Farmer’s markets are an excellent way to obtain extremely fresh produce, support local businesses, and, of course, capture some beautiful Instagram photos. As the summer continues, there is likely a farmer’s market close to your location. Whether you are new to this type of outdoor food shopping or have been attending farmer’s markets for some time, there is always more to gain from the experience. In addition to selecting new and unique fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products that consistently make an appearance at these markets, you can also delve deeper to make the freshest and healthiest food choices.
SHAPE spoke with dietitian-farmers to gather their top recommendations for maximizing your local farmer’s market experience during the abundant summer season and throughout the year.
The Advantages of Shopping at Farmer’s Markets
Shopping at a farmer’s market can greatly benefit your health. “When fruits are harvested at their peak ripeness, they contain more nutrients compared to when they are picked unripe, which is often the case in traditional agriculture where produce may spend up to two weeks in transit before reaching your kitchen,” explains plant-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, who holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is also the author of “The Plant-Powered Plan to Beat Diabetes.” In contrast, fruits and vegetables from farmer’s markets have usually traveled a short distance, allowing them to retain their nutrients, flavor, color, and aroma.
Supporting your local economy and reducing environmental impact are among the additional benefits of shopping at a market. “By frequenting farmer’s markets, you can support local farmers, decrease packaging waste, diversify your diet, and reduce the distance that food travels,” says Palmer. You may even discover delicious foods at the farmer’s market that you’ve never tried before.
Adhere to these five best practices when shopping at your local market.
Plan in Advance
A little preparation can greatly enhance your farmer’s market experience. Instead of showing up without a plan, take some time to outline your visit, including how long you intend to stay. “The farmer’s market can be overwhelming during your first visit. There are numerous vendors and a wide variety of products that you may not be familiar with,” advises Amanda Terillo, who holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and is a Registered Dietitian. Terillo owns Olive Branch Gardens Farm in Virginia. “Try to avoid going when you are pressed for time! You’ll want to be able to leisurely stroll around and speak with the vendors without feeling rushed.”
Before leaving home, check the operating hours of your local market and review the list of vendors. (This way, you won’t arrive at a vegan market expecting to find half a cow for sale.) Also, remember to bring your own shopping bags, a shopping list, and some cash in case certain vendors only accept cash payments.
Choose Fresh and Seasonal Produce
The complete purpose of shopping at a farmer’s market is to acquire fresh, seasonal produce, correct? That’s why Palmer encourages individuals to “opt for the seasons.” “Allow the farmer’s market to prompt you to favor what is currently in season and relish in those foods when they are accessible,” she states. “For instance, stone fruit, melons, and tomatoes are only in season during the summer — so indulge in these foods when they are exclusively available for such a brief duration.”
If out-of-season foods are present (such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and winter squash offered during the summer), mentally bookmark them for a different time of the year. (Unsure about what is in season nearby? Take a look at the Seasonal Food Guide, a resource that catalogs produce by location, season, and type.)
From there, your subsequent step is selecting the freshest produce at the market. Palmer has recommendations for that as well. “Search for produce that is ripe, aromatic, and enticing. Request assistance from your farmer to select produce according to your needs.” There’s no need to be excessively particular about flawlessness either. Remember, these fruits and vegetables are sourced directly from the farm, rather than undergoing any enhancement at a large retailer. That’s a positive aspect! Choosing “unattractive” produce might actually provide additional nutrition. “Those naturally occurring blemishes and imperfections in fruits and vegetables are indications that they contain higher levels of antioxidant compounds,” clarifies Palmer.
Converse with the Farmers
If you want to get closer to the origin of your food, who better to converse with than the farmers who cultivated it? Unlike in a grocery store, where employees may have no knowledge about the origins of the foods they sell, at farmer’s markets, the individuals who grew the food are often the ones behind the booth.
Engaging in a conversation with a farmer or farm representative can enlighten you about how a food was cultivated, how to select the finest option, or even how to cook it. “Have a list of inquiries that you wish to pose,” suggests Terillo. Some examples include:
- When was the product harvested?
- What types of pest control methods do you utilize?
- How much longer will this product be available?
- What do you feed your livestock?
- Where is your farm situated?
- What’s the optimal way to prepare this food?
And here’s an accurate insider tip: under specific circumstances, you can even request a discount. “If you are shopping for multiple people or desire an item that stores well, like winter squash, inquire about bulk sales. Many vendors will offer bulk quantities at a reduced price for items that they had a bountiful harvest of,” states Terillo.
Experiment with New Foods and Varieties
Consider a farmer’s market as your epicurean playground. It’s a low-risk way to step out of your comfort zone and relish in some culinary exploration. Sometimes, you can even dip a toe (or, more accurately, a fork) into unexplored territory by sampling unfamiliar foods.
Many farmers markets provide samples, which is an excellent way to experiment with new produce (particularly for children, bring them along!),” affirms Palmer. “Attempt something distinct, such as passion fruit, kohlrabi, or sunchockes! It will enhance the variety of your diet.” And once again, if you’re curious about how to cook that unusual, purple squash or fruit resembling a sea urchin, don’t hesitate to ask the farmer. They will most likely be thrilled to share their favorite recipes and cooking techniques.
Prolong Shelf Life and Reduce Food Waste
The ultimate thing you desire after spending your money on top-notch produce is to witness it spoil. However, since many vendors at farmers markets use minimal (or no) chemical preservatives, fresh-from-the-farm produce has a limited lifespan. To prevent food waste, begin by purchasing a practical quantity. “It can be effortless to buy more than you can utilize because it looks so vibrant. Nevertheless, make sure to only buy what you can use before it deteriorates,” advises Palmer. Terillo also suggests keeping a cooler and airtight container in your vehicle to keep the produce away from heat and prevent it from getting squashed on the journey home.
Once you arrive home, familiarize yourself with the foods that spoil faster and endeavor to use them first. According to Palmer, berries, tomatoes, and green leafy vegetables may last only a couple of days after being purchased—so think about how you can promptly incorporate them into delectable salads, soups, sandwiches, or side dishes. You can also prepare fruits and vegetables right away for immediate consumption. “Having prepared vegetables increases the likelihood that they will not spoil,” says Terillo.
You may not be able to obtain all of the produce you require at your local farmers market, but it is an exceptional starting point for your weekly shopping. The advantages of selecting the market as your initial stop—such as supporting sustainable agriculture, trying out new foods, and stocking up on healthy ingredients—make it worthwhile. Rain or shine, you can embrace the farmers market experience, returning home not only with an abundance of produce but with budding relationships with the individuals who cultivate it.
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