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Farmers' Market Shopping Tips

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Shopping at the farmers' market is better for the environment, better for our local economy and better for your wallet. It's also fun, healthy and the food tastes better. Once you eat fresh, recently harvested produce, you'll realize the stuff from the supermarket (organic or not) is just not the same thing. Being connected to your food will change your entire life!

As with anything new, it takes time to figure it all out, so here are some helpful hints for hitting the farmers market:

1. Don't forget your bags, baskets and containers.
Invest in good reusables (I couldn't live without my washable, square-bottomed bags). Be warned, no one goes to market and forgets their bags! A basket can also be very handy especially during berry season. There are no plastic clamshell containers at the market, so stacking is not an option. Expert tip: take your own produce bags, bread bags and containers; they all come in handy.

2. Bring cash and plenty of small change.
It'll be faster and easier for everyone. Trust me, it doesn't feel good to pass a $50 bill to a farmer selling you three dollars worth of spinach!

3. Bring your family and friends.
It's more fun to share the market with others. Consider meeting at the market for a meal or drink (extra points for bringing a reusable mug!). It's also a place to involve everyone in food choices. We need our children to understand where our food comes from; just ask Jamie Oliver!

4. Do a full walk-through.
There are no returns. Who has the best tomatoes? Would you have preferred the peaches instead of the pears? Walk the whole market first to see what's available and compare prices and product -- although if you have a favourite farmer with limited crops, you'll want to go directly there first. Also, later in the season, the produce seems to get heavier. Melons and squash are always my last purchases, so that I don't have to carry them around the entire time. Once you become a regular, you will know your favourites, and your shopping routine will become second nature.

5. Don't get sold a fake.
Just because it's the farmers' market doesn't mean the food is automatically healthy. Some markets have vendors selling donuts made from white flour and fried in conventional oil. No, I have no idea how they were allowed in. Happily, a few stalls away will be someone selling lovingly-made stuffed French toast made with the finest ingredients. Choose wisely, and choose real.

6. Go early and get first pickings.
You cannot imagine the excitement the regular market shoppers have for the season's first strawberries, asparagus, ramps, and if you don't "get it" now, you will next year at this time. If you want to take part to the fullest, don't sleep in. Go late if you are looking for deals and are not picky. Vendors will generally be happy not to haul anything back with them; they worked hard to get it to market in the first place.

7. Ask questions.
You'll get real answers. If you want to know when something was picked, or how to best choose a particular item, just ask. You'll get great answers. Make sure what you are buying is organic by asking. And, although sometimes the farmer will not have paid for certification, they might be as stringent (or more) in their fields and operations. Also feel free to ask what something is, or try things that you would not necessarily see at the store. Farmers know all about what they grow (sometimes they will share great recipes too -- that's not happening at the supermarket!).

8. Speak to other shoppers.
I have generally found people to be quite friendly at markets. It's amazing not only what advice I've given, but what I've learned. I've received great recommendations for restaurants, family events, and products nearby or just outside of the city.

9. Don't buy ingredients for a meal.
Make a meal based on the best ingredients you buy. Don't just go to the market to cross things off your grocery list. Buy what's best and in season, and try new things. When you buy fresh and simple, the dishes you prepare can be fresh and simple, too. Sometimes we just enjoy a "market meal" -- a help-yourself-to-all-of-the-goodness-we-just-got meal. You can obviously make a list, but keep an open mind. Take advantage of seasonal inspiration.

10. Cook together.
By cooking with your children, as opposed to for them, you have the opportunity to teach them so much (and have a great time together). "Give a person a fish and you will feed them for today. Teach a person to fish, and you'll feed them for a lifetime." Before you decide that this is an impossible task with your hectic schedule, consider making this a weekly event. Even toddlers can help. Picking leaves off of basil, or putting berries into the bowl is enough to sustain at least five minutes of kitchen time together! Make a concerted effort to be connected to your food, your family and your friends. Mealtime will change forever.

As always, keep in mind that your money is your voice. With every dollar you spend, you are asking for more of the same. Shopping at our local markets will change your life personally and benefit the whole community.

Get local and organic from the farmers market. Enjoy the season. Share the experience with others, and enjoy some great food while you're at it!

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