the scene, and you can end up spending a lot of money and wasting a lot of food if your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Follow these tips to make the most of your farmer’s market experience.
1. Bring a Tote Bag
Most produce stands provide plastic bags for you to do your shopping with, but if you want to be environmentally friendly, or if you just don’t want to walk around carrying a ton of plastic bags, be sure to bring a tote bag or two. You can store your purchases in the tote bag over your shoulder rather than having those annoying handles dig into your hands as you walk around, which will make your shopping experience more enjoyable, not to mention help save the environment.
2. Do Some Research
In warmer climates, you can sometimes find farmer’s markets year round. In other regions, farmer’s markets generally run from mid-spring to early fall. This means that the farmers go through several growing seasons during the length of the market season. Knowing what is in-season can help you find the freshest produce and get the most for your money. Also, going in with a list of things you need is a great way to avoid buying the tempting fruits and veggies available, but there is no way of knowing what is going to be there in any given week, so you might want to stop at the market first, get what looks good and develop your weekly recipes from there by supplementing at the grocery store.
3. Go Early and Take Your Time
If possible, get to your local farmer’s market early. The farmers bring a limited amount of produce with them, so if you get there late, you might not find everything you need or the produce might be picked over and it definitely won’t be cheaper if you are getting the stuff at the bottom of the barrel. Getting there early can also help you take your time while shopping. At a good farmer’s market, there will be several stands that carry similar items, especially produce. Take your time and walk around, taking stock of what is at each stand and thinking about what you want to take home with you. Personally, I like to take a walk around the entire market before purchasing anything, then I go in once I have decided what looks good. Taking your time like this can help you avoid over-buying.
4. Ask Questions and Try New Things
Maybe you’ve never had asparagus before or you love when you’re served it at a restaurant but you have never cooked with it, but you’re standing in front of these bushels of asparagus that look so good and are in season. Ask the farmers what to do with them. Farmers come to the markets armed with suggestions — and sometimes printed recipes — for people who want to try new produce. Just ask! They will be more than willing to point you in the right direction and happy to provide suggestions. Who knows, once you try something new in a recipe at home, it might become a regular favorite.
5. Try Several Markets
Not all farmer’s markets are created equal, and in the Chicagoland area at least, they are everywhere. If I wanted to, I could visit a different farmer’s market in a different town or neighborhood every day of the week. Some are just one stand of produce with other booths of breads, cheeses, or craft items while others span an entire train station and then spill out into the two surrounding blocks. I prefer the larger markets because I like having more options, but others, especially those new to the farmer’s market scene, might prefer smaller markets to get some experience buying local foods. Whatever you want, there is a farmer’s market for you. Don’t be afraid to try them all before you decide which one you will regularly visit.
Photo Credit: NatalieMaynor