Regular market-goer Sam Coleman swears shopping for her weekly fruit and vegetables at farmers' markets is key to a full vegie crisper and cheaper weekly shop. "I'm a paddock-to-plate advocate, and farmers' market shopping means I'm buying the freshest produce direct from the growers," Coleman says. "I also save money. I can do a weekly shop for $65 at the markets, whereas at the supermarket I can spend up to $100 for the same items."
Take a prowl around your local market and you'll discover the perkiest of carrots, the most cheerful of pineapples (when in season), and all manner of luscious greens. There is however, an art to a successful market shop. Here, the pros tell us how to make it as doable, as it is delicious.
The early, and prepared, bird catches the worm
Sure it's an early alarm, but the promise of a good farmers' market can be leap-out-of-bed exciting. "Arrive super early and walk around once before buying anything," says Coleman.
Make a list, know your budget and take plenty of notes and coins (many stalls don't offer eftpos). "It helps prevents overspending," she says, "and once you see what fabulous produce is available, you can finesse your family meal plan." (See her Seasonal Table for recipe ideas).
Be eco-conscious, packing recyclable carriers and a roller bag, such as Farmer Drew French string bags and IKEA's shopping bag on wheels. "You don't want to lug bags by hand, or limit yourself in case you see lots of good things to buy," says Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms in California.
Take your kids, suggests health coach Brenda Janschek: "Let them chat to the providers about their produce and sustainable farming techniques. Your kids will love hearing their stories, and discover that real food doesn't come out of a supermarket packet."
Farmers' markets are family-friendly. Photo: Paul Jeffers
What to ask
Ask suppliers plenty of questions about their produce so you know exactly what you are buying.
"How was this grown?" – "Important if you prefer to eat locally grown organic or free-range produce," says Coleman.
"Where is your farm?" – "To me, the most important question," says Sandberg. "I have seen some local farmers' markets allow non-local farmers in."
"When was it picked?" – "I want to know it will be fresh for the whole week," says Coleman.
Ask about soil quality, farming and storage practices," says nutritionist Zoe Bingley-Pullin, "these are all factors that can affect nutritional value."
To buy organic – or not?
"If you can afford it, eating all organic is best," says Bingley-Pullin. "It decreases your exposure to chemicals, and [the produce] contains a higher antioxidant content than non-organic produce."
For some, buying 100 per cent organic is not financially possible. Divvy up your shopping list into organic and non-organic produce. "I think you can get away with buying non-organic fruits and vegetables if they have a peel," says Sandberg. Remove any residue from non-organic produce by peeling, soaking in apple cider vinegar and washing thoroughly.
Colourful punnets of berries. Photo: Elizabeth Clarke
Organic produce shopping list
Corn husks protect the vegetable from chemicals and pesticides. Photo: Michelle Smith
Non-organic produce shopping list
Go for glossy eggplants. Photo: Marina Oliphant
What to look for in your produce
"Think colour," says Coleman. "If you're eating a rainbow, you know you are taking in an excellent variety of nutrients." Remember you are not buying shoes, so don't ignore the ugly. When it comes to buying organic and farm-fresh, fruit and vegetables are not always perfectly formed and aesthetically beautiful.
Garlic: "Look for intact skin and firm bulbs without any dampness," says Bingley-Pullin, "it indicates the cloves are fresh and full of flavour."
Tomato: "Darker tomatoes are lycopene-rich so an excellent choice," says Sandberg. "Surprisingly red isn't always the sweetest – sweetness is typically found in the pink, green-when-ripe and bi-colour tomato varieties."
Beetroot: "Buy beets with their greens attached," suggests Bingley-Pullin. "The greens are high in nutrients and antioxidants, and the beetroot lasts longer with its stems attached."
Eggplant: "Avoid eggplants that are not glossy," says Sandberg. "A dull skin indicates they are over-ripe and bitter."
Watercress: "Watercress is high in nutrients and antioxidants," says Bingley-Pullin, "and its bitterness stimulates digestion."
Zucchini: "Check the cut stem for freshness," says Sandberg. "A freshly cut zucchini stem will be moist and without callouses. The same rule applies to spinach, melons, and other squashes."
Herbs: "Avoid herbs that are tightly packed or discoloured. Both can cause a loss of nutrients," says Bingley-Pullin.
Watermelon: "The ripe ones will have their non-green spot tan in colour rather than white," says Sandberg.
Everleigh Farmers Market at Carriageworks. Photo: Janie Barrett
Australia's top farmers' markets
For fresh produce at its best, find your local, pack your basket and shop-it-up.
New South Wales
For accredited farmers' markets see the Victorian Farmers' Markets Association: vfma.org.au
Barossa Farmers Market, Angaston
Farm Gate Market, Hobart
See our round-up of Brisbane's best produce markets
Subi(aco) Farmers Market, Perth
See Australian Farmers' Markets Association for more markets: farmersmarkets.org.au