How To Shop At A Farmer’s Market: My Top 5 Tips

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Last Saturday, I took one of my clients (and she’s a friend from church!) on a trip to the Durham Farmers Market as a follow up to our initial appointment discussing her health concerns.

During our first appointment, she expressed concern that she didn’t know where to buy food besides Whole Foods which was getting tough on her budget, and even if she knew where to shop she wasn’t really sure what to buy in order to feed herself and her family properly. I mentioned the Durham farmers market to her, and when she told me she was worried she’d have a hard time shopping there, I offered to go shopping with her to help teach her how to navigate the market in a way that left her feeling confident and ready to go home and cook, rather than frazzled and overwhelmed.

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We spent our Saturday morning browsing the various stalls as I taught her helpful guidelines on how to get through a solid trip at the market. We had a great time, and I got some shopping done as well! As she was leaving, she said she learned so much from the experience and suggested that I write a blog post about our trip to help others in her shoes. So I’m happily obliging!

Here are my top five tips for navigating a farmers market, whether it’s your first time to the market or you’ve been shopping there for ages. This one’s for you, Kristen!

1. Get there early and bring your own bags

Going to the farmers market is a little different than shopping at the grocery store. Okay, a LOT different. If you show up too late, you may find that much of the best produce and meat selections are gone, especially if you’re shopping at a smaller market. There’s been many times where I rolled up an hour before the market closed (hey, I like my sleep!) and most of the best food was gone. Each individual market will vary, but we showed up to the Durham Farmers Market at 8:30 AM just to be safe.

Also, we both brought our own bags to bring home our bounty, since many of the vendors have limited bags and some don’t have bags at all. I have a special insulated bag that keeps my meat products cold, and it’s very sturdy so I can fit a lot of heavy frozen meat products in it without worrying it’s going to bust. Get a few strong, reusable bags to carry with you every time you go.

2. Do a “just looking” lap

This is a crucial but often overlooked step, especially among market newbies. Don’t just buy all your meat and veggies at the first market stand you see! There are probably dozens of farmers at the market who offer a variety of options, and there is likely some difference in the quality and price of each farmer’s product. You might miss out on some awesome products if you just go for the first stall you see.

Do a browsing lap and get familiarized with what’s available at the market. You may realize that the most appealing veggies or meat come from a market stall that’s on the opposite end from where you parked. Once you get used to the market layout, you might find your favorite vendors and go straight to them every time you shop, saving you time and mental energy perusing the available options.

3. Find the 3 Macros: Protein, Carbs, Fat

This is my most practical tip for shopping at the farmers market, especially if you’re not using a shopping list to aid you. If you’re not really sure what you want to buy before you get there, make it a point to pick up the essentials so that you can cook well-balanced meals when you get home.

I usually find the protein options first. I’ll look for grass-fed beef, pastured pork and eggs, free-range poultry, and sometimes even bones and organ meats. I have a second freezer so I typically buy my meat in bulk and store the majority of it for later use. If my goal is to eat 3/4 pounds of protein foods daily, I’ll try to make sure I get at least 5 pounds of meat and egg products every week. I also go for the cheaper cuts, like ground and stew meat.

Then I look for my carbs. I love getting my carbs from the farmers market because they always have a great variety of root vegetables and seasonal fruit, and sometimes I’ll grab some artisanal gluten-free bread products. North Carolina is especially good for sweet potatoes, and I try to get a wide variety of whole food carbohydrates for my moderate carb diet. Roots and tubers are usually pretty cheap, even when they’re organic, and they’re nutrient dense sources of carbs. The fruit comes and goes in the market, and I enjoy eating what’s seasonally available. We even have a short muscadine grape season here in NC, and it’s both fun and healthy to get seasonal variety.

Finally, I take the opportunity to grab healthy fats as necessary. Depending on where you shop, you may find that your farmers market has grass-fed butter, locally made olive oil, organic nut butters, and even rendered pastured animal fats. I encouraged my client/friend to grab a quart of pastured lard for only $7! I don’t always shop for fats at the farmers market, but if your market sells high quality healthy fats, it’s a great place to buy them, especially if you don’t have time to render your own animal fat.

4. Grab a variety of vegetables… and don’t be afraid to experiment

You can’t leave the farmers market without at least a few different types of non-starchy vegetables. During our trip to the market last weekend, I bought a massive bunch of collards, bok choy, napa cabbage, and purple and orange carrots with big tops. I might have bought more but I ran out of room in my bag!

The farmers market is the perfect opportunity to experiment with the variety of your plant food intake. I usually recommend that my clients make half their plate full of non-starchy vegetables, and the more variety you get the better. Dr. Dishman, the naturopath I work with, recommends her patients aim for 20 different varieties of plant foods each week for nutritional adequacy and gut health support (gotta feed those microbes!) and you can get a nice chunk of that 20 from the farmers market.

Afraid to try some of the more bizarre veggies available at the market? Since the internet exists, you have no reason to be afraid! Be adventurous and grab a vegetable that you’ve never tried before. When you get home, Google some recipes that use that veggie, and use one of those recipes to cook your new vegetable. You can also use a website like Chowstalker.com to find Paleo-specific recipes using your veggie of choice. Or just talk to the person who is selling the vegetable, since they’ve probably cooked it themselves and they may have some helpful tips.

Your Paleo diet should really contain more plant food than animal foods by volume, and picking up a large variety of seasonal vegetables at the farmers market is a great way to make that happen.

5. Talk to the farmers… and know what to ask

Don’t be shy, the farmers are there to help you, and you should make use of their knowledge! It’s important to talk to the farmers if you’re concerned about food quality. Ask the meat retailers about their farming practices: are the cows 100% grass fed or grass “finished”? Are the chickens out on pasture during the day? Do the pigs get to forage? What kind of supplemental feeds do they use? Some animal farmers will even bring pictures of their operation to show you how they treat their animals.

Vegetable farmers can be asked just as many questions: is their farm certified organic? If not, do they use any pesticides or other chemical products on their plants? It’s expensive to become certified so don’t hold it against the farmer if their products are not “Organic”. If they’re using “biodynamic”, “no spray” techniques to grow their plants, they’re probably just as good as the certified organic products. Again, just talk to the farmer and find out why they’re not certified.

Lastly, don’t forget to ask if the farmers have any products that aren’t on display! For example, we found out that the meat farmer we were buying our food from was in the process of transitioning to a 100% grass-fed operation, and that he had rendered lard available in a cooler at the back of the stall. Had we not talked to him, we wouldn’t have known that his grass-finished cows hadn’t had any supplemental grain since 2013, or that they had more than just fatback available. And as I mentioned before, you can ask your farmer for ideas about how to cook the more unusual produce that they’re selling.

Farmers are usually more than happy to answer any questions you ask, and openness to discussion is a good sign that the product is likely of better quality. If a farmer refuses to answer your questions, you have no obligation to buy their product. And if they are the chatty type, don’t be afraid to make friends! I used to buy eggs from Mike, a farmer at the Carrboro farmers market who knew my name, met my parents, and chitchatted with me about UNC football and my nutrition business every time I shopped there. The social interaction is one of the bonuses of shopping at the farmers’ market over the supermarket, so take advantage of it!

Those are my favorite tips for shopping at the farmers’ market! Do you have any advice that I didn’t cover? Share your recommendations in the comments below!

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  1. Great tips, Laura! I tend to buy whatever looks the most fresh and plan my menu around that, rather than the other way around.