Storm Emma cast a cold eye on our changed eating habits

Our dietary habits have changed dramatically over the decades with a shift from fresh vegetables to ready meals, reports Joyce Fegan

Storm Emma put Irish food habits squarely on the table.

We appear to predominantly eat bread, favour ready-meals over home cooking and seem to be less self-sufficient than ever.

In the snowstorm of 1947, people ran short of flour and had about 50 items to choose from in their local shop.

In March 2018, some supermarkets resorted to rationing sliced pans and this was against a backdrop of having more than 30,000 food products, in 249 grocery categories, from which to choose.

Irish food habits and shopping trends have changed vastly over the intervening decades and the Irish Examiner decided to put anecdotes aside and look directly into the average shopping basket to see exactly what we are buying and how much we are spending.

Whole milk, for the last five years, has been the most frequently bought item in supermarkets in Ireland. Next in line, is the tomato, which comes number two as the most purchased food item every year from 2014, right up until the end of February 2018.

In third place is semi-skimmed milk, again this has come in at number three at the checkout for five consecutive years.

In 2014, mushrooms were the fourth most purchased food, in 2015 this place went to the dessert apple, in 2016, the banana came in number four, in 2017 it was the dessert apple again and in 2018, the banana returned to this spot.

For fifth place, the dessert apple took this place for 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the banana was number five in 2015 and 2017.

Finally in sixth place, the banana held this position in 2014, but it was replaced by sliced ham in 2015 and carrots in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Above are the six groceries whose sales have increased the most over the past five years and can now be found more regularly in the average grocery shop.

All of this data was provided by Kantar Worldpanel Ireland, which is a global analyst of shoppers’ behaviour.

It also looked at the groceries whose sales have increased the most over the past five years and can now be found more regularly in the average shop.

In top spot are berries and currants, which have grown in shopper popularity by 46% from 2014 to 2018. Not surprisingly, in second place is the avocado, which is 33% more popular now than it was five years ago.

Rice cakes came in at number three having grown in favour by 27%. In fourth place are soya and dairy-free products, which have grown in popularity by 24% since 2014. And in fifth place is broccoli, which is 21% more popular than it was five years ago.

Kantar also provided data on the price of the average shopping basket and how many items it contains. So

far this year we are spending €22.90 on average, each time we visit the supermarket. We spent the exact same in 2014, and it dipped to €22.70 in 2015, to €22.60 in 2016 and €22.40 in 2017.

In terms of the average number of items we buy per trip, that figure stands at 13. More broadly, we have spent an additional €96m on groceries over the latest 12 weeks compared to last year and opted for more expensive and branded items.

In terms of where we spend our money, SuperValu remains narrowly ahead of rival Tesco in the tussle for shoppers with the grocery market growing at the fastest rate since January 2017, according to the latest Kantar Worldpanel market share figures.

The grocery sector grew by €80m over the past 12 weeks — a 3.5% increase on the year before, according to Kantar. While SuperValu managed to hold onto top spot by 0.2% with 22.3% of the market share up mid-June, rival Tesco is growing ahead of the market with sales up by 3.8%. It had 22.1% of market share.

Dunnes Stores is in third with 21.6% while German retailers Lidl had 11.7% and Aldi 11.2%. Despite a drop in shopper numbers, Dunnes remains the strongest-growing retailer, increasing value sales 4.5%.

SuperValu customers spent an extra 60c on each shop, the latest survey found.

Kantar consumer insight director Cora Campbell said: “On average SuperValu’s shoppers are spending an extra 60c each time they shop with the retailer, and while this may not seem like much, it’s been enough to contribute to an increase in overall sales of 2.5%.”

However, back to what we are putting in our baskets and therefore on our kitchen tables.

On a daily basis, of people aged between 18 and 64, 78% consume white bread, 66% eat cheese, 65% consume syrups or preserves, 62% eat biscuits, 61% consume ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and 47% eat meat products or some form of processed meats. This is according to the National Adult Nutrition Survey carried out by the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance.

