Guide to the Farmer’s Market

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I was so bummed yesterday because I couldn’t make it to the Farmer’s Market (FM). I woke up late, decided to drive instead of walk, spent 20 minutes looking for parking (it only takes 8 minutes by foot), and then I had to give up since I had to be somewhere else. I really had my heart set on getting more Pink Cara Cara Naval Oranges and fresh, buttery croissants from Paris Bakery for a late Sunday brunch.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the simple rules one needs to follow to have the ultimate farmer’s market experience and how I have come a long way from the first time I seriously started shopping at the FM. Most people complain that they never have time to go to the Farmer’s Market. Others feel like an outsider trying to get into the FM circle, needing to learn the lingo and mannerisms. I certainly felt that way. Or, the idea that it costs much more to shop at the FM. To ease your anxiety about the FM, follow these tips and you will be a savvy FM shopper in no time!

1. Put it in your calendar. Now it’s there and you can plan around your FM hours. Make it a point to schedule time in your busy life to buy yourself fresh groceries. The only reason you wouldn’t have time to go is if you didn’t plan for it in the first place. The FM is at the same day, same location, same time, every week (unless otherwise noted). The only difference is that it’s not there 24 hours, 7 days out of the week. Sometimes, my husband and I make a date out of going to the market. Sometimes, I run to the market, quickly buy all the things I need, and zip out of there. Going to the Farmer’s Market does not need to be a day long event, as most people think.

2. BYOB, bring your own bags. Not only is it cool to carry your own bags, most marketplaces have banned plastic bags. Plastic bags do not ever degrade, are toxic, and kill wildlife. Having your bags will also ease your comfort of carrying your beautiful farmer’s market finds without crushing or damaging them on your way home.

3. Go early. Heard the saying, early birds get the worms? It’s true, you will get the best selection if you arrive early. Often times, the best, rare things are gone within the first hour of the market opening. Though, if you get there late, vendors sometimes throw in a little extra of this or that, or just give away produce as they are closing up. It’s not guaranteed, but it does happen.

Photo credit: nicksflickpicks.com

4. Carry cash. Most vendors only take cash. I usually only spend $25-40 for a full week’s worth of groceries. Carry more cash in the beginning, just to be on the safer side. Many Farmer’s Markets even accept food stamps.

5. Get to know the vendors. Farmer’s like talking about what they are selling and can offer loads of information. Unsure of what a romanesco broccoli is or how to cook purple cabbage? Ask the farmer and s/he can give you the easiest cooking methods, storing tips, and maybe even wine-pairings!  Don’t be shy. You shouldn’t feel intimidated that you don’t know what a certain fruit or vegetable is. I ask all the time and it just gets the conversation rolling. The FM really is a friendly, helpful atmosphere.  Otherwise, you can just look up recipes and tips online. Also, ask what all the labels mean. Most FM offer organic and nonorganic produce, so ask what the labels mean. A better question to ask is if they use pesticides or spray.

6. Shop around. If you are overwhelmed with all of the choices and vendors, just take a few minutes to walk around, get a feel for it, and observe. Then make your purchases. You will quickly learn which vendors have the best stuff, offers the best price, and other differentiating points.

7. Don’t go on an empty stomach. Usually, the FM is full of tempting treats like baked goods, crepes, and dumplings. Although, there is nothing really wrong with satiating your hunger with these goods, you will find that most of your money/time will be spent at prepared food stands and fruit instead of on the fresh vegetables. This is a general rule for when you are grocery shopping.

8. Be open-minded. You will find all sorts of vegetables, fruits, and other food that you might have never seen at your grocery store. That is because most small farms do not operate on monoculture agriculture. Also, don’t expect to find watermelon at the FM, even though your Safeway is selling it during the winter. The farmers can only sell what they grow (not imported), therefore their crop depends on the seasons–>weather.

9. Check-in (optional). Have your phone on you so you can check-in and let your friends and family know how super cool you are by shopping at the FM. (optional)

10. Carry a camera (optional). Vegetables make great photographic subjects and who doesn’t like looking at pretty food.

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October: Unprocessed and No-Single Use Challenge Updates!

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On October 1st, I joined over 350 people on the October: Unprocessed challenge.  Basically, in this challenge we have pledged to give up processed foods for the month. Processed foods are foods that have ingredients that you wouldn’t keep in your kitchen to make food or ingredients that were created in a laboratory. Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients. “It doesn’t mean that you have to be able to make the food — but that the food could be made in a home kitchen by someone who knows what they’re doing.  If it needs high-powered, industrial equipment, or could only be made in a laboratory, then it’s out, ” Andrew  Wilder explained.

