Tutorial Tuesday #4–Preparing to Shop at the Farmers Market

36/365 Produce

I am a “list person”.

Not to label myself or anything, but I do love a good list (I also have a label maker, so maybe I will label myself). To-do lists, errand lists, shopping lists and yes, menu lists. There is something very satisfying about crossing off something on a list. Also, I am slightly absent-minded (I prefer to think of this as “intensely focused elsewhere”), so lists help me keep track of things that might otherwise get overlooked. I also keep a list of blog topics. And one that has risen to the top is how we plan our meals around local foods. A friend posted in wondering about this as well, so now seems a good time to dive in.

We don’t have a lot of parameters around our eating, but we do have some loose rules for our journey:

  1. At least 75% of our food should come from local sources.
  2. We should keep spending to $100 or under
  3. No processed foods, unless absolutely necessary (see “Girl Scout Cookies”)

In the second week of our journey, I had a major “uh-oh” moment. I had carefully crafted a list of recipes I wanted to try, based on what I thought might be available at the farmer’s market. As it turns out, almost nothing I wanted was available, so I ended up buying all manner of random food and then trying to create a week of meals out of it. If you’re up for that challenge, go for it, but it was a stressful learning experience for me and I discovered that I need more order than that. I’ve developed a system for locavore menu planning over the past year and a half, and I’ll share it with you. It probably sounds more complicated than it really is. I’m not recommending anyone adopt my system, but it works for me. And if it works for me, I am probably more likely to be successful, so finding a system that works for YOU will do the same. Here goes:

Friday–On Fridays, I get an email from The Produce Box letting me know what is in the various boxes for the next week. I usually go ahead and order my box on Friday and, based on what is going to be in my box, I start my menu for the next week, and make a shopping list of the remaining items I will need from the farmer’s market and from Trader Joes. Since what I get in my Produce Box is similar to what is available at our farmer’s market, there aren’t many surprises here.

On Fridays, I also read emails and Twitter posts from our local farmers markets and farmers so I know what will be available over the weekend. These posts help so much. I highly recommend getting on the e-mail lists of any farmers markets or farmers near you. I can find out what vendors will be available, what they will have, what’s coming up soon and (if I want) I can even order specific products or cuts of meat ahead of time.

A note about our weekly menu: I try to make sure we have a balance of vegetables and proteins throughout the week and I try not to have pasta or starchy dishes more than once or twice a week. This doesn’t always work out–some weeks have been heavy on seafood and others heavy on chicken or pork–but mostly it works out ok. I always try to plan at least one meatless meal each week.

Tuesday–On Tuesdays, I do a final tweak to our menu and check my shopping list. I look at how much my Produce Box order is and try to assess how much in our budget I have left for the farmer’s market and for grocery store items. I get my draft post for the blog ready on Tuesday night.

Wednesday–On Wednesdays, I go to the farmer’s market (sometimes I do this on Saturday, but whatever). Since I know pretty much in advance what will be available to me, I pick up what I need as well as any orders I have placed for meat, fish, etc. While I’m at the market, I make a list (!) of new items that are available or anything interesting that I might consider for next week. Then after work, I go to Trader Joes and get whatever else I need.

Unless something happens and I forget something on the list (see “intensely focused elsewhere”), I try to shop once a week, and keep the extra purchases to a minimum. I do make exceptions for canning over the weekend. If I know I’m going to be making jam or pasta sauce, I’ll head out to the farmer’s market Saturday morning (early) to get what I need so it is very fresh.

So far, this system has worked out relatively well. It does mean that I spend a LOT more time thinking about food, although the longer I do it, the easier it is and the less time I spend planning and shopping. I don’t necessarily mind spending the time, but if you don’t like to cook or if you don’t want to sit around and think through a weekly menu, this may not make you happy. To date, we have been pretty good about not wasting food and making good use of the produce and meat we buy. Some weeks are more successful than others, of course. That’s life.

So that is our system for making sure we have local foods and that we eat what we buy. If you are eating local, how do you plan your meals?

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Tutorial Tuesday #3–10 Tips for Efficient Farmers Market Shopping

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Welcome to another Tutorial Tuesday!

Note: The photo above is from one of the many little neighborhood fresh markets in Paris. Interestingly, families in Paris don’t shop once a week or once a month–they shop several times a week and buy what is fresh. This is easier because most people walk to and from work (or the metro) and the markets are everywhere. If I could walk past a bakery and purchase fresh bread every few days, I certainly would do it!

Shifting your food shopping from the grocery store to the farmer’s market can present some challenges. You don’t always know what you’ll find at the market (especially when you’re first starting out) and you do need to have a bit more flexibility in your meal planning. Continuing the theme of how to shop efficiently and affordably while still eating local, I have 10 tips from our own family experience!

Tip One–Know your farmers, know your farmers, know your farmers.

