"There are many fantastic things at the market, so don't stick to your shopping list or you're going to miss out on all the best stuff," says Christine Farren, communications manager of the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, which runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, in San Francisco. Instead, talk to the farmers to find out what's freshest right now.
Take a taste of any available samples, including the misshapen tomatoes. "Unlike in the supermarket, diversity and flavor are paramount, not cosmetic perfection," says Farren.
Bring a tote bag, because you'll cut your trip short if a plastic bag full of potatoes is digging into your hand.
For the best selection, go as soon as the market opens. On the other hand, if you're making pies, sauces, or other recipes that don't call for blemish-free produce, go at the end of the day to scoop up damaged goods, which are usually marked down, says Amy Nicholson, a farmer from Geneva, New York, who sells fruit at several farmers' markets in her area.
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Going to the Butcher
There are telltale signs of quality: The meat should be pinkish to red with a pleasant smell and "a fine marbling," and the butcher's apron should be tidy, says Evan Lobel of Lobel's of New York, a city fixture for 50 years.
Look for a stamp on the outer layer of fat indicating that the meat is USDA- or state-inspected, says Diane Van of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline's Food Safety Education Staff.
The true measure of success will be in the eating, but it's good to arrive prepared with questions (and your recipe). To gauge a butcher's knowledge, ask about the ages, grades, and sources of his meats, and about cooking times and temperatures for specific cuts.
And check the ground beef. "A sign of a good shop is one that grinds its own every day," says Theo Weening, meat coordinator for the Whole Foods Market chain.
You can also ask your pro what he thinks of using an eye round for a pot roast, Lobel suggests: "A good butcher will tell you that it's too dry and will suggest something else," like a chuck roast.
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Going to a Job Interview
Most jobs are won or lost in preinterview preparation, says Jeffrey Fox, author of Don’t Send a Resume. So do as much research as possible about the company: Research job responsibilities on sites like salary.com and monster.com so you’ll be able to speak intelligently about the position. Contact people who work at the company through websites like LinkedIn (linkedin.com).
Don’t assume a power suit is appropriate: If the interviewer is in jeans and a T-shirt while you’re in pumps and pearls, she might decide you won’t fit in. Get a sense of the company’s culture first. If you have no idea, drop off a résumé with the receptionist, with a note saying how much you’re looking forward to the interview. You’ll be able to check out what people are wearing, and you’ll feel more confident when you come back.
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Going on a Road Trip
“Get some sleep―that’s the important thing,” says James Joseph, author of 110 Car and Driving Emergencies and How to Survive Them. Falling asleep at the wheel is one of the leading causes of fatal single-car accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If last-minute preparations have worn you out, don’t be too ambitious on your first day. When charting your course, plan to be on the road no more than eight hours a day, and factor in 10-minute breaks every two hours.
Bring an emergency supply of any medications you need―along with your spare pair of eyeglasses. Also stock the car with a gallon of water, a flashlight with extra batteries, Fix-A-Flat, and a pillow. “It can make all the difference to a good night’s sleep,” says Megan Edwards, the founder and president of the website RoadTrip America (roadtripamerica.com).
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Going to a Consignment Shop
For a realistic idea of what your item is worth, visit a few consignment stores and ask the owners how much they’d sell it for.
Think about finding a shop in an upscale neighborhood. “You may get a higher price than in other areas,” says Carol Prisant, author of Antiques Roadshow Collectibles ($14.50, amazon.com).
Consider selling items with maker labels and signatures (especially big names like Tiffany & Co.) on an Internet auction site such as eBay, which draws a broader audience than a single store will.
Before turning over your treasure to a shop, ask what the commission is (it can be as high as 40 percent), whether you’re expected to reclaim the piece if it doesn’t sell, and how long the owner will keep it before reducing the price. (Some won’t even bother with a reduction.)
Beware of any shopkeeper who offers to pay up front: He’s acting as a dealer, not a consignee, and will expect to double or possibly triple his money.