Going by the current food pyramid used by Kantar, where it is recommended we consume five to seven pieces of fruit and vegetables a day, shoppers are spending just 15.9% of their grocery budget on these goods.

The highest percentage of spend actually happens at the top of the pyramid, the products that are high in sugar, salt and fat, where we are spending 23.6% of our grocery budget.

According to the pyramid, it is recommended we eat from this shelf just once or twice a week. The shelf for meat, poultry, eggs, beans and fish, suggests we eat from it twice a day and we spend 23.1% of our grocery budget on it.

When it comes to sitting down at our kitchen table and actually eating, according to Bord Bia’s PERIscope report for 2017, 32% of say we rarely have time for breakfast and 77% state that they choose foods that are easy to prepare.

A total of 66% of us believe that frozen foods are as good quality as fresh products, 69% pick foods that are quick to cook, and 43% would often eat ready meals or convenience foods. This would indicate, as Ballymaloe chef Darina Allen has said, that we are cooking from scratch less and less.

In terms of actually cooking, 29% of us see it as a chore during the week and 47% of people in Ireland prepare food from scratch on a daily basis.

Only 19% of us rate ourselves as being a good cook, and 54% of Irish people grade themselves in the bracket of being able to cook a simple meal such as meat and three vegetables or beans on toast. Our most popular method of cooking is oven roasting, boiling or grilling.

However, to compare where we are now with where we were almost 100 years ago, we need to look at information from the CSO called the Consumer Price Index.

The index is the official indicator of inflation and it comes in a “shopping basket” format where commonly purchased household items are tracked. It is carried out every five years and we have looked at it from 1926 to 2017 to see how our spending habits have changed.

Looking at this time span it is easy to see how we have moved from a country that cooked from scratch, using relatively few items, to one that relies heavily on convenience foods and has a vast array of products to choose from.

Looking at 1926’s basket, we have appeared to have been very different.

Beef was listed as a commonly purchase in the 1926 basket and under headings such as neck, liver, sirloin, shoulder and corned brisket.

We also ate mutton, and bacon was listed as a commonly purchased household item in the form of streaky rashers, American and Irish styles.

We also bought pig’s head. Fish was big on the agenda in homes, from cod steak to fresh herring. We bought

potatoes and we also ate rice. We had very little sweet items in our kitchens, but sugar and strawberry jam did make the cut.

Fast forward then to 2002, we have a basket that included garlic, garlic bread, olive oil, chilled convenience foods and specialist breads. More of us also started buying coleslaw as well as prepared salads.

In 2007, breakfast bars were a popular product, as were chilled ready-to-eat meals. In 2012, we started buying more gluten-free foods as well as berries.

Then by last year, sweet potatoes, melons and avocados were all heavily purchased items. Fish made a come-back, but it was through fish-based ready meals.

While Storm Emma may have shone an anecdotal and often comedic light on our shopping and eating habits, suggesting that sliced pans and ready meals were heavily purchased items, looking at various sources from Kantar to Bord Bia and the CSO, our move from home cooking in 1927 to convenience foods in 2018 is backed up by hard, cold data too.

However, there are already people working to turn this around through community-supported agriculture, which operate as small farms that provide towns and villages with fresh food on a weekly basis, depending on what is in season.

While there are several thousand of these farms in the rest of Europe, there are about 10 in Ireland. Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary is probably Ireland’s most well-known farm and it delivers fresh food to its members up to three times a week.

Another one is Moyhill Farm in Lahinch, Co Clare, which feeds 50 families a week. Its co-founder, Fergal Smith, is hoping to scale this to 150 families, providing for them year-round.

He believes that is possible to have up to five community farms in every county in Ireland.

What the foodies think 


Neven Maguire, who has been cooking since he was 12 and has worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, believes we are far more adventurous with food than we used to be, based on what his customers at MacNean House and Restaurant choose to eat.

“If we are what we eat then we are definitely more adventurous than we were. While beef is still our biggest seller, it is far less common for a customer to ask for a steak well done. People are out for a ‘wow’ night and they do not want to eat what they can cook at home. Starters are particularly where people will try something new.