Before starting our locavore journey, my only experience with asking produce questions was asking the “produce manager” in our local grocery store, who usually knew almost nothing about produce or cooking. So, I was pretty shy and hesitant about asking farmers information. I thought it might be rude. But you know what? Farmers LIKE answering questions and they LOVE talking about what they grow. And guess what else? Many of them cook this food themselves! Also, farmers, in my limited experience, are pretty practical folks. If you say you’re on a budget and you have xx to spend on vegetables, they can give you lots of ideas for how to stretch your dollars and feed your family. Try THAT at your local grocery store!

Tip Two–Use Social Media

You know those picture books with Farmer Brown plowing a field with oxen or riding in a horse and buggy? Well, those books need a major update. Most farmers who sell to local markets are pretty media savvy (or at least they are getting there). They probably have a Facebook page, an email newsletter and/or Twitter account. Crazy, right? I get weekly postings on what is available from local farmers and farmer’s markets in my area. That saves me a LOT of time when planning menus because I’m not guessing at what I’ll find.

Tip Three–Pre-order the Important Stuff

Related to Tip Two, I’ve found that I can easily pre-order cuts of meat, types of cheese, seafood, eggs and large amounts of produce (like strawberries for jam) and pick them up at my local farmer’s market. Farmer’s like this because they know they are bringing items to market that will be sold. And I love it because I don’t have to get to the market only to find out that no one has any chicken breasts left.

Tip Four–Allow Flexibility for the Unexpected

From menu planning/shopping system, you might think I’m a control freak. Well, that would be partially true, but I also love getting to the market and finding out that something new is available. If I’ve planned my menu right (see below), I may be able to add something unexpected into our menu. Or maybe it becomes a lunch snack. I can also make a note of it and work it in next week. The point is, don’t make yourself so controlled that you miss the beauty of the market.

One example of this is my Slightly Badass Blackberry Jam. Be open to the possibilities as long as you can use the produce!

Tip Five–Incorporate Some “Go-To” Flexible Recipes

I have plenty of recipes (roast chicken) in my culinary tool box that are pretty straightforward, simple and easy on the brain. I like to have some other, flexible, veggie-loving recipes that are always in rotation and can use almost anything in the refrigerator. These recipes are a good way to use up what’s left at the end of the week and a great way to incorporate those unexpected purchases. Here are some examples:

  • Stir-fry (one protein + chopped up veggies + onion + a whole grain)
  • Quiche/frittata (basic quiche/frittata recipe + 1 c. vegetables)
  • Pizza (one whole wheat crust + 2 c. chopped veggies + sauce/olive oil + cheese)
  • Roasted vegetables and pasta (16 oz. pasta + 2-3 c. roasted veggies + sauce/olive oil + cheese)
  • Saladpalooza (bowl of washed greens + assortment of chopped veggies + 1 protein + dressing)
  • Soup (4 c. chicken stock + pasta/rice + 3 c. sautéed vegetables)
  • Quesadillas (2 tortillas + fat-free refried beans + 1 c. sautéed vegetables + cheese + salsa)

These are all recipes that can use unlimited combinations of vegetables, grains and protein, making the most of what is seasonal and available!

Tip Six–Shop With a List

Now that I’ve addressed flexibility, once you have your list, stick to it unless you are POSITIVE you will use it. Back away from the impulse purchases that have no relationship to your menu. If you don’t have a recipe that will accommodate, say, rutabegas, and you can’t freeze them for later (see below), then do not buy them. I mean it…scoot, scoot!

Tip Seven–Make Use of What You Have

Americans throw away an obsene amount of food each year. Sometimes it happens that I get a huge amount of one vegetable in our Produce Box and it’s more than we can eat right away. Or maybe we have a last-minute change of plans and we don’t end up eating all our meals. In this case, the freezer is your best friend. Rather than throw away chicken because we didn’t make a big dinner, I can roast or bake it while we’re finishing up homework, take it off the bone and freeze it for later. Or, like last week when I received WAY more spring onions that we needed, I chopped them up, bagged them in freezer bags in 1 cup servings and froze them for later. Greens, like collards, mustard greens, kale and turnip greens, can also be cooked and frozen to eat later. Don’t waste that produce!

Tip Eight–Stock Up and Put It Up

Eating locally does not mean surviving on nothing but sweet potatoes and collard greens all winter. You can enjoy local peaches in February, delicious local corn in December and turnips in July. You just have to plan ahead. We’re new at this, but it’s already become a very enjoyable part of our farmer’s market trips. Food preservation is one of the oldest culinary skills around and guess what? It’s fun! You have three options when preserving your precious bounty–canning, freezing and drying. When fruits and vegetables are at their peak, stock up (prices are also lowest at this time) and save those wonderful flavors for later. You will save money and get high quality, delicious food all year-long!

