Making a friend of the shopping trolley

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00

Kilkenny woman agrees to take a lunch break lesson on nutrition during her weekly shop

MICHELLE HEFFERNAN is a busy woman. On her lunch break from work, the Kilkenny resident is squeezing in the weekly shop for a family of five. Her trip around the aisles is a time and motion master class.

“There’s Harriers and Ladybirds on Tuesdays and they all go swimming on Wednesdays. Our house is a mad-house on Wednesdays,” she confides.

Against a mental checklist of the likes and dislikes of Niamh (10), Ciara (7), Conor (5) and husband Pat, and everyone’s schedule for the week ahead, her trolley will soon be overflowing. In an extra twist, this busy mother has gamely agreed to let local nutritionist Caroline Seale give her verdict when we reach the till. First stop at Supervalu, Loughboy is the bread aisle.

“I try to get a mix of white and brown and sneak a little bit of the brown into them,” says Heffernan. With school lunches in mind, she scans use-by dates and prices, opting for a brand that promises “the goodness of both”.

“They have to have a healthy lunch in school, you get a list of what you can and can’t have,” she says. With the school only allowing treats such as popcorn or yogurt bars on Friday, the rest of the week, sweeties in the lunchbox are a no-no. “My lads won’t even put a packet of crisps in their bag, that’s how terrified they are,” she says of the wise school rules.

Grated cheddar cheese and three packets of cooked ham, 48 slices in total, are sandwich fillers for all except one child who just can’t stand bread.

“For her, it’s pasta. I cook it in the morning and it goes into her lunchbox hot. Either with plain red pasta sauce or pesto, she will eat it by the bucket full,” says Heffernan. Cream crackers with cheddar cheese are a fall-back plan. Packet soups for the girls’ flasks and then Cheesestrings and some mini chocolate bars that promise “more milk and less cocoa” are the Friday treat.

Breakfast is the next challenge. “It’s kind of a guessing game. They go through phases,” says Heffernan. But in the morning, there is little time for debate. “We have to be out of the house by 8.30am and if we are late, then we are really late.”

With boxes of “cornflakes, crispies, Readybrek and porridge” on the go, today she stocks up on plain Weetabix and a “mini” version with chocolate chips.

Full-fat milk, eggs, orange juice and an array of yogurts including a flavoured yogurt drink that promises “10 billion exclusive L Casei cultures” are added to the trolley. Next in are “Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts”.

“One of them is not a morning person, she won’t eat breakfast. These might not be good but it’s food and it gets her to eat something,” says Heffernan.

At the meat counter, butcher Kieran Wall says most shoppers choose on price with the health conscious like Heffernan asking for the fat to be trimmed off.

Today she chooses the “housekeeper’s cut” for Sunday’s dinner when granddad Paddy will join and roast pork for during the week. Bacon and “haddock fillets in crunchy golden breadcrumbs” along with frozen cauliflower, sweet corn and oven chips round out the dinners. Tins of beans and spaghetti are added for emergencies.

With her shop complete, Michelle parks up at the till for nutritionist Caroline Seale’s verdict.

With fibre important at all ages, Seale praises Heffernan’s choice of wholemeal bread but says opting for a stone ground whole wheat variety such as McCambridge’s, that’s “denser and more nutritious”, would be even better. “Put a bit of cheese or peanut butter on that for protein and it’s going to keep kids fuller for longer,” says Seale.

Swapping crackers for oat cakes, not rice cakes, and white pasta for brown is another useful trick. “In white pasta, the husk with all the B vitamins for energy and fibre are taken out so go for brown.”

For Heffernan’s daughter who takes pasta for lunch, Seale recommends adding a vitamin, enzyme and colour boost with raw red and yellow peppers.

With Heffernan’s choice of cooked ham containing 95 per cent pork and low in salt, it gets the thumbs up from Seale, but not for lunch every day.

“Pork is one of your three red meats a week so they shouldn’t be having this every single day, try to use chicken or cheese instead,” she says, though she cautions cheese should be limited to one small piece a day.

Cheesestrings, “they have calcium and vitamin D”; popcorn, “far better than crisps” and mini bottles of water also get the seal of approval. The mini chocolate bars as occasional treats are okay too.

While there are lots of high-salt dried soups in Heffernan’s trolley today, she usually makes her own soup, which Seale confirms is the healthier option – “make big batches and freeze in small bags”.

For dinners, Seale says red meat should be limited to three times a week. When cooking chicken, she recommends taking the skin off. Instead of the haddock fillets Heffernan has chosen which with breadcrumbs are higher in calories and fat, she suggests fresh fish.

“Oily fish like salmon is great for children’s brain development, their skin and their cells. Just bake it in the oven with lemon and a tiny bit of oil.”

For Bolognese, she recommends using wholegrain spaghetti and instead of tinned spaghetti, use wholegrain spaghetti with a tin of chopped tomatoes.

While Heffernan buys fresh carrots and cabbage, she chooses frozen cauliflower, as a fresh head “would just go off”. Seale says while fresh will always trump frozen for vitamins, if you have to get frozen, make sure there are no added sugars.

She says while kids are attracted to the sweetness of sweet corn as it is naturally high in sugar, sweet potato and butternut squash are better choices. Oven chips should be limited to once a week.

Breakfast is next in the firing line. While acknowledging it’s more expensive, Seale recommends buying milk fortified with A and D vitamins. While full fat milk is fine for kids, those with cholesterol issues should opt for low fat.

Complimentary of Weetabix, which is low in sugar and salt, Heffernan assures Seale that the chocolate chip version and the Pop-Tarts are for “the odd morning only” when a picky eater won’t eat anything else.

Seale recommends swapping flavoured yogurt drinks for the natural, less sugary variety or, better still, using natural yogurt and adding berries that can be bought frozen and defrosted. “If you eat whole natural yogurt, you are getting more probiotic into you than with many of these drinks,” says Seale.

Buying chewable vitamin A, C and D tablets to keep colds at bay, Seale recommends Heffernan swaps this for a general multi-vitamin that will have “more nutrients and antioxidants for winter”.

Mum is told her own six-pack of diet cola needs to go. “A lot of those drinks rob nutrients and minerals from your bones over time,” says Seale. “And though it’s ‘diet’, it’s going to upset your blood sugar levels in some shape or form so you are going to get a crash.”

Mum’s bottle of white wine, provided she sticks within the limits of 11 units a week and with three alcohol free days, is okay too.

For Kilkenny’s recent All-Ireland replay against Galway, Heffernan fully enjoyed “The Cats’” victory, having stocked up on some TV snacks – plain, lightly salted tortilla chips and a tomato-based dip. Seale commends the choice, which is far healthier than crisps or a sour cream dip.

And with that, Michelle Heffernan’s lunch break is almost  up. It’s time to bag her purchases and head back to work. “I’ll be rethinking the kids’ lunchboxes,” she says, Seale’s nutritional advice has given her plenty of food for thought.

Caroline Seale is a Kilkenny-based a nutritional therapist. Find her at


On Saturday safefood will hold a TASTE BUDS workshop for primary school children with chef Catherine Fulvio at the Savour Kilkenny Food Festival, which runs from October 25th-29th. TASTE BUDS is an interactive education resource which teaches children about food and healthy eating. During the workshop, children will challenge their taste buds with different foods from around the world, as well as take part in a lively, hands-on recipes challenge. There will be six sessions, starting at 10am and finishing at 5pm at the Food Market in Castle Yard.

27th: Mayor’s Walk at 11am from the Parade.

29th: KRSP/HSE City Walks Series, 7pm, Canal Square.

30th: Irish Cancer Society talk on cancer risk reduction at Langton’s Hotel at 7pm.

For more details of The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthcare healthy towns initiative, see