04 August 2013
Food budgeting at the farmer's market
Ah, the farmer's market! Endless tables full of gleaming fruit, vendors calling out their new & exciting wares, fresh samples beckoning from booth to booth, a fabulous array of perfectly ripe vegetables, and a smear of fresh peach on every child's cheek.
And money. Lots of money.
Grocery shopping at the farmer's market is great in many ways. You get to support local agriculture, meet the people who grow your food, and get the freshest, most perfectly seasonal produce. But if you aren't paying attention, it's all too easy to give up an arm and a leg in exchange for your booty. How can you shop at the farmer's market without breaking the bank?
Well, I went to the farmer's market today, and got this fairly gigantic haul of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, mesclun mix (heavy on the spinach), apples, plums, nectarines, mushrooms, and a lonely Chinese eggplant.
How much do you think I spent?
Yes. You do not need to spend your entire grocery budget to bring home a huge pile of delicious fruit and vegetables. All you need to do is consider your purchases wisely.
Top 10 ways to save money at the farmer's market
This is the number one way to keep from overspending. Before you leave the house, decide how much you want to spend, and only bring that much cash with you. Do a quick circuit of the market to compare prices before you buy anything. If something you wanted is too expensive that day, see if you can find a more affordable alternative. Don't buy anything without knowing its price--if there's no sign, ask. Always make sure you get the right change.
Just pay attention, and you'll be fine.
At many farmer's markets, a number of booths sell pre-prepared food interspersed with the farmstand produce. However, the prices are often astoundingly high--so leave those tacos, dips, and dumplings behind. By buying whole ingredients and cooking them at home, you can keep those extra dollars firmly in your pocket.
Shop in bulk
If you preserve your own sauces, jams, or pickles, you'll want to look for bulk deals. Some farmers will have standard specials on canning flats. Otherwise, you may want to ask in advance about buying in quantity. Nearly everyone will be happy to offer a discount on particularly large purchases.
Shop with a friend
What if you can't use all of a bulk buy yourself? If you go to the market with a friend, you can take advantage of bulk deals without anything going to waste. Go ahead and buy that 5 pounds of stone fruit and a half flat of strawberries--just split them up before you go home. Voila: you get to savor all the best fruits of summer at a fraction of the cost.
Look for the ripest produce to find the best deals. Many of the booths at my local market feature specials on the ripest fruit and vegetables, to get them sold before they go off. Ripe nectarines for $1 per pound? Yes, please.
Exotic fruit and vegetables are generally very shiny and tempting, but they come at a cost. Yes, those beautiful black raspberries may be calling your name--but since they're such a rare find, they're also incredibly expensive. Go find a pint of red raspberries--or, cheaper yet, strawberries--and save yourself a couple dollars.
Some farmers will fill a bin or two with less pretty produce that they're willing to let go at a super-cheap price. Apples with hail scars, bruised jam apricots, or broken carrots can be had for half the standard price, or even less. My local market has a sort-outs bin that regularly features a wide range of vegetables and fruit, from cucumbers and eggplant to apples and hot peppers, all for $.65 per pound. You can be sure I bring a bag of their slightly dented produce home every single week.
Obviously, the farmer's market is the best place to get what's currently in season in your region--and seasonal vegetables are often overabundant. Zucchini and other summer squash are a prime example here: every booth has them, and in huge quantity. So what do the farmers do? They lower prices, both to compete with others and to get their mountains of produce sold before they go bad. Now you can get your veg on for a fraction of the price!
Similarly, the first and last fruits of the season are often quite a bit more expensive than their mid-season counterparts. If you know which produce is at the height of its season, you can choose it over the brand-new, highly hyped newcomers, and save some money in the process.
If you have a green thumb, check out nursery booths for the edible plants of your choice. Herbs in particular are great, since they're expensive to buy fresh, but easy to grow in a window box or small pot. If you have actual garden space, you can go whole hog and get a selection of your most loved vegetables. Right now it's time to start thinking about fall planting, so before you buy, consider what cold-weather vegetables you may want to eat in a few months. Keep in mind that smaller starts are cheaper than larger ones, but they take more nurturing to get a delicious harvest.
As the farmer's market winds down, many booths will begin dropping their prices so as not to haul half a truckload of unsold produce home, where it could potentially rot before the next market. If you show up at the market half an hour before closing, you can score some amazing deals. The trade-off is that some specialty items might be all gone--but if cheap, high-quality produce is your goal, this is a reliable way to get it.
Now grab your bags and go get your own haul!
What do you do to keep a firm hand on your farmer's market spending?