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Packing School Lunches? How to Avoid Giving Your Kiddo Food Poisoning!

‘Tis the season for back-to-school madness. My Facebook feed is already exploding with first day of school pictures, even though as an East Coaster my daughter won’t start kindergarten until after Labor Day. But even though I’ve got some time before sending my biggest baby off to school (sniff), I’ve already started preparing. Just yesterday we bought a backpack — Frozen, of course — and a Sofia the First lunch box for packing those lunches. That’s probably the part I’m least excited about — packing lunches. It’s just another food-related chore in a day filled with food-related chores; if I’m not doing laundry, I’m nursing a baby or doling out snacks or preparing for the next meal. Now I have to add packing lunch to the mix. Unlike the daycares I’ve used — one of which provided lunches and one of which refrigerated packed meals — I’ve got to add food safety to my list of concerns. To that end, the Institute of Food Technologies shared this list of food safety tips for those moms and dads who will be packing school lunches for the big kids going off to school. Because kids get sick enough — who needs a kiddo with food poisoning?


Containers and Cleaning

  • The first step to good food safety is to wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Wash cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item, and be sure to sanitize counter tops after making lunch.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before eating and packing them in a lunch container.
  • To avoid cross-contamination, don’t reuse packaging materials such as paper or plastic bags, food wraps and aluminum foil.
  • Use an insulated container for foods like chili, soups and stews. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then add hot food. Keep the container closed until lunchtime to help minimize bacterial contamination and growth.
  • Rinse out soft lunch boxes with water (for food debris), spray with a store-bought chlorine sanitizer or soap, rinse, and let dry.
  • Throw away soft lunch boxes if the liner is cracked or broken.

Temperature Control

  • Perishable foods that won’t be kept refrigerated should be kept cold by using freezer gel packs or a frozen juice carton.
  • Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food.
  • Harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly if the temperatures are between 40 and 140 degrees. Be sure to transport food with an ice source and refrigerate upon destination.
  • Studies show that bacteria growth begins after about four hours at room temperature, and shorter (around an hour) if above 90 degrees.

Leftovers and Storing Food

  • Pack only the amount of perishable food that will be eaten at lunch. With no extra food to carry home, you’ll avoid the inconvenience of keeