Healthy Eating 101: Shopping at the Farmers Market

Break out of the grocery store and see what your local farmers market has to offer.


By Aimée Suen, NTP


You’ve been getting your produce at the grocery store for a while, but have you ever looked at the signs listing the price and noticed how much of the produce doesn’t come from your state? Or even your country? To keep up with demand and to make the grocery store a one stop shop, they will import produce from other regions or other countries. While it’s nice to know you can get tomatoes when they’re out of season in your area, those tomatoes won’t taste quite as fresh. They’ve also probably traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, spending a lot of money and fuel that impacts the environment. Those costs are transferred to you with a more expensive tomato.

What’s a Farmers Market?

If you’re interested in saving money, eating local food, or finding different produce, consider going to a farmers market. Farmers markets are a gathering of different farmers, growers and vendors. You could find a lot more at a farmers market besides produce, like fresh eggs, butter, honey, seafood and meat, prepared foods, spices, or even grains and dried beans. They all vary from location to location.

Some are permanent and in a building (like Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles, or Reading Terminal in Philadelphia), but most are set up in temporary places outside on set days and times of the week. Most permanent markets are year round, and the temporary markets can be year round to seasonal, depending on where you live.

You can find farmers markets in your area by looking on Local Harvest or checking your city’s website. Once you find one, do a little more digging to see if it’s still active or active in the time of year you want to attend.

Why Shop at a Farmers Market?

Farmers markets can have a perception of being hipster or a pretentious, but most markets are far from that. There’s a lot of great food, people, and new foods to try. Here are some reasons to break out of the grocery store and head to your farmers market:

Meet the People who Grow your Food: At the farmers market you’re able to really connect with the people who grow and make your food. You can ask the vendors where their farm is, what else they grow, how they take care of their land (if they use pesticides or sprays or not), their favorite food they’re selling that week, even how to prepare some of it! The vendors are very knowledgeable and want to answer your questions, so ask away.

Getting the Local, Seasonal Produce: Not only do you get direct answers from the vendors at the farmers market, you’re also getting what’s in season. When you eat with the seasons, you’re getting the best tasting produce. Because the food is seasonal and local, the stress on the environment and transportation costs (that could be passed on to you) are much lower.

Save Money: Eating foods in seasons is cheaper because the supply is plentiful. In addition to that, you can get more produce for your money at farmers markets than grocery stores. Depending on the vendor, you can get bigger bunches of greens and vegetables than you can at the market. Also, ask the vendor if they have any deals going on. Often vendors will do mix and match deals with some of their produce, meaning you could get three bunches of greens or other vegetables for a cheaper price than just buying one or two.

Also, as the season for a certain food winds down, vendors can lower the prices to keep the stock they have left moving. If you’re buying a lot (like a whole case or flat) of produce for canning or a party, they are more likely to give you a deal. This will depend on the vendor, definitely see if you can haggle a little bit.

If you’re considering buying other foods in addition to produce (any dairy, meats, prepared foods, spices, etc), do your research before buying. These food prices could be much higher than you could get at a grocery store, but they could also be higher quality, more local, and better for you. Definitely ask the vendors questions on the product and do price comparisons with your grocery store before you shift to buying these foods at the farmer’s market, especially if you’re on a budget.

Reduce Food Waste: Farmers markets are more likely to have a variety of shapes and sizes of produce than a grocery store. If you’re just shopping for yourself or one other person, you can easily look for smaller quantities or smaller sized foods to make your meals. This way you’re only buying what you need and you can actually use all of it before it goes bad or you get tired of eating it. Reducing food waste also helps you save money.

Trying New Things: There’s so much more at a farmers market than your regular grocery store. You’ll discover new varieties of your favorite foods, learn that some foods come in multiple, beautiful colors, or find foods you never even knew existed!

Depending on where you live, you could even find more ethnic produce and save a trip to an ethnic grocery store and continue to try new things.

Farmers markets can also have vendors that sell premade foods, like salsas, hummus, cheeses, breads, etc. You can also buy those things at the farmers market as well and be able to ask questions that a label in the store can’t answer. Premade foods may or may not cost more than at the grocery store, definitely write prices down and compare if budgeting is a priority for you.

What to Bring to a Farmer’s Market

There are a few things to bring with you to make the most out of your farmer’s market trip that could be different than your trip to the grocery store.

Cash: Cash is king at farmer’s markets. A lot of vendors may have devices to take card, but that varies from vendor to vendor, market to market. The safest bet is to bring cash, and get that cash before you go to the market to prevent any fees from third party ATMs that are usually there. Bringing cash will also help you stick to a food budget.

Things to Carry Your Groceries: Bring your reusable shopping and produce bags (if you have them) to the market with you. Most will have plastic produce bags, but not a grocery bag. If you’re doing a lot of shopping or covering a large farmer’s market, consider bringing a utility cart to give your shoulders or back a break. Carts are easiest for outdoor markets with more space to move.

