Buy this – not that – at the farmer's market

Fresh fruits and vegetables are great buys at the farmer's market, but steer clear of honey, herbs, and especially that cheese cart. 

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/File
Local, organic strawberries for sale at the Atlas Farm stand. The farm features organic produce at the Copley Farmer's Market in Boston

It's summertime and the livin' is easy — especially if you live near a farmer's market. (Not sure if you're near one? Check out this market directory). Just don't go in unprepared: check out this list of what to buy and when.

Always Get (When in Season)

These fruits and veggies come really do deliver on the farmer's market promise of fresh and delicious produce, at a good price, as long as they are in season.

1. Root Vegetables

Great choices at the farmer's market are always root veggies like beets, turnips, carrots, heirloom potatoes, yams, and more. These hold up an extremely long time — up to six weeks depending on your storage method. Also, getting all your bright red and orange root vegetables means tons of vitamin A and beta carotene.

2. Squash

Vine fruits like squash and melons are also good choices. There are usually varieties you cannot find in the grocery store, and they are usually just a day or two shy of ripeness. No more waiting days for the melon to be just right, then BAM — mold and squishy bits. In the fall, acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squashes rule the stalls, and they are all the most tasty direct from the farm.

3. Tree and Vine Fruits

Some fruits are really difficult to find in grocery stores: pluots, persimmons, passion fruit, kiwi, blood oranges, and other tasty nutrient-dense fruits. The farmer's market is made for locating new fruits without paying the insane markup of a chain store (who is likely importing the fruit frozen from another country).

4. Lettuces

Greens are excellent buys at the farmer's market, especially varieties of kale, butter lettuce, bok choy, and radicchio. These are usually much cheaper than at the chain grocers and much fresher as well — straight from the dirt! Speaking of which: Remember to rinse them thoroughly in the salad spinner before using!

5. Breads

Baked goods can sometimes fall into "skip" territory, but fresh bread at the farmer's market is usually really good. Pick up a cracked wheat or a sourdough for that day's brunch, or the week's sandwiches. Much better than store bought sliced bread.

What to Skip

Unfortunately some of the artisanal goods at the farmer's market aren't great buys, even if they are super delish.

6. Honey

Depending on your location and who is selling the honey, there can be a massive markup. Keep a lookout for who made the honey. If the jar lists a different bottler than the stall selling it, you are likely paying an inflated price. You might be better off with raw or manuka honey from Whole Foods.

7. Cheese

The cheese lady is so hard to resist, always offering you rich cubes of fresh cheeses. But keep in mind you are paying a premium for an artisanal product. There is also pressure to buy the specific cheese(s) the farmer's market stall has that day. You are probably better off purchasing fresh cheese from your local specialty foods shop where you have more variety to choose from.

8. Fresh Meat

Meat can be a double-edged sword at the farmer's market. On one hand, it's fresh and usually free of preservatives. On the other, most meat is right on the edge of perishability, so you need to cook it within a day or two. If you intend to cook it later that week, you might find that the meat has already gone brown and gamey before you get to use it.

9. Unpasteurized Dairy

While controversial, there are many out there who extol raw milk's health benefits. It's not worth it. In most states it is illegal to sell unpasteurized foods, and for good reason: you never know what bacteria or parasites are within that bottle of raw goat's milk. That's not a risk anyone should be willing to take.

10. Herbs

Fragrant, tempting herbs are plentiful at the farmer's market. But think about it: Herbs are really cheap. You can even grow them yourself. So why not do that? Five dollars for a bunch of mint may not seem like much, but you'd be spending a few cents to keep that mint plant on your kitchen windowsill.

11. Pressed Juice

Pressed juice is not only nutritionally unsound (you're straining out the fiber and many vitamins!), but incredibly pricey — up to $15 per single-serving bottle. You're basically paying for someone to destroy valuable fruits and vegetables with an extremely expensive machine. Don't fall for it.

12. Prepared Meals

At nearly every farmer's market you'll find a stall selling hot popcorn, or a falafel cart. It's Sunday morning and you haven't eaten yet. It's so tempting! Not only are the prices unreasonably high due to the nature of impulse shopping, there's never anywhere comfortable to eat it. Think of it this way: You just bought a veritable cornucopia of fresh whole foods — why not rush home and make a meal instead?

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