10 Tips for Shopping at the Farmers’ Market

How to Save Money and Time.

While shopping at the farmers’ market should be relaxed, if you’re serious about making it a part of your regular routine, you need to go in with a plan. This goes against what many people will tell you. They’ll tell you to just go, be spontaneous and see what you can find.

That’s great if you have all of the time in the world and already know how to cook with a variety of fresh produce. But if you’re trying to make eating local a regular part of your lifestyle, are usually busy on the weekends and need to keep it on a budget, you’re probably going to need to approach it a bit differently. As someone who can still remember my first trip to the farmers’ market and how I built those trips into being a regular part of my routine (even at its busiest), I wanted to share with you my 10 tips for shopping at the farmers’ market as well as how to save time and money while doing it. 

Photo of produce that you can buy when shopping at the farmers' market

1. Sign up for the market newsletter

You can do this through the market website. The newsletter should tell you about any policies or procedures that need to be followed, especially as they relate to our current health crisis. It will also list the produce or other products that each vendor will be bringing that week. In addition, if you’re new to eating local and with the seasons, looking at the vendors’ lists will help you to know what’s in season so that you know what to expect.

2. Find recipes that match what’s available that week

This way, you’re not just buying random items that you have no idea what you’re going to do with them once you get home. You have a plan. This is where some of the experimenting and adventure comes in with shopping at the farmers’ market. You can still branch out and try new recipes but going in knowing what you’re going to fix will give you more confidence to learn about and try different foods. 

3. Make a list for shopping at the farmers’ market

Don’t be surprised if shopping at the farmers’ market the first few times is a bit overwhelming. Making a list of the items you need based on what you’ve seen will be available and that you need for your specific recipes will help to make it less so. Many people will say not to go with a list or any expectation of what you’ll find. That’s so you can be more creative with what you do find, and you’ll be more adventurous. 

There’s a lot to be said for that. But, if the experience is too overwhelming or if you leave with a bunch of produce that you have no idea how to prepare and won’t have time to figure it out, going to the farmers’ market is not going to become a regular part of your lifestyle. 

As you make your list based on the vendor list in the newsletter, I also strongly recommend noting beside each item which vendor(s) will have it. This and just making a list in general will help you to be as efficient with your time as possible if you have to get your shopping trip in before heading off to a kid’s activity. 

Making a list doesn’t mean that you’re being too rigid. It means that you’re being intentional enough about the experience that you want it to be a success. 

4. Take your own bags

Whether you have re-usable bags that you can take, or old grocery store plastic bags, you’ll want to take your own bags when shopping at the farmers’ market. Some vendors offer plastic bags, but they’re usually only large enough for a few items. 

5. Go early

If you’re serious about eating local and making sure that you find the items that you need, you’ll want to be at the farmers’ market as close to when it opens as possible. This is especially true if you have somewhere else that you need to be fairly quickly. If a market is open during the winter, it usually opens at 9am. Summer through fall hours usually begin at 8am. Farmers’ market day is not the day to sleep in. 

6. Keep to your list

Yes, we’re back on the list. Keeping to your list will help to keep you on budget and will keep you from wasting a lot of produce that you don’t use. Trust me on this one. The pull of tables and stands full of fresh beautiful, colorful produce (especially during the summer) can be enticing. Your eyes will get way bigger than what’s good for your budget or for what you will actually use. 

Of course, there are exceptions to this. 

  • If it’s something that looks interesting to you, your budget has room for it and you know you’ll have time to experiment, then go for it. 
  • It’s an item that you love that wasn’t listed in the newsletter.
  • If you need to be flexible because something isn’t available, and you need to come up with another ingredient, main course or a side. 

7. Talk to the vendors

This is part of the whole point of shopping at the farmers’ market. You get to know the people who are growing your food and making the products that you buy. I truly consider the vendors at my farmers’ market as an important part of my community. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, when my favorite vendor had to miss a week, they were taking pre-orders for pickup at their farm, which is about 45 minutes from my house. I was willing to make the trip, but instead, she said, “You know what, my husband will be coming close to you anyway, let him bring your order to you.” When I protested, she said, “You always come to us. Let us come to you this time.” He came 10 minutes out of his way to leave my order on my porch. 

As another example, the vendors were very helpful with my older son when I had to send him to the market. I sent a list, but apparently, he was misreading a few things. When it was clear that he was shopping for someone else, they asked him who he was shopping for. He gave them my name, and they said, “Oh, this is what your mom usually gets.” You do not get that level of service from the farmer that you don’t get to talk to at the grocery store.

Another reason to talk to the vendors is if buying organic is important to you. Ask the farmers about their growing practices. Certification is expensive, and many farmers use organic or chemical-free practices, but they just aren’t certified. 

8. Note how much items cost

You can either make a quick note in your list of how much each item costs or take a picture of the price with your phone. This will help you as you budget and plan your meals and other shopping in the future.

I choose to do as much of my family’s food shopping at the farmers’ market as much as possible, but I still have to stay within a budget. I make it work by staying within the allotted amount that I have to spend and through buying paper products and other non-food items through Amazon, Sam’s, Walmart or Target.

9. See if the farm does pre-orders

If you know that you’re going to be crunched for time one week, see if the vendors do pre-orders for pickup at the market. This will save you time because all you have to do is walk up and pick it up. Many vendors that used to not do pre-orders are doing them now because they had to start doing it during the COVID crisis. 

10. Wash and store your items as soon as you get home

Washing your produce and storing it in an appropriate way as soon as you get home will make sure that it stays as fresh as possible and is ready to go when you need it. If you have the time, I recommend going ahead and slicing or chopping the produce into the size and amounts that you’ll need for your recipes right after you get everything put away or later that same day. That will make it much easier and less overwhelming when it comes time to make the recipes that you planned and will help to make sure that your food is actually used. 

Most importantly when you go shopping at the farmers’ market – have fun! If you do have time to be more relaxed and simply explore, be sure and look around, talk to the farmers and other vendors and see where you might want to go back to next week. Following the tips that I give here isn’t meant to take away from the farmers’ market experience. These tips are meant to help you see how doable it really is as part of your regular routine. Some days you’ll be able to be more relaxed, other days, you’re simply trying to get your healthy, local food and still get to your kid’s baseball game on time. Both experiences are equally real and are what shopping at the farmers’ market is all about. 

Lean on your community

Do you shop at the farmers’ market regularly? If not, tell us why in the comments below. If so, we’d love to hear from you on how you make that happen.

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