How to Shop the Farmers Market for Dinner

The farmers market is my happy place for meal inspiration. When I feel really stuck in a cooking rut, I head to local weekend markets. Collecting fresh seasonal produce always helps me combine flavors in interesting ways (what grows together goes together), BUT it can be a little daunting to think on the fly at the market… especially if your goal is to come out with the ingredients to make that night’s meal. In the past, I’ve written about stocking up on produce and making a cooking plan for the week, but this time I’m going to focus on one task: how to go to the farmers market and gather ingredients for dinner that night.

For this post we’ve partnered with Sub Zero’s Fresh Food Matters initiative to share these ideas for cooking and eating real, fresh, locally-grown food – obviously a topic that I’m passionate about! Shopping local markets is my favorite way to connect with local growers and to support the community around me.

Now about dinner… A few Sunday’s ago, Jack and I headed to the Logan Square Farmers Market in Chicago. Having just moved from Austin to stay in Chicago for the summer, this market is pretty new to me (as is getting used to the midwest climate again) so I had no idea what produce to expect once we got there. During this little trip, I stuck by these guidelines, which work no matter where you are:

1. Have a plan, sort of.

Before you go to the market, have in mind some super basic meal formats that are adaptable to a wide range of produce. Things like pastapizzatacosfrittatas, and big grain salads. Of course, you don’t have to stick to these exactly. Let inspiration hit you. But I find it helps to have a framework in mind so that my mind isn’t all over the place. For example, tons of spring vegetables can be grilled and tossed into a lemony pasta. Tomatoes, peppers, herbs, leeks, etc. can be baked into a big frittata. Lots of vegetables can be chopped and creatively combined atop a pizza. You don’t have to reinvent the meal wheel to feel creative while cooking.

2. Walk the market once before making purchases.

This might sound obvious, but once I start seeing pretty vegetables, I get tempted to start collecting. Resist the temptation! It helps to take one inspirational lap before you start narrowing down a plan. This is also a great chance to talk to the vendors – you can ask where and how their produce was grown or ask them how to cook a particular ingredient that you’re not familiar with. In my case, I asked the guy at Sandbox Organics – “how do I use these gorgeous chive blossoms?” It turns out, you can use them just as you would the chive stems, they have a mellow onion flavor.

3. Build a meal around the 1 or 2 ingredients that look the best and that you were initially drawn to.

On this particular day – those chive blossoms had my heart the second I saw them, so I knew I would get those. At the same stand, the radishes also looked amazing, and later I came across some beautiful asparagus. Once the meal came together in my head, I went back and got them all.

4. Stop for a snack if you need a few minutes to jot down ideas.

If you feel stuck, grab a beverage, snack or lunch at the market (during our trip, we took a falafel break and enjoyed some music) and give yourself a few minutes to collect your thoughts. I like to write down all of the vegetables I was just inspired by before narrowing down to what I actually want to buy.

5. Finalize your plan and choose supporting items.

At this stage, I was thinking about perhaps an asparagus Niçoise salad with fresh eggs and chive blossoms. I remembered some potatoes that looked good that could fill out the meal. Asparagus soup with chive oil also sounded good – I had seen a vendor with some great baguette that would be yummy on the side. I also thought about a big veggie pasta dish (similar to this one), or a strawberry grain salad. Decisions, decisions…

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post to see what I made!

This post is in partnership with Sub Zero. Check out for some great seasonal guides to buying, storing, and preparing fresh produce and join the online conversation using #FreshFoodMatters!

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