Farmers Market 101: Shopping Tips from a Market Curator
You don’t have to eat out to enjoy farm-to-table fare. It’s available at an outdoor venue near you.
Farmers markets crop up throughout Houston, featuring far more than fruits and vegetables—though those alone make them worth the trek.
“You cannot compare the taste and freshness of farmers’ market produce to what you’ll find in supermarkets,” says Casey Barbles, MS, nutritionist and owner of The Informal Grub and The Feel Good Group farmers’ markets.
“The farther your food has to travel, the less nutritious and tasty it may be,” Barbles says. “That’s because grocery store produce is picked earlier to last longer. It has a really long distance to travel and is touched by many different hands.”
The farmers’ market aficionado delivers the inside scoop to make the most of shopping outdoors.
Get There Early.
Arrive when a market opens to have access to all its options. Typically, the first items to sell out are meat, eggs and produce according to Barbles.
Beef, sirloin, filets, ribeyes, T-bones and other premium cuts sell out quickly.
Only after you’ve hit the stands for meat, eggs and produce should you check out those offering herbs, seasoned salt, specialty vinegars, flowers and artisanal crafts.
Take a Lap First.
Before you shop, do your homework. Many markets announce their dates, times and vendors on Instagram, Facebook or websites. Once you get there, walk through to determine your favorites.
“Once I see all that’s there, meal plans come to life,” she says.
Have a Plan.
Bring a grocery list, as you would to a supermarket.
Staples last, so you can buy them a few times monthly at grocery stores, as does Barbles. “I joke that all I need from a supermarket is Topo Chico®,” she says.
Bag it, Ice it.
Bring plenty of shopping bags and keep a cooler with ice packs in your car to store eggs, cheese, fish and frozen meat and other “things you typically want to keep cool until you get home.”
Also wear comfortable walking shoes, since parking can be hard to find and distant from the booths.
Vendors will gladly tell you which lettuces are nutty or sweeter, introduce you to delicious vegetables and fruits you’ve never eaten and offer ways to prepare them. Similarly, artisans will share their story and what’s in a vinegar or chili sauce, for example.
“There is a saying that ‘food is medicine,’” Barbles says. “I like to say, ‘food also is information.’”
Respect Fast Food.
Some farmers’ market produce may not last more than a week—which is good.
“You don’t want things that are filled with preservatives and sugars to make them last longer but aren’t as healthy,” Barbles says. “The sooner you eat them, the more nutritious and tasty they are.”
Let Supermarkets Guide You.
Fruits and vegetables that are refrigerated or regularly misted with water at a grocery store belong in your fridge. Other produce should stay out on your counter or in pantry, such as onions, potatoes, beets and turnips.
Be a Cut-Up.
Rather than judging food by its looks, buy “the uglies” and cut out the bruises and weird spots suggests Barbles. “Food doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to taste good,” she says.
Buy in Season.
You may be accustomed to buying produce year-round at supermarkets and accepting the tough and the tasteless.
At farmers’ markets, summer is ideal for picking nature’s bounty. At their best are berries, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelon, cucumbers, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, squash, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, summer corn and Brussels sprouts.
Wait to wash produce when you prepare it, not when you buy it. Barbles uses a vegetable brush and filtered water to remove dirt. “You’re sloughing off the first layer, which is dirt,” she says.