Farm to table: How to shop smarter at your local farmer's market

We've officially hit peak summer produce! Shop with a plan to buy the best products — and make good use of them

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 14, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)

Fresh food and vegetables at a Farmer's Market (Rodger Shagam/Getty Images)
Fresh food and vegetables at a Farmer's Market (Rodger Shagam/Getty Images)

My local farmer's market is one of my favorite places in the city. There's something special about walking through rows and rows of fresh produce — ruby strawberries, papery heads of garlic, slim green-husked ears of corn — manned by the folks who grew it. You can't help but feel closer to your food. 

Speaking from experience, it's easy to go to the market and either overspend on bundles and bundles of random vegetables with no real plan for how to use them or (more often in my case) leave almost empty-handed because you feel overwhelmed. 

Don't worry — there's a better way to do it! Here are four tips to help you become a smarter farmer's market shopper this season. 

Go in with a loose plan 

Sometimes, I experience some light paralysis in the face of variety. (I'm not a huge astrology person, but the stereotypes about Libras being indecisive feel like personal attacks in this case.) This happens in places like exceptionally crowded bookstores, vintage clothing shops, the second floor of Ikea and good farmer's markets. 

That said, one of the beautiful things about these places — though, admittedly, less so at Ikea — is the sense of discovery one can feel while picking through all of the available options. To assuage my indecisiveness while also maintaining some of that feeling, I find it useful to go to the market with a very loose plan. 

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I go in looking for some must-buys: peak-season tomatoes, husks of white corn, a good hunk of cheddar from my favorite cheese stall, a cereal loaf from the bread guy, a bouquet of fresh sunflowers. 

This ensures that the trip is worthwhile and any other good things that I find are basically a bonus. 

Do a walk-around to see what's on offer 

Take a loop through the market to get a sense of what's available and which products look the freshest. This can help you locate your "must buys" but also scope out stalls bursting with in-season produce and interesting foodstuffs. 

Know what's in season — and what the freshest products look like 

One of the keys to buying better at the farmer's market is actually knowing what's in season. Before heading to shop, take a look at a guide of what produce is best when; this one from the USDA is a fantastic starting point. Also, educate yourself about what fresh produce looks and feels like. 

The answer varies from vegetable to vegetable and fruit to fruit, of course. But here are some general guidelines: You want to buy produce with a vibrant color and unbruised exterior skin. It should feel firm to the touch and be free from random soft spots or dents. Often, the more fragrant an item is, the more flavorful it will be. 

Try something new

One of the best things about farmer's markets is the variety of products available. Each time I go to the market, I try to pick up something that's new to me — whether that's cheese from a new vendor, locally-pressed olive oil or fresh pastries from a bakery stand. Who knows? You may find a new favorite to add to your weekly "must buy" list. 

Bookmark a few recipes that make the most of seasonal produce

When it comes to making the most out of my farmer's market visit, one of the things I find most helpful is to have at least a few recipes in mind I'd like to make where seasonal produce is the star.

Here are a few of our favorites recipes starring seasonal produce from Salon Food:

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Agriculture Farmers Market Farming Fruits Produce Recipe Tomatoes Vegetables