We all know that one of the major keys to good all round health is a balanced diet. When your body is given the proper fuel it will perform better. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that poor nutrition also affects us emotionally and psychologically. Of course you don’t need university studies for that information. We all have plenty of anecdotal evidence of grouchy children, husbands and partners when their bellies are empty. I do think that adult women cope better with hunger, but that is possibly just a sick western phenomenon as we are constantly beating ourselves up about not being Posh Spice thin. It’s very silly, but if left unchecked feelings of hunger equate to thoughts of fat burning and self control; i.e. positive things. They certainly are not.

Thankfully we are better than we used to be. We now have greater access to local and fresh food and it seems to be a growing sector. People are definitely more conscious of what they are eating and where it is coming from. The recent Harvest Food Festival was a fantastic success and more and more people are making an attempt to grow their own. We’re seeing small local producers create new and interesting products to sell and by all accounts, between local markets and shops stocking local and fresh produce, things are looking good. While many are anti supermarket I even think the supermarkets are vastly improving and it is up to the consumer to keep them balanced.

I will be the first to tell you that overly processed food is bad for you. I would also have concerns about the amount of hydrogenated oil that is used in products, the amount of chemicals and colourings and even some of the packaging. For example in fresh meat packaging at present there is a new process of pumping the trays with a special gas to prolong shelf life. These are the packs that have a clear film sealing on the top that appears puffed up. Obviously the producers believe it is very safe but I just don’t like the idea of any form of gas being pumped around fresh meat that I will ingest. While I like to shop in various places from the markets to the small sole traders, supermarkets certainly have a place and it is up to us to steer them properly.

Marketing tricks

Now I am very aware of all the psychological tricks used to get us to buy this, that and the other but ultimately we as the consumer choose what goes into our baskets and we could often be accused of just not thinking. Instead of buying a fresh bread stick, a clove of garlic, some herbs and some butter we seem to prefer to buy pre packaged ‘Garlic Bread Sticks’ that are ready to put in the oven straight from the pack. We believe we have saved labour and the supermarket makes more money from the product. It’s the same principal as buying grated cheese. When you buy grated cheese you pay more than you would for an ordinary block of cheese. We call it convenience but how inconvenient is it to grate some cheese manually? Bags of salad leaves are another thing. Just buy a head of lettuce and wash it yourself. Supermarkets present us with these products but if we didn’t buy them they would disappear quite quickly.

Essentially we need to look at all of this in a balanced way. I would love to be in position to grow and rear all my own food and only eat organically and in season produce but it is neither practical nor possible. I believe that we don’t need to hang a skull and crossbones over every supermarket entrance but we do need to educate the masses coming through the doors. Primary schools should have food on the curriculum from a very young age. Believe me only some will find a use for Irish declensions or math’s theorems in their adult lives, but we all eat until the day we die. I am not suggesting that young school children are taught how to cook necessarily, but rather they should learn about food.

It would be great to see a curriculum that included a general food education in every class from baby infants right through to the Leaving Certificate. It’s not about testing the knowledge either, it’s about educating generations of children on what would have come naturally to many in previous centuries as they were close to the land. We now live in towns and cities and, as the farmers are always telling us, agriculture is in decline. While factories, modern processes, planes and trade agreements have meant that all foods are available to us all year round, the natural world has remained pretty consistent. The natural laws of sowing, reaping, and eating things in season are still better for us than going our own way. However you can’t live by it if you don’t know about it or understand it.

Autumn fare

At present autumn is all about chunky root vegetables, a better choice of Irish apples and pears from local orchards. It’s the time of year that meat displays offer braising and stewing cuts for the colder days. The cold lighter breakfasts of summer fruit salads, mueslis and yoghurts give way for warm buns and toasted breads and cereals as we head for porridge weather. A walk in the country will yield great fruits from the brambles that make excellent jams, preserves and additions to homemade tarts. And if you really know what you are doing, the fields are full of wild mushrooms just crying out to be picked and put in a soup or fried with some good bacon. However the mushroom picking business is not for everyone so don’t chance it unless you know what you’re doing.

You may never go to the countryside to physically pick your own wild berries. You may never want to bend over and actually pluck a mushroom or a root vegetable but if you know when they’re in season then you can make better balanced choices even in the supermarket.