At the same time, I pledged to consciously reduce the amount of  new single-use plastic I bring into my life, inspired by Fake Plastic Fish. Single use disposable plastics are product packaging that is used once and discarded. Bags, wrappers, containers, utensils, cups, bottles,  containers, etc. I now question every item that comes in plastic and it’s potential long term benefits or harm. Do I need toothpaste (cap is plastic)- yes, do I need chips from a plastic bag- no!

I am 20 days into both challenges and here is what I have learned so far:

1. If I am not eating fresh homemade meals or using store bought products (ie pasta sauce, soy sauce) to make my meals, I must read the ingredients label carefully. There are  a lot of hidden, unnecessary ingredients in prepackaged/prepared foods. For instance, when you pick up a loaf of bread, you assume the ingredients are just water, flour, yeast and salt. However, if you read the ingredients label you might find 10 other ingredients. Real bread usually comes in a brown bag fresh from the bakery, not pre-sliced in a plastic bag. Therefore, by choosing whole foods over processed/pre-packaged food, I am avoiding plastic.

2. Breakfast is the toughest part of the unprocessed food challenge. I love cereal. I survived exams in college on cereal alone. Sadly, most breakfast cereals are fortified with crap. Even though over the years  I cut out processed cereals, it’s really hard to completely avoid processed ingredients. I started examining what other cultures eat for breakfast. I found that Persians eat feta cheese, dates, flatbread, and nuts; South Indians eat savory dishes such as upma and dosas, Koreans eat rice, soup, and eggs, and Jamicans eat ackee, callaloo, and mackeral. All of these foods are whole foods- whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood, and meats. We stopped eating cereals and started eating non-quick oatmeal, upma (Satish grew up with it), eggs (standard for us), and fruits. Cereal comes in a plastic bag inside of a cardboard box. I haven’t bought cereal in the the last 20 days and thus have not introduced new plastic in the form of cereal. Healthier Plant = Healthier Body.

3. We eat a lot more fresh fruit, nuts and dried fruit. Fruits for breakfast with nut butters and cheese, fruits for in between meals, and fruits to satisfy the sweet tooth. Fruits do not come in plastic packages, unless if you shop at Costco or Trader Joe’s.

4. No power bars. We only ate power bars when we were 0n the road or lazy. Well 99.5% of the power bars out there are fortified and have unnatural ingredients. Though, Lara Bars are made with only whole food ingredients and don’t claim any health benefits on their packaging. We decided to forgo all power bars due to packaging. It’s easier to eat fruit, which doesn’t come in any packaging.

5. Plastic is everywhere! The barrista will put a straw into my drink faster than I can blink my eye. I have told a bartender that I didn’t want the thin black straw in my drink, yet he mechanically put it in my glass. I have not forgot my reusable grocery bags once! Nor have a succumbed to buying plastic water bottles when thirsty. I carry by stainless steel bottle or use the water fountain.

6. When at the grocery store, I only shop around the perimeter. This is because all whole food ingredients are usually lined around the perimeter of the store and the processed foods are conveniently located in the center. Yogurt, cheese, and milk caps all come in plastic and I have not found alternatives yet.

7. I have started questioning more details whens dining out or grabbing food to go. Does the restaurant make their own sauces or use an industrial sauce? Where do the poultry/seafood/meat come from? Will the “doggie bag” be placed in cardboard to go box or a plastic container? Does the restaurant use disposable utensils or steel utensils? Does the restaurant recycle and compost materials?

8. We are saving money. Fruit and vegetables are cheaper than ice-cream, chocolate, and chips, and they can be used in many ways. We eliminated these items completely and were able to save money on our weekly grocery bill. Also, produce seems to have gotten cheaper at the Farmer’s Market. Last month, I paid $3/pound of heirloom tomatoes, this month I have paid $2/pound. Non-heirloom varieties are even cheaper!

9. Eating unprocessed foods and avoiding single-use plastics almost go hand-in-hand. I have failed several times on these challenges but I am not quitter. First of all, I broke down and had a cupcake made by Elizabeth Falkner at the Blog Her Food 2010 Conference. Dessert is my biggest weakness, but I have been strong and resisted 95% of the time. That is an achievement for me. I have also switched to Mascovado sugar, which is completely unrefined.

This is just a short list of the major changes/observations  I have made on this challenge. Again, I was never big consumer of processed foods to begin with but this challenge has made me more consciously aware.

Plastic collected during week 2: all could have been avoided.

If you just discovered October: Unprocessed, go here to find out more and take the pledge. Don’t worry if you missed the start date! You can start your 30 days today, or simply join in for the rest of the month.

Did you know that Club Dine In! is on Twitter and Facebook? Follow @clubdinein for daily health, fitness, and social news, recipes and delicious tips! Join the Club Dine In! community on Facebook to connect with like-minded individuals and find out about exclusive Club Dine! events.