Food shopping can be intimidating, especially if cooking is new to you.
A common approach to this problem is to pick your recipes beforehand, make a list of what you need and then shop until everything from the list is in your basket. But being comfortable shopping without a list is a valuable skill worth adding to your healthstyle toolkit.
Lists can come in handy, especially when you’re planning a large meal or event where organization is essential. But at a farmers market, shopping lists aren’t nearly as useful.
You can never be 100% certain of what you’re going to find at the market each week. Sure there are things you can usually count on (I know I can find kale at my market year round), but having a long catalog of ingredients for a particular recipe is likely to be frustrating.
A shopping list you can’t fulfill will leave you scrambling, running around the market looking for absent ingredients or inferior substitutes. No fun. The last thing you want to do is turn the farmers market into a source of anxiety.
Still the best reason to avoid lists at the farmers market is that discovering new and interesting foods is what makes shopping there such a treat. It takes an open mind and curious eyes if you hope to find the next tree tomato.
So how do you free yourself from the shackles of shopping lists without ending up with a pile of random vegetables and no obvious meals?
When shopping at a farmers market, the best meal planning strategy combines both structure and flexibility. Start with an idea of what you want to accomplish, then let the season’s offerings nourish your spirit of adventure and round out your menus.
Meal Planning at the Farmers Market
Step 1. Quantify
Think about how many meals you want to get from your purchases (e.g. 4 dinners, 5 lunches), and be sure to have that many main course ideas (vegetables being the centerpiece) given that a few will probably repeat.
At this point it is okay to have one or two things in mind you know you want to make, but the rest of your meals should be inspired by wandering through the aisles and seeing what catches your eye.
Step 2. Visualize
As you discover which foods will be the focal points of your meals, start to think about how you might like them cooked (even if you don’t know how). Think about what other flavors usually taste good with what you’re buying–consider herbs (parsley, thyme, mint, cilantro, etc.), proteins (meats, fish, eggs, legumes) and side dishes.
If you can’t think of anything, try to remember how these foods have been served to you in a restaurant. If you still aren’t sure what other flavors would be a good choice, ask the vendor you are buying from. Farmers are usually pretty good at cooking the foods they grow.
Step 3. Consolidate
For all the different ideas you had for meals, think of those with common flavors. Look for similarities between the dishes and overlapping ingredients. For example, most dishes will need some kind of onion, garlic or both. The farmers market is also a great place to get herbs and spices.
Look around and see what is available, purchasing the ingredients that are the most versatile. Flavors that can be included in several different dishes also give you the flexibility to change up your meal plans in middle of the week if you are suddenly struck with inspiration.
Step 4. Collect
As your ideas solidify, be sure to collect all the elements you need. iPhone apps can be particularly helpful with this if you want to double check ingredient lists. Because most popular recipes are born from available seasonal ingredients, it is likely you will find everything you need while shopping at the farmers market. If not, you might need to pick up the rest of your ingredients at a regular grocery store–not the end of the world.
To make sure you don’t forget anything, think about each dish individually and deconstruct each of the elements in your mind. This will jog your memory if you forgot to grab a lemon or some garlic.
Step 5. Plan
It is good to have a rough idea of when you are going to eat each of the meals you visualized. Some vegetables hold up better than others over the course of a week in the refrigerator. Plan to eat the most delicate produce in the first day or two, and save the hearty kale and broccoli for later in the week. Here are some tips to keep produce fresh.
Creative shopping without lists takes some practice, but you don’t have to be a master chef or flavor expert to get it right. When cooking with delicious, seasonal ingredients you can’t go wrong with simplicity. Start with the basics and work your way up as you get more comfortable in the kitchen and at the market.
Do you use shopping lists?
Originally published January 20, 2010.