10 tips for shopping at farmers markets without going broke
Ten tips for buying local and organic on a budget, from plan-ahead strategies to special farmers-market sale days.
Special to The Seattle Times
Find the farmers market nearest you
For a list of farmers markets across the Puget Sound, visit http://www.pugetsoundfresh.org/farmers_markets.asp.
Farmers markets are booming in number and popularity, for many reasons. One is that it's satisfying to buy fresh produce from local farmers in a fun, festive atmosphere. But what if you're trying to eat healthfully on a budget? The great news is that vegetables and fruits from farmers markets are comparable in price — or even less expensive — than grocery-store produce, with some of the best savings on organic produce. But it still pays to shop smart! Here are 10 tips:
1. Make a (flexible) list. This list should give you an overview of what you need (i.e., two heads/bunches of leafy greens and enough fruit for five breakfasts and lunches), but not be iron clad on specific varieties. For example, you may have peaches in mind, only to discover that the prices on another favorite fruit, like plums, are lower.
2. Browse before you buy. When you arrive at the market, walk around to scope out what's available, and at what prices, before getting out your money. If the market is large, it can be helpful to jot down good prices along with the name of the farm or other identifying characteristics so you don't forget where you saw them!
3. Don't be seduced by pretty displays. We all love artfully arranged produce, but when you're sticking to a budget, quality, value and nutrition are the top priorities.
4. Be patient. It's tempting to buy asparagus, cherries and other goodies when they debut each year at the market, but "first of the season" often translates to "most expensive." Plus, it's often not the tastiest! Wait a few weeks for the supply to increase and the prices to decrease.
5. Buy basic. "Specialty" produce is one of the few cases where farmers market produce can be less affordable. For example, standard-variety cherry tomatoes are bursting with flavor, and can cost a fraction of what big heirloom-variety slicers go for. Plus, they're just as nutritious.
6. Don't overbuy. If you buy more than you can eat or use, your waste will turn good buys into not-so-good buys. To make it easier to use up your fruits and veggies throughout the week, take time to wash and prepare produce when you get home from the market.
7. Buy in bulk. On the other hand, if you find an amazing deal on produce that stores well (like apples), freezes well (like berries) or can be cooked into batches of "freezer meals" for later use, then stock up. If you're buying in bulk for canning, it doesn't hurt to ask about negotiating a lower price.
8. Beware specialty products. There are wonderful baked goods, honey, jams and other products available at farmers markets, but these artisan products can have premium prices to match. They generally aren't the best bets for nutrition, and they can blow your food budget when money's tight.
9. Consider "shelf life." Some types of produce are very fragile, don't transport well and spoil quickly. This can translate into high prices. Raspberries are a good example. Blueberries are a little sturdier, just as delicious, and may be more nutritious.
10. Shop sales. Seattle Farmers Markets have some "special sale days" planned throughout the summer. Recent sale-day deals at the University District Farmers Market include leafy bunched greens (spinach, mizuna and arugula) from Nash's Organic Produce priced at two for $5 and Olsen Farms' sirloin pork chops at $2 off per pound. Patty Pan Grill offers 50 percent off its ready-to-eat tamales, quesadillas and grilled vegetables to people who are currently unemployed. For more information, visit http://www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org/events.
Carrie Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.
This story was corrected on July 17, 2012. An earlier version used a wrong name for the University District Farmers Market.