Packing your lunch? Keep it safe!

It’s back to school-time for many kids and teachers. Lunch time is a favorite time of the school day for many students, so be sure to pack a safe lunch if your student will be bringing their lunch from home. If food safety precautions aren’t taken when packing lunch, bacteria can be waiting to greet your child when they start nibbling on their lunch.

Start with safe food.  When storing, preparing, and serving food at home, remember these four easy steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill.  Clean hands, utensils, and work surfaces before working with food.  Make sure to separate ready-to-eat foods like fruits and vegetables from potentially hazardous foods like raw meats.  Cook and reheat foods to safe minimum internal temperatures as measured with a food thermometer.  Chill foods at temperatures at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and do not leave foods between 40 – 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 2 hours.  The 2 hour rule is important because microorganisms grow well between 40 – 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now that we’ve covered the pre-packing basics, let’s focus on getting that lunch packed!  Clean your hands in hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before handling foods to stop the spread of illness-causing bacteria.  Check the inside of the lunch box, and clean it thoroughly if you see dirt, moisture, or other residues that don’t look like they should be in a lunchbox. 

An insulated bag is a good choice to use for school-day or work-day lunches.  Insulated bags help keep lunches cold while being carried to school in backpacks, being stored in lockers, or on classroom shelves.  Most lunches will head out the door around 7 or 8 am, and won’t be eaten until 10:30 am or 12:00 pm.  That means food could be sitting out at room temperature for 2.5 to 5 hours.  Recall that foods should not be left out for more than 2 hours (except, of course, those foods that are shelf-stable at room temperature).  Cheese sticks and lunch meat aren’t real appealing at room temperature anyway.  To better help foods stay chilled to proper temperatures, put at least two cold sources in the lunchbox.  You could put two gel ice packs in the lunch box.  Or, you could put one gel ice pack and one frozen juice box in the lunch box.  If an insulated bag and cold sources aren’t practical for your kiddo’s lunch, consider packing foods that don’t need to be kept chilled, or have them purchase lunch from the school.

Although many teachers will have students stop by the restrooms to wash their hands before lunch, there are many things children can touch between stopping at the restroom and starting to chow down on their lunch.  Washing hands with hot, soapy water is the best defense against illness-causing bacteria; however, hand antiseptics are another option in the event that hand washing isn’t available before consuming food.  Pack a small container of hand sanitizer or moist towelettes in the lunch box to help keep hands clean.

These tips also apply to adults who pack their lunch or dinner for work.  Happy eating this school year!

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