The Farmers’ Market Food Pyramid + 7 Tips for Shopping Success


As Woody Allen has been quoted saying: “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”

If that were the case at the farmers’ market, I’d probably end up eating a pastry, having a cup of coffee and heading home with a bouquet of flowers and two apples. Nothing wrong with that”¦unless you are trying to feed yourself.

I’ve been doing the bulk of my regular (not special occasion) shopping at the farmers’ market for several years now. Doing it right has become second nature, but in the beginning it required a different mindset and a different set of planning tools than the grocery store. In this post we guide you through the tips you’ll need to make the most of your trip, plus we’ve designed a helpful pyramid to use on your next visit.

Why shop at a farmers’ market instead of the grocery store?

The food is better, hands down.

I can’t tell you how many vegetables I didn’t like until I tasted them ultra-fresh, with the soil and dew still clinging to their tender leaves. Broccoli, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts come to mind.

Vegetables with so much vibrant flavor are easier to prepare. You don’t need fancy sauces or preparations. Olive oil, salt, and maybe a little garlic or lemon generally suffice for almost any just-picked vegetable in season.

You can’t help but eat seasonally.

As long as your farmers’ market truly draws farmers from your area, you are eating what is seasonal and local all the time. In contrast, your local grocery store likely carries apples from New Zealand, even if they are in season in your local area.

Support your local economy: Recent studies have confirmed that money spent locally on food directly contributes to local job growth. Farmers’ markets also serve as anchors for other types of desirable community based businesses and housing.

Preserve farmland for future generations: Buying from your local farmers keeps them in business so they aren’t tempted to sell their land off to developers. This increases future food security for us all and keeps communities diverse and interesting.

Cut down on food miles: Why buy grapes flown in from Chile when they are grown right in your local area?

Connect with the people in your community: Part of the joy of regular market shopping is seeing friends and neighbors. This solidifies connections, leads to recipe sharing, and sometimes even impromptu dinners!

Shopping Success: Or, avoiding midweek trips to the grocery store

1. Work the flexlist
– Even if you’re not the meal planning type, at least have an idea of how many meals you’ll be cooking for the week. Before you go, check to see what you already have on hand and think about what else you can buy for your meals that week. Wasted food is not only an unnecessary use of resources, but decomposing food in landfills is a prominent contributor to global warming. Finally, make a list, but stay flexible to take advantage of deals, inspiration, or the asparagus that just came into season. Buy what you need and use what you buy.

Avoid wasting even further by planning meals that can parlay into other dishes or weekday lunches.

2. Don’t forget the bags! At my zero waste market, that goes for linen (or reused plastic) bags to carry greens and other loose items. Bring more bags than you think you’ll need. When shopping, balance your load. Put heavy items on the bottom, lighter items on top.

3. Bring cash. Small bills are best. Try to use larger bills for more expensive items like meats, seafood, coffee, and bread.

4. Get the lay of the land. When you arrive at the market, take a quick walk through to see what’s there. I always do this as it helps me with my flexible shopping plan. Whose peaches look best? Who has the better price on corn? Who has strawberries early? If one farmer has strawberries in March, I want to know about it right away so I can plan my other purchases around them. Once you become a regular you will find favorite vendors and your shopping will become quicker and easier.

5. If you’re on a budget, go at the end of the day. Vendors will often cut you a deal. Don’t expect to get everything on your list this way because items often sell out. I always go early to get my pastured eggs.

6. Ask questions. Want to know how something was grown, where the farm is, what that strange root is? Just ask. The vendors are happy to talk to you. That’s why they are there. If it’s not clear that the food is organic, it’s ok to ask. For example, in California you may see signs stating, “certified producer”. That just means the vendor is certified to sell at the market. If the sign doesn’t say, “certified organic,” it probably isn’t. Many farmers don’t bother with the arduous and expensive certification process, but still follow organic practices and don’t spray pesticides. Just ask.

7. Try something new. Ask the vendor or another customer how to prepare an unfamiliar vegetable. Some of my most interesting food conversations have been with other customers. I’ve been on both the receiving and the giving end of plenty of advice, and even made some new friends along the way. When was the last time you made a new friend at the grocery store?

Farmers’ Market Food Pyramid

Yours may be a little different but one way to think of what and how much to buy for a balanced week is to think of it in terms of a pyramid. Starting at the bottom, choose the bulk of your items there, working your way up into the tip of the pyramid.


I know that I will need to cook dinner 4 nights this week and that I would like to have leftovers for lunches. Here’s what I bought at the market this week:

1 head of heirloom lettuce
A couple of handfuls of arugula
1 pound spinach
1 bunch kale
1 bunch chard
2 pounds potatoes
1 bunch beets
1 bunch carrots
1 grapefruit
2 blood oranges
2 navel oranges
1 big Chanterelle mushroom
1 avocado
2 onions
1 head of garlic
1 bunch of celery
1 fennel bulb
8 oz. goat cheese
2 pieces chicken confit (from my CSA)
1 dozen eggs (from my CSA)

Here’s what I’ll make:

Saturday night dinner: gnocchi with chicken confit and chanterelle sauce, steamed and sautéed kale with garlic and lemon, avocado, blood orange, and lettuce salad.

Sunday dinner: potato chard soup with fennel/orange salad – leftovers for Monday lunch.

Monday dinner: frittata with goat cheese and spinach served with roasted beet and arugula salad – leftovers for Tuesday.

Wednesday dinner: Lentil soup with carrots, spinach, and lemon. A salad of the remaining greens and beets – leftovers.


This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Ed Yourdon

Graphic: Spyre Studios

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.