Tip Nine–Ask. And Then Ask Again!

The local food network in my area (and I’m willing to bet in yours, too) is a close-knit community of farmers, chefs, bakers, cheese makers, etc. If you want something and can’t find it, ask around. I was amazed at what I learned once I started asking. Somehow in my mind, I thought that our local food producers would be highly secretive and competitive. While there may be some competition going on out there, the people I have found are pretty straight up. If I want something they don’t have, they don’t try to sell me something else. They tell me who has it. Sometimes they’ll actually walk me down to the other vendor and help me out. Crazy. And lovely.

Tip Ten–Realize That Sometimes You’ll Blow It

I’m human. And I love seafood. So when fresh seafood starts coming to our local market in the early spring, I go a little crazy. And going a little crazy usually means I blow my budget. Maybe even by a lot. I think this spring we had an entire week of nothing but seafood. At the end of the day, though, it’s like a fun celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of lighter foods on our menu. As long as it’s not a usual occurrence, we’re ok. We make up for it over the next few weeks and we calm down our purchases. So stay on budget, but don’t let an occasional celebration ruin your joy.

What are your tips and strategies?? I’d love to hear them!

What would you like to see in next week’s tutorial?

Tutorial Tuesday #2–Asking Questions at the Market

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Welcome to what I hope will become Tutorial Tuesday! These short tutorials are designed to answer questions I get from readers about shopping at the farmer’s market and changing where our household groceries come from.

This tutorial is all about how to approach farmers/vendors at the market. We’ll go over what questions you can ask to help you find out where the fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy come from, how they are grown and what the farm’s protocols look like (protocol in this sense refers to the rules the farm uses when handling food–or what will become your food).

Asking people questions about the food they grow/raise and are selling themselves can seem a little intimidating. If you’re like me, you don’t want to seem rude or act as though you’re interrogating a suspect on CSI. You don’t want to be “THAT girl,” (or “THAT dude”), right?

Well, take a deep breath, pour yourself a cup of coffee and relax. ‘Cause the farmer’s market is a big ol’ happy place and people are genuinely glad to see you! In fact, farmer’s markets are some of the most social places I’ve been outside of food truck rodeos. If you are a rather…focused…shopper, this chattiness might make you uncomfortable, but it is part of the fun and really, it’s nice to see people actually talking and enjoying each other’s company. You can always head to your nearest grocery store self-checkout line later if you need some anonymity.

Here are some tips for being a proactive (but not rude-y) shopper. Let’s start with three things I have learned about farmers:

  1. Farmers Are Glad to See You. Farmers are not at the market to stand around and wait until their break time. There is no time clock to be punched. They are there to sell the products of their farms–something they are very proud of. And guess what? They actually PAY to be at the market so you can get your fresh veggies. I only know one grumpy farmer/vendor and even he’s grown on me some. Ninety nine percent of the farmers at the market are going to go all out to make you happy. ‘Cause if you’re not happy, they are going home with produce in their truck and that is not happy either.
  2. Farmers Are Proud of How They Run Their Farms. Asking a farmer, “What do you have that is pesticide-free?” or “Is your farm organic?” are perfectly fair and expected questions. If a farmer is not certified organic, they will tell you. And if the ARE, you will probably see a sign somewhere letting you know. Same with asking questions about antibiotics/growth hormones and meat. If they use them, they will tell you (and tell you why), but they won’t be put off by a question. In fact…
  3. Farmers LOVE Questions. Have you ever asked questions in the produce area of your local grocery store only to have the teenage “produce specialist” shrug or say “I don’t know…I don’t cook”. I hate that. Put that child to work stocking the Pop Tart aisle. The farmers I know absolutely love to answer questions about their produce and they often have lots of recipe ideas (even if they don’t cook)–and they will want to hear yours as well!

So what questions should you ask? Here are some terrific questions to ask at the market. These are printable handouts from The Sustainable Table, a truly wonderful resource! Whatever questions you ask, if you are friendly, you will get friendly right back.

Questions to ask a farmer (general).

Questions to ask produce farmers.

Questions to ask a poultry farmer.

Questions to ask a hog farmer.

Questions to ask a dairy farmer.

Questions to ask a beef farmer.

My recommendation is to pick two or three questions to ask each vendor in a given farmer’s market visit (unless you like looking like Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes). If you are at the market with your family, have each person (including the children) pick one question to ask each farmer they meet. Most children like to have a job and it gives them a fun, if somewhat scripted, way to interact with farmers as people (and one question is easy to remember). Teaching them to be proactive shoppers gives you parenting bonus points–and your results will make for lots of fun conversation on the way home!

I hope this tutorial has been helpful. Let me know! What else would you like to know about?

Next week’s tutorial will focus on the practical–how to manage your weekly menu when you’re not sure what you’ll find at the market.

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