Bunches of carrots and vegetables at a farmers market.

Buying from the farm may take city smarts. Take it from Marcia Smart, culinary instructor, food writer at Smart in the Kitchen and longtime fan of farmers markets.

Arrive Early. Since multiple stands will sell veggie staples, take a quick tour of the market to find the stands with the freshest produce. Then shop there first. “I start with what I want most: greens, herbs and vegetables, which usually are the least expensive.” She buys berries, eggs and other fragile items last. “I carry them separately so they don’t get damaged by everything else.”

Experiment. Ask to sample berries, fruit and other items before buying a full order. When trying something new—like fiddlehead ferns, which are not typically in grocery stores—it’s important to ask how to use and cook them. Use a notepad or your phone to write sellers’ tips on preparing and mixing their wares. “I’m not shy about asking other shoppers what they plan to do with an ingredient,” Smart says. “People love talking about food and cooking. They’re great resources.” So are the web and fresh produce-focused cookbooks. Her favorites are Janet Fletcher’s Fresh from the Farmers’ Market, divided by seasons, and Martha Stewart’s Vegetables.

Pitch Your Shopping List. Smart suggests being inspired by what you find—then filling in gaps at your supermarket.

Eat in Season. “It’s nature’s way of giving us a menu that works,” Smart says. “Food grown in the same season tends to taste good together, like spring’s peas, mint, asparagus and onion. They all taste great sautéed together and served with roasted chicken.”

Prep For the Week. When you get home, wash, chop and place everything in transparent, labeled containers. “That way they're ready to go,” Smart says. “You can see and grab, adding your purchases to salad, soup or other dishes.” The only caveat is that berries should not be washed until right before you’re ready to eat them, and mushrooms should only be brushed off or they absorb water and lose some of their flavor.

Be Creative. All those greens can be sautéed in a pan and mixed up with garlic and lemon and served as a side dish. You also could make a quiche or frittata from seasonal veggies and farm eggs. “They’re such great, easy dinners,” Smart says.

So play it smart, and get the most from farmers markets, whose produce is “picked at its freshest – and its nutritional life hasn’t declined by sitting on shelves too long.”

Google It. The Houston area is peppered with farmers markets. Search "farmers markets" online and find those closest to you.

Bag It. “I have a large, solid bag with a long handle over my shoulder so I can have my hands free to pick things up. You also may want to bring smaller bags for your individual purchases since farmers don’t always offer plastic bags.”

Cash It. Bring cash and small bills. Smart usually brings $40 to try to stick to a budget. “A lot of farmers markets don’t love checks or credit cards,” she says.

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