Farmers Market Food-Shopping Secrets In 5 Key Categories: ‘Get The Best Quality’

As summer arrives, farmers markets welcome patrons with a variety of fresh and locally sourced foods.

“Visiting these markets during spring and summer not only supports local farmers but also provides a bounty of health benefits,” said Sarah Heckler, MS, RD, a dietitian with Anne Till Nutrition Group in Raleigh, North Carolina.

You can make the most of your farmers market experience across five key categories: fruit, produce, baked goods, fish, and homemade items like guacamole, jams and soups, with the tips shared below.

Before visiting any market, of course, it’s smart to research the particular offerings that are in season.

“Seasonal fruits and vegetables are not only fresher and more flavorful, but they are often more affordable and abundant,” said Heckler.

Knowing what’s in season helps you make informed choices, she said, ensuring you pick the best quality items at their peak.

This knowledge also allows you to plan meals around the freshest ingredients available, enhancing both the taste and nutritional value of your meals, continued Heckler.

Dig into these five categories of offerings at farmers markets.

1. Bountiful fruits

When it comes to fruit, farmers markets are a haven for berries, stone fruits and melons, Heckler said.

She says strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are excellent choices, along with peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots. Watermelons and cantaloupes are also seasonal favorites.

“Farmers market fruits are often picked at peak ripeness, ensuring maximum flavor and nutrient content,” she said.

As you select fruit, choose vibrant colors and a fragrant aroma, which are indicators of ripeness and freshness.

“For berries, choose those that are plump and firm with a rich, deep color,” said Heckler.

Stone fruits like peaches and plums should yield slightly-to-gentle pressure and have a sweet fragrance, she said.

“And, when picking melons, tap them lightly to hear a hollow sound and check for a sweet smell at the stem end.”

Pass up fruits with bruises, soft spots, or blemishes, as these are signs of over-ripeness or damage.

2. Plentiful produce

Leafy greens like spinach, kale, arugula, and various other lettuce types are good bets at farmers markets, as are root vegetables such as carrots, beets, radishes and potatoes, noted Heckler.

Seasonal vegetables like zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers are also plentiful.

“Fresh produce retains more vitamins and minerals, and locally grown vegetables often taste better due to the shorter time from farm to table,” she said.

When selecting leafy greens, reach for crisp leaves without wilting or yellowing.

For root vegetables, choose those that are firm and free from cracks or soft spots, said Heckler.

For a popular pick like tomatoes, look for a rich, consistent color and a slight give when gently squeezed, indicating ripeness without over-maturity, Heckler said.

To help make the best choices for you and your family, don’t hesitate to ask vendors about their farming practices, such as whether they use organic or pesticide-free methods, to ensure you’re getting the healthiest and most sustainable options, experts said.

3. Baked goods galore

The farmers market is also a place to scoop up handmade and delicious baked goods.

Many merchants have booths, and also some smaller businesses that may not have the overhead for a full-time bakery can share wonderful offerings, said Lisa Valente, MS, RD Healthline’s nutrition expert in Burlington, Vermont.

“Baked goods can be a nice part of your market ritual, by grabbing a loaf of fresh bread to serve with your locally sourced dinner,” she added.

Or treat yourself to a muffin or pastry while you browse. If you’re new to the market and not sure where to shop from, look for booths with long lines or see what the vendors are holding, suggested Valente.

“They come every week and support each other, so if the farmers are all checking out the cookies from one booth, you know they’re bound to be delicious,” she said.

4. Freshest fish

When it comes to fish, look for local varieties such as salmon and trout, and fresh shellfish like clams, mussels and shrimp, said dietitian and food expert Heckler.

To select the best fish, look for clear, bright eyes on the fish (cloudy eyes are a sign of older fish, she said).

Also, the skin should be shiny and metallic, not dull or discolored.

“Fresh fish should also have a firm texture, bouncing back when pressed, rather than leaving an indentation,” Heckler also said.

When selecting shellfish, such as clams, mussels and shrimp, ensure they are stored on or surrounded by ice.

5. Happily homemade

Homemade specialties are widely popular at farmers markets and include items such as guacamole made with local avocados, jams and jellies prepared with seasonal fruits, and soups crafted with produce.

“To ensure you’re getting the best quality, ask the vendors where the items are made and inquire about their ingredients,” said Heckler.

“Ensure that these items are made with fresh, local ingredients by asking about any preservatives or additives and checking for potential allergens.”

Other tips to consider when visiting seasonal markets

Your local farmers market is one of the best places to shop for seasonal produce.

“Produce that is sold at some grocery stores might be stored for long periods and then sit on the shelf for days, slowly losing nutrient value and flavor,” said Vanessa Imus, MS, RDN, a food expert with Integrated Nutrition in Bothell, Washington.

“Also, a great thing about farmer’s markets is that you often get a chance to talk to the farmers themselves or those who work on the farm.”

The booth set-up isn’t always the indicator of what booths you should patronize, experts said.

“I think that having the most aesthetically pleasing booth doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting the highest-quality product,” said Valente with Healthline.

“Sometimes no-frills staging and handwritten cardboard signs are displaying the best produce around.”

Another tip from Valente is to scope out the vendors in advance to learn about who will be there and what types of foods they typically have.

Many farms and vendors have social media accounts or websites, so you can get a sneak peek and plan ahead, she said.

And, importantly, she advises shoppers to be kind to vendors.

“Farmers work really hard to feed us and many things about the day — parking at the market, the weather, etc. — are out of their control,” Valente said.

Finally, be sure to bring your own bags to bring all your purchases home.


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