“On our menu we have an oriental marinated salmon starter, and a rabbit starter, and they are popular,” he told the Irish Examiner.

The chef said while people would have rejected rabbit several years ago, the tide has turned with curiosity.

“A few years back people would have said, ‘not rabbit, I was reared on rabbit’, but today they are keen to see what we have done with it. We have three tasting menus, one meat-based, one fish, and one vegetarian, and people are now much more inclined to pick and mix rather than choose one option,” he said.

However, adventure aside, the most noted departure in people’s eating habits isdirected by the dietary requirements.

“Perhaps the biggest change we see is in the number of people with dietary requirements. I see this with people who come to our cookery school also. This has more than doubled in the last few years and we have changed how we manage our kitchen.

“Every night we will have people who cannot eat shellfish, or gluten, or perhaps they are diabetic, or vegan. Wealways ask when people book. We have changed our procedures and kitchen arrangements so that everyone can have a great night out and we will have interesting food to suit their needs,” said Neven.

One other change he has noted is our knowledge around food. Customers regularly ask where their produce comes from and they like when it has been sourced here.


Darina Allen, whose cookbooks have sat on kitchen shelves the length and breadth of the country for decades, is worried by the “deterioration” in our diet.

“I hope Storm Emma serves as a wake-up call to howde-skilled we have become. Why weren’t people buying flour to make their own bread? I am panicked by the deterioration in the Irish diet.

“I wrote my new book, Grow, Cook, Nourish, because I am so worried about thedeterioration in our diet. People need to take some control over the food they are eating,” said the Irish Examiner food columnist.

“We have handed over control to supermarkets and multinational companies and our health is not their responsibility. Their only responsibility is to their shareholders,” she added.

Darina said money can be cited as a barrier to eating well but argues that we all “make time and money for the things we think are important.” As the eldest of nine children she remembers her mother’s love of cooking and a phrase she always said.

“My mother would say that if we don’t spend money putting wholesome food on the table, we’ll just end up giving it to the doctor or the chemist,” said Darina.

In terms of the data researchthat looks into our shopping baskets, she believes it indicates that we are no longer cooking from scratch.

“I am interested to see that there is no flour or butter on the list. It seems people just want food to put on the table without doing anything to it. It’s all indicating towards people cooking less from scratch.

“However, I am glad to see that whole milk is top of the list. This low-fat thing has been a disaster as a health issue. Only vitamin B and C are water soluble, the rest of the vitamins are fat soluble so we need some fat with the rest of our food, be it from butter or olive oil or whole milk, in order to absorb nutrients into our bodies,” said Darina.

She added that there was nothing in the recent data that pointed to people eating seasonally.

“Foods that are in-season are the foods that we need to eat at that point in time,” she said.

In terms of what customers eat in her hotel, she said they are always drawn to their freshly-baked breads and homemade butter. They do not serve sliced pans.

“Our bread is made from scratch and we make our own butter too. Customers will eat slice after slice of toast from the homemade bread with that butter on it and drink our juice which is squeezed fresh.” She firmly believes that to get people back cooking we need to “get practical cooking back into the curriculum”.

“When we go into the junior schools and teach the children how to cook, they get so excited. If we do that nationally, we will have a very different consumer,” she said.


Former sprint hurdles champion and Irish Examiner food columnist Derval O’Rourke says when it comes to eating your way healthier, there is no magic bullet.

“I get a huge amount of feedback from people that use my recipes. The main themes that come back is that Irish people really want to do their best to nourish their bodies in a simple and economical way.

“Most of us are incredibly busy which means fussy and complicated cooking with ingredients that are difficult to get is not for us as a nation.

“People ask me a huge amount about food to be healthier or to lose weight. I try to tell people that there is no magic bullet; buying a packet of gluten-free snacks is not the answer to weight loss.

“As a nation I believe we want to eat good-quality ingredients that are cooked in a simple way. Dairy and meat we are good at, but I feel we need to concentrate more on getting extra vegetables and fish into our diets.

“One of our worst habits is our low consumption of vegetables and an over-reliance on processed foods. We need to ditch the diets and get back to using lots of our ingredients produced on our island.”

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