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Going to a Divorce Lawyer
This is one case in which asking friends for a reference may not be the best idea. People often don’t know when they’ve received bad legal advice, says Violet Woodhouse, a family-law specialist in Newport Beach, California, and the author of Divorce & Money ($23.50, amazon.com).
Consult someone who deals with lawyers often, such as a banker or a real estate agent, she advises, and “run in the other direction if the lawyer says things like ‘We’re gonna destroy him.’” Look instead for grounded advice.
Then prepare for the meeting―lawyers’ time is expensive, so you don’t want to waste a minute. At the meeting, expect to discuss finances, not decide who was wrong, says Claudia Pott, an attorney with Ain & Bank, in Washington, D.C. Bring tax returns for the past five years and a balance sheet listing everything you own jointly and separately, plus debts, sources of income, and expenses. “The worst mistake is not gathering the financial data you need,” says Woodhouse. “You have a legal right to that information and are much better off if you get it early on.”
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Going to the Library
Many branch libraries across the country now have an online catalog. So avoid a wasted trip by visiting your library’s website first. You’ll find a list of the books, periodicals, videos, and DVDs it stocks, and you can see whether what you want is available to check out. And have a look at other services your library offers: You may be able to go there to register to vote or pick up tax forms, attend a concert or a reading by a visiting author, or take a class.
The library is also a place where you can consult a real person who genuinely wants to help you, so take advantage, says Carol Brey-Casiano, president of the American Library Association. Get advice on how to research medical and legal problems, or ask for help with your kids’ homework projects. One thing hasn’t changed, though: The only writing materials you’re likely to find are those tiny pencils and squares of scrap paper, so be sure to pack your own.
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Going to a Parent-Teacher Conference
Make the most of the meeting by getting to know your child’s teacher beforehand. Gregg Sacon, a middle-school teacher in Sherman Oaks, California, suggests asking teachers for their e-mail addresses so you can communicate with them and talk about problems as they arise instead of letting them build up.
Approach a conference as a chance to solidify this partnership and to discuss relevant family issues. “Often students act out because of problems at home. Teachers need to be aware of these issues so we can give students extra attention when they need it,” says Geoff Barrett, a middle-school teacher in New York City.
Ask your child if there’s anything she wants you to bring up, and if she’s in on the conference, don’t yell at her about the D+ she got on her history test. “It’s awkward for everyone,” says Sacon. Also inappropriate: bargaining for a better grade. That’s nonnegotiable.
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Going on a Red-Eye Flight
Bring your own soft throw to replace the flimsy blanket the airline may (or may not) provide.
Pack water and a meal. “You can eat and go to sleep while everyone else is waiting for the drinks cart,” says travel specialist Rudy Maxa.
Consider investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones, which block the sounds of the engine―and the snorer in 17F.
Make your seat reservation as far in advance as possible, and be specific―not just aisle or window. Find out, online or by phone, what type of aircraft you’ll be on, then go to SeatGuru (seatguru.com) to locate the best and worst seats. (Some exit-row seats don’t recline, for example.) If you’re choosing over the phone, ask for something near the front of the plane (“There’s no such thing as a great seat at the back,” says Maxa) and far from the restrooms. If you must sleep, ask a doctor for a sleeping-aid prescription.
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Going to the Veterinarian
Discuss costs with your veterinarian before any procedures are performed, and consider a medical policy from an outfit like Veterinary Pet Insurance (petinsurance.com).
Keep a folder with lab test results, vet receipts, and vaccination records. You’ll need these if you change vets or if your animal got its shots at the Humane Society. (If you can’t prove your pet has been vaccinated, your vet or an animal hospital can refuse treatment.) Also bring a list of medications or herbal remedies your pet is taking.
Ask about health problems associated with your dog’s breed, such as heart ailments in Great Danes, so you can be on the lookout.
If your pet has a recurring health problem that seems complex, ask your vet if you should see a specialist. “You can get more in-depth treatment from a dermatologist or an oncologist,” says Karen Oberthaler, a resident at the Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.