Shopping List: To stick to your budget and your meal plan, come equipped with a shopping list. There will be a lot of shiny new things at the market that could send the list in your head right out the window. By having it written down you can stick to it, or know what you could swap out in replacement for another food.

Tips to Keep in Mind When You’re There

Farmers markets and grocery stores are pretty different. At a farmer’s market you’ve got a lot more selections and foods spread across a larger area rather than all kinds of food in one place like the grocery store. If you’ve never been to one to shop for groceries, it can be a little overwhelming. Here are some tips to keep you grounded and on track during your shopping trip.

Walk the Whole Market First: Before buying anything, get the lay of the land. Walk the whole market and see what’s there. Look in each stall that looks like it could have the ingredients you’re looking for. Check the quality, size, and look of ingredients you need. One stall could have more produce, but it may not be what you need for your meals, and buying one ingredient from another vendor may be better. Looking before you buy can also help you see if you want to change any of your ingredients out for something else that excites you.

Try the Samples: A lot of vendors have samples of their produce. Try them! You’ll get a better idea of what you’re buying, especially with fruit, and find the best variety that suits your preferences. This is also a low risk way to try new foods without having to buy it and only find out later you don’t like it. If you’re shopping with kids, this is also a great way to introduce them to new foods.

Ask Questions: The vendors are extremely knowledgeable of their foods they’re selling. Take advantage of that and ask any and all questions you have. How is it grown? Do they spray or use pesticides? Are they working towards an organic certification? What does this food taste like? Which variety is sweeter/spicier/crisper of these? How do you cook this? How much longer will this food be in season? What’s the best tasting fruit/vegetable you’re selling today? They will have an answer or ask another one of the other people working who will know the answer. Also ask them if they have any deals going on, like buying 3 bunches for a certain price or a reduced price on certain food winding down in it’s season.

Buy from Several Vendors: Every vendor/farm will have it’s certain strong points. After walking around, you’ll get a better idea of which foods you should get from certain vendors that are best for what you need. Buying from several vendors also helps spread the love around and keeps the whole market going.

Be Flexible: As mentioned earlier, you could change your mind on what you want to cook for the week after you see what’s actually at the market that day. Or maybe that one vegetable you wanted just ended its season and another just as interesting vegetable took it’s place. Be open to that excitement and think of how you can adjust a dish or a whole meal around what’s in front of you. The more you experiment in your kitchen and deviate from recipes, the more confidence you’ll get from seeing what flavors and foods work well together.

Go Early: Go at the start of the farmers market, whenever that is. By beating the crowd, you’ll get a better idea of what’s there (and not sold out), as well as getting your food without having to fight or wait in long lines. You’ll be able to get your shopping done with a little more ease. This is an important tip for people driving to their farmers markets. Most farmers markets are street parking or smaller lots, so the earlier you go, the easier it is to find close parking.

Shop Around: If you’re lucky enough to have a lot of farmer’s markets in your area, try going to a few to see which one works for you the best. Some farmers markets have more fruits over vegetables, more prepared foods, or different kinds of seafood and meats that could be interesting to you. Some vendors/farms try to cover several markets, but if they’re a smaller farm the could only have the manpower to cover one or two. It’s common in some areas that they would fall on different days, so take that into account when you’re planning your shopping day that week.

Know You’ll Still Need to go to the Grocery Store: Unlike a grocery store, a farmers market is rarely a one-stop shop for everything. There are a lot of pantry staples that rarely appear at farmer’s markets, or other foods (breads, grains, dairy, honey, meats) at the farmer’s market could be out of your current budget.

Some vendors may not have some basics you need, like garlic, onions, or certain herbs that you want for a dish. And it’s very very rare to find bananas at farmers markets in the United States. When you’re making your shopping list, split it up into two columns: Farmers Market and Grocery Store. Be aware that you could move foods from one column to the other, depending on what you can and can’t find at the farmer’s market.

Farmers markets are great places to discover new foods, get to know your food and farmer, and save some money. Shopping at farmers markets will definitely liven up your grocery shopping experience and connect you with the food you’re eating more. They can also be great places to go with your partner to share a new experience or bring your kids to introduce them to new foods and tell them how food is grown. Enjoy the new experience and the great food that comes from your farmers market.

Healthy Eating 101 returns with healthy upgrades for your Thanksgiving meal that won’t make miss the less healthy dishes of Thanksgivings past.

Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on InstagramTwitter and Pinterest.

Main Photo Credit: Baloncici/; Second Photo Credit: Peter Bernik/; Third Photo Credit & Fifth Photo Credit: Arina P Habich/; Fourth Photo Credit: Goran Bogicevic/; Sixth Photo Credit: Matej Kastelic/; Seventh Photo Credit: hxdbzxy/