Farmers' markets across the nation are adjusting to Covid-19 safety guidelines. That often means you can't lay hands on the produce you're planning to buy. But there are ways to make sure you still get home with the ripest, juiciest, best options. We'll explain.

The farmers' market looks a little different this year — one-way paths, mask requirements, tents spaced a dozen or more feet apart. That makes shopping a different experience, too. In all other years, we would encourage you to pick up your produce, touch it, smell it, and judge which piece is best by holding it in your hands.

But this year, many farmers' markets are asking that patrons keep their distance, often erecting rope lines to keep customers away from tables and displayed foods. Some are even offering drive-thru options where you open your trunk, and the farmer drops your order in without contact. No contact also means no inspecting what you're buying.

The farmers working the stands will often pick up and bag whatever it is you want, but that leaves a little more space between the consumer and the goods themselves — a vital space where you can rest assured you're going home with the best options for your planned recipes. So if you can't have the full sensory experience, what are the best ways to pick produce at the farmers' market? Here are our top tips.

1. The color tells a story.

Ripeness is often indicated by color, so you can tell a lot about a piece of produce by how deeply pigmented it is. This will depend, of course, on what you're shopping for, but for most foods, the rule applies: The deeper the color the more likely the fruit or vegetable is to be ripe, and that includes greens, too. Produce color essentially indicates how long something has spent in the sun and, therefore, how long its sugars have had time to develop.

2. Ask for a squeeze.

You may not be able to judge, say, the texture of a plum, but you can ask your friendly farmers' market worker to depress one for you. (Pro tip: work in batches to save time and avoid confusion.) Ripe fruit will yield slightly under pressure, but not too much — you don't want to bruise the fruit. Tomatoes should be firm when picked.

Have questions about what a piece of produce should feel like? Feel free to ask the experts. They are there to help and will likely feel more comfortable feeling the produce for you to keep their offerings sanitary for the next customer.

African American woman wearing a protective mask while buying groceries at the market
Credit: blackCAT/Getty Images

3. Keep an eye out for wilting.

Signs that a piece of produce may have been picked a long time ago: wilting, wrinkling, or any kind of puckering. On an extremely hot day, some greens may suffer from wilting regardless, but if you're in search of the freshest, most recently harvested produce available, look for pieces that appear to be weathering the elements unscathed as an indication of the time between harvest and market.

4. If possible (and allowed), take a taste test.

Not all farmers' markets will allow for tastes during Covid-19 restrictions, but some will. If yours does, definitely take them up on it.

The best items to taste at markets include melons, tomatoes, and stone fruit, all of which are often challenging to judge by eye (and even by hand, sometimes). If your market — or a booth at your market — does offer you a taste, remember to be considerate. Use gloves, keep your distance, use hand sanitizer to keep everyone around you safe, and reposition your mask as soon as you've eaten your sample.

Watermelon wedges on marble slab
Credit: Blaine Moats/Meredith

5. Look for visible signs of ripe melons.

Buying a ripe melon can be a dangerous enterprise, even under normal circumstances. How do you choose a melon if you can't hold or smell it?

The truth is, you're going to have to trust the judgment of your farmer on this one, although there are a few things you can look for. Ripe cantaloupes should show no sign of green on the outer rind. If they do, they're likely under ripe inside. They should smell fragrant (you can ask for help when it comes to judging this). Watermelons of all shapes, sizes, and varieties should be green and vibrant on the exterior, and a creamy yellow field spot will help you know which ones spent the most time in the sun, ripening to sweetness.

6. Go by size for corn.

If you're not choosing your own corn, chances are you won't be peeling back the first layers of husk to see what the ears look like either. Luckily, corn is relatively easy to select on sight alone. Opt for fatter ears, especially in late summer, before corn worms have arrived. An easy instruction to offer whomever happens to be getting your dozen: "I'll take the biggest ones you've got."

7. Let the experts surprise you.

If there are fruits and vegetables that you are unfamiliar with, allow this new set of circumstances to make you a different breed of shopper. Ask market experts and vendors what they recommend. What's in season now? What's performing well this year? Take chances on things you've never experimented with in the past. This year is as good a year as any to open up your palate to new and exciting fruits and vegetables.