Enjoy Food

10 Money-Saving Lessons I Learned While Exclusively Shopping Farmers Markets

Kathryn Tuggle  |  August 21, 2020

Do some pre-shopping recon, make a flexible menu plan, buy the basil plant, and more of our favorite farmers market shopping tips.

When the pandemic lockdown hit New York City, I was so grateful to have a local farmers market just around the corner from my apartment. Every Saturday morning, I’d walk out into the sunshine and stand in a socially-distanced outdoor line with my neighbors to nab some of my favorite items. 

Before the pandemic, I would usually only grab some apples and lettuce, and maybe a bunch of sunflowers. But over the last few months, I’ve been fully schooled on how to shop everything from my local farmer —  meat, eggs, honey, fish, wine, oats and so much more. I wanted to share some of my favorite farmers market shopping tips to help you navigate the stalls of fresh-picked goods on your next run to the market. And if you’re still searching for a good market near you, this farmers markets directory will point you to local open-air markets to explore. (Shoutout to my three favorites nationwide — The Market At Pepper Place in Birmingham, Alabama, the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, and the Hollywood Farmers Market in Los Angeles!) 

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1.Waiting in line is often worth it 

If there’s a long line at a stall, don’t pass it up. It often means that the vendor is offering better food or better prices. In either case, you may want to hop on in that line and see what they have in stock. 

2. Live plants may be your cheapest option 

Just this week I noticed that bunches of picked basil were for sale for $5 a bundle, but a live basil plant (complete with a little pot and dirt) was just $3. You’ll score bonus basil with that one plant if you water it enough and make sure to cut it (and use it) often. It’ll grow like a weed! 

3. Buy in bulk to get a discount 

Cherry tomatoes are a staple in my home, and I usually buy two to four pints for the week, since they last a long time in the fridge. One of my favorite farmers sells them for $5 per pint, or $8 for two.  These kinds of deals aren’t always advertised, so if you’re buying several of a particular item, don’t be afraid to ask for a discount. (I recently scored a great discount on six bottles of wine — individually they were $15 each, but for a case of 6 bottles, the vendor gave me a total price of $80, bringing them to just over $13 per bottle. 

4. Walk the entire market before making your decision

Do some strolling before you pull the trigger on any particular item. Scope out the situation to see what looks freshest and who has the best deals. If something you know you want is in short supply, obviously hop in line. But don’t forget to see what else is out there. 

5. It’s okay to be choosy 

If you want the bunch of sunflowers that’s in the verrrrry back of the bucket, ask for it! Don’t be shy about getting the exact items you want, just as you would if you were picking your own items from a kiosk at the grocery store. (You won’t insult the farmer if you’re selective. No one knows better than they do that not all peaches are created equal!) 

6. Ask for advice

So you want cheeses, but you’re not sure which one will go best with a particular wine you’re serving, or which one is most likely to be a crowd-pleaser. Explain to the vendor what you’re looking for, and they should be able to guide you in the right direction. They truly are experts in what they sell, and can make recommendations based on what you’re looking for. 

7. Consider shelf-life

One of our colleagues goes to her local farmers’ market every two weeks and loads up for the next 14 days. She’s gotten pretty good at knowing what will go the distance (beets, cauliflower, carrots and other generally harder veggies) and what items should be eaten in the first few days (some lettuces, cucumbers). Also: Don’t wash things (or if you do, dry them). Your bounty will last longer if you don’t put it away wet. 

8. While going early is great, going late can sometimes land you a better deal

You might be able to snag a better deal on your items if you visit the market at the end of the day, when things are winding down. Most farmers don’t want to pack up items that are likely to spoil — their goal is usually to head home with their truck beds empty. If your market closes at 1pm, try getting there at 12:30 and see how prices look. Just beware that going late can mean missing out on something that’s in high demand. (The crab cakes from my favorite fishmonger are always gone by 10am!) 

9. It never hurts to take a list and meal plan

It’s easy to get carried away at the farmer’s market where everything looks good — and smells better. And yes, you should leave yourself open to last-minute menu changes because those just-in-season peaches or snap peas or summer squash just showed up… But if you go in with a general sense of what you want to cook and when you want to cook it, you’re less likely to overbuy.

10. Look for foods that you can regrow yourself 

If you’ve got a green thumb, look for items that can easily be replanted into a small pot (or bed, if you have it) including green onions, garlic, celery, and lettuce. One small root can really take off. Mind you, garlic takes significantly longer to regrow than scallions, so just don’t count on using them next week. 

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