Sarah Remmer: The Non-Diet Dietitian


Why Ritz Crackers Are Not Part Of A Balanced Lunch

A Manitoba Mother fined because she sent her kids to daycare with a whole foods (but "unbalanced") lunch

When you think Ritz crackers, the term "whole grain" likely doesn't come to mind—well I hope not anyway. A Manitoba mother sent her two kids off to daycare on December 10th, 2012 with what I would consider a healthy, balanced lunch made up of leftover roast beef and potatoes, carrots, an orange and some milk, according to Yoni Freedhoff's "Weighty Matters" blog.

But as per this daycare's nutrition policies, it was lacking a "grain product," so they decided to penalize this mother by fining her $10.00 and then supplementing her kids' lunches with Ritz crackers, which are a refined, processed cracker full of vegetable oil, glucose syrup, and salt. When I was interviewed earlier today by CBC radio stations across Canada on this story, I expressed that I was not only horrified from a nutrition/health point of view, but that I also felt terrible for this mother, who sent a healthy, balanced lunch with her kids — one that was likely healthier than most packed lunches. 

Manitoba's early learning and childcare lunch regulations require that parents (and care providers) provide balanced lunches complete with all of the food groups as set out by Canada's Food Guide. I really don't see a problem with this — I think that it's a great idea, in fact. But here's the problem: Canada's Food Guide, although a good overall tool for basic nutrition, can easily be misinterpreted, such that food like processed, packaged products like Ritz crackers might be considered a "grain."

I think that the Canada's Food Guide, as well as national labelling policies, need to evolve to better educate what a healthy intact "whole grain" food is vs. a "grain or starch"—which, as it stands, could range from Goldfish and Ritz crackers to quinoa and steelcut oats, depending on who is interpreting it. A balanced meal, in my mind, should include high quality protein, vegetables and fruit, dairy (if there is no allergy or intolerance), healthy fats and some whole grains or starchy vegetables.

It seems as though Kristen Bartkiw (the mother who was penalized) got it right.  

In my mind, packaged processed carbohydrate foods such as most crackers, cookies, chips etc. should not be considered a healthy addition to kids' meals or snacks.

A once-in-a-while treat? Sure.

Whole, intact grains such as rice, quinoa and oats are much better "grain" food choices. Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and yams are also great grain/starch alternatives (and in my mind should be lumped into the "grains/starches" food group, not the "vegetables" food group). And I'm sure that this is what Kristen Bartkiw was thinking too. 

During my interviews with CBC, I was asked what I thought about penalizing parents for sending unbalanced school/daycare lunches. In this case, I thought it was absurd, considering what this daycare deemed as "balanced," but in general I think that what parents send is their business — it is ultimately up the them. Unless, of course, a parent is sending a lunch made up of pop and candy every day — in that case, some intervention may be needed. The bigger issue when it comes to this story, though, was the lack of education and knowledge of the daycare staff. In all honesty, I think that this particular daycare worker was likely just doing her job. She probably looked through these two lunches, compared them to the food guide and noticed that the grain was missing (potatoes are considered a vegetable according to Canada's Food Guide, not a grain or starch). I'm guessing that she is also underpaid yet overworked and just trying to do her job.

What gets me though, is that Ritz crackers were the choice "grain" supplement. I think that care providers and teachers should encourage parents to send a balanced lunch, but these same care providers should also be provided with education (ideally by a Registered Dietitian) on what a balanced lunch is. 

I was also asked to give some advice to parents on how to get their kids to eat more of their lunch. I answered by saying that it's important, as parents, to recognize that kids' appetites can fluctuate drastically from day to day and that we as parents need to try to respect that. My son can out-eat my husband one day and hardly eat anything the next—kids are intuitive eaters for the most part, so it's important to focus not on one meal or even one day, but instead the whole week. It's also important to encourage our kids to listen to their tummies, not clean there plates (or lunch bags). The other piece of advice I had was to involve kids in planning and preparing meals. Anything from helping with meal planning to grocery shopping, to preparing the actual meal- kids are more likely to eat it if they have a hand in making it. 

I'm hoping that the school lunch policy in Manitoba has evolved since last year, when this happened. I'm hoping that their has been some more education offered to care providers and teachers on what a "balanced meal" is and that parents who send their kids to daycare and school with healthy school lunches made up of whole foods do not have to experience what Kristen did last December. 

Photo credit: Flickr Commons