Diet Detective: How to Shop Better at Your Local Farmers Market

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Find a Farmers Market: Are you looking for a farmers market? The USDA has a fantastic search engine with more than 4,000 farmers markets. The site allows you to search anywhere in the country to find the farmers markets in your area. It also lets you search by specifics, such as products (e.g., baked goods, cheese and/or dairy products, fish and/or seafood, fresh fruit, nuts, plants, honeys, jams and preserves, soaps, etc.), and even by payment methods accepted. You can also check out for a national directory of farmers who market their goods directly to the public.

Eat Fresh and Local: Buying at a farmers market ensures that you are eating the freshest foods, and that you are choosing locally grown. To find out what fruits and vegetables are in season take a look here. But you’ll probably know just by visiting your local farmers market. So when you’re deciding what to prepare for dinner look online and find recipes that use the fruits and vegetables that are in season. Here are a few websites where you can check for recipes.

  •, a Reader’s Digest Association (RDA) brand.
  • Has recipes from magazines and cookbooks you love and trust, including Cooking Light, Southern Living, Sunset, Coastal Living, Real Simple and Health.
  • Food Network: Click on the Healthy Eating tab on the top navigation bar.
  • EatingWell: A Vermont-based website and magazine.
  • Go to the Recipes & Menus tab and select Healthy.

Look for phone apps for these sites as well. If you’re at the market and see a veggie you would like to try in a recipe, just plug it into the app on the spot and come up with recipe ideas.

Go Early: Get the pick of the crop. Often times the best and freshest foods go first, so get an early start.

Talk It Up: Get to know the farmers at your market. Ask them what the best of the seasonal produce is that week and how to prepare it. Farmers are foodies and many will have great recipes and tips to share, says Kathleen Hiraga, president and founder of Organics Rx.

Find out Who Grew It: The entire idea of going to a farmers market is that you get to buy locally grown, fresh-picked produce. However, Calvin Finch, Ph.D., a master gardener, expert on produce production and the project director of regional initiatives and special projects for the San Antonio Water System, suggests that some vendors may have purchased the produce they’re selling from a wholesaler rather than growing it themselves. Ask the farmer and the market manager just to be sure. Tim Lymberopoulos, owner and founder of and, agrees with Finch. According to Lymberopoulos, some vendors at markets bring produce that is grown in neighboring states and/or countries. Ideally, the markets should support local agriculture. Locally grown produce is fresher, tastes better and can contain more flavor and nutrition because it is ripened on the plant. Do a little due diligence by asking where the produce was grown and what’s currently in season.

Fresh Picked: “Some fruits and vegetables, like sweet corn and peas, quickly begin to lose their sugars within a day or two of harvest,” says Finch. Be sure to ask the farmer when the produce he’s selling was harvested.

Bring Cash: Not all farmers take credit cards. Make sure to visit an ATM or call and find out ahead of time.

Go for Quality, Not Beauty: According to Terra Wellington, author of The Mom’s Guide to Growing Your Family Green: Saving the Earth Begins at Home (St. Martin’s Press), you need to realize that you’re going for quality, not necessarily beauty, at the farmers market. It is poor etiquette to pick through all the organic lettuce heads, for example, to find one that doesn’t look like it came from a farm. Instead, if the product looks decent and comes from an organic farm that consistently gives you great product and taste, that is the grower you should support. We have been trained by vegetable and fruit associations to think that the perfect tomato looks a certain way. But if you’ve ever tried an ugly looking heirloom tomato, you know that the ugly one will be the best tomato you’ve eaten in years.

Be Community-Minded: Talk to the person standing next to you. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn simply by asking a question, making a comment or even offering a smile. “Farmers markets create a great opportunity for community mindedness. You can learn a lot by striking up a conversation with a person nearby, such as new recipes, ideas, shopping tips, new fruits and vegetables to sample. The list is endless,” says Michael Hurwitz, director of the Greenmarket Program in New York City.

Try Something New: Anything. “Farmers markets carry hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables that are not available in supermarkets, so, don’t be afraid to ask. Farmers always have some new discovery or something interesting to discuss,” says Hurwitz.

See the Market Manager: Go to the market manager’s stand and ask questions. “The market manager will more than likely have new recipe ideas, know the weekly deals, which fruits and vegetables are in season, which are the new farmers and/or new products, and will be able to tell you about cooking demonstrations taking place at the market. The manager’s stand is a great place to interact and to get your market bearings, says Hurwitz.

Just Wait: According to Greenmarket director Hurwitz, who is responsible for more than 53 markets in New York City, it’s not always a good idea to buy new fruits and veggies when they first arrive. Why? Because first is not always best. Instead, wait 10 days to two weeks into the season for the finest picks.

Is it Organic? Something to look out for is if the produce is actually organic. You can ask to see the farmer’s certification, but it’s important to note that it takes three years for a farm to become certified. Many of the farms are in transition and aren’t using pesticides, but they may not have their certifications yet. It’s a matter of trust, looking the farmer in the eye and believing that he or she is telling you the truth. Trusting your farmer is very important, says Ann Gentry, author of Vegan Family Meals (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011).

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