Across the country, local farmers markets are reawakening after months of dormancy offering a bounty of tender greens, crisp vegetables, delicious fruit, fresh baked goods and more right in your neighborhood. For those of us who endured months of snow and cold, the abundance of fresh, flavorful ingredients can reignite a passion for eating a plant-focused diet. Gone are the anemic supermarket tomatoes that taste as fresh as the plastic that protected them from Mexico to you. In are spicy French radishes, lemony sorrel and sweet spring peas. The colors and tastes are so intoxicating; you might overflow your refrigerator capacity at the first stand (not that I’ve ever done that). For me, the first farmers market of spring is a time of celebration; it’s a chance to catch up with old friends and a way to rediscover the joys of a healthy diet. But to the uninitiated, a farmer’s market can be intimidating. With stands full of vegetables you’ve never heard of (ramps?) and vendors who want to talk, your first trip can feel like diving into a foreign country without a guide book. In New York, the Union Square Farmers market is just such a place. Visiting there, I’ve seen everything from wheatgrass to movie stars buying eggs. For years, I was so intimidated by the seemingly superior knowledge of the regulars that I stalked the stalls without buying so much as an apple. But once I did, I discovered a world of delicious food right above my daily subway stop.
Ready to explore the farmer’s market close to you? Here are ten ways to make the most of your visit:
- Arrive early: Regulars know the best selection is gone before 10 a.m.
- Or… arrive late: Farmers don’t want to have to cart produce back to the farm, so if you’re bargain-hunting, you’ll find the best deals in the last hour of the market.
- Take cash: It might sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the house without cash in hand; most vendors don’t take plastic or large bills!
- Get friendly:The farmers who sell at local farmer’s markets do it because they love food and feeding people. It’s not for the money. These men and women are intimate with their product and happy to help you pick out the ripest strawberries, direct you on how to store spinach so it doesn’t go bad and even explain the difference between three varieties of zucchini. Local farmers are a great source of recipes and will give you a heads up on when you can expect to see the summer’s first corn.
- Chat with the market manager: Ask if he/she sends out an email or newsletter that outlines upcoming vendors and events so that you can know what to expect on your next visit.
- Be adventurous: Squash, kale and carrots are nice but there’s a world of fruits and vegetables out there. Trying new foods keeps you interested in and excited about your meals. And it doesn’t have to be something totally different. A new variety of a familiar food can be a whole new experience.
- Be flexible: The fun of a farmer’s market is taking advantage of produce at the peak of freshness. But shopping without a strategy might land you three heads of kale and no plan for using them. Try to arrive with a rough idea of what you already have in the fridge, how many meals you plan to make in the next week and the types of dishes you want to prepare. Then be willing to improvise based on what you find. Any meal that incorporates a variety of vegetables is perfectly suited to this approach such as a stir-fries, salads, burritos or even pizza.
- Think different:The biggest get at my local market isn’t the spinach; it’s the fish. Trucked in fresh from Long Island, it’s the freshest around. That’s not the only non-plant product I search out at the farmer’s market. I buy eggs, milk, ice cream, bread, raw cheese, maple syrup, honey, chicken, beef, bison, and mouth-watering, made-from-scratch pies. Every one of them straight from the farm or locally produced. Even our favorite almond butter comes from a local market vendor. In fact, a well-stocked market can supply most of the items on your grocery list.
- Ask about organic: While it’s tempting to shop only with vendors who are organic-certified, don’t dismiss those that aren’t; many farmers use organic and sustainable farming methods but opt to avoid the paperwork and cost involved with certification.
- Take the kids: They’ll be more inclined to try new foods if they’re involved in the process. Give them some cash and ask them to buy what appeals to them. You might be pleasantly surprised with their new choices!
Learning to navigate a market can be overwhelming at first. To make it easy, take it slow and just walk around the first couple of times you visit. Get the lay of the land and look for vendors that have consistently fresh products. Then, shopping list in hand, dive in. You, and your taste buds, will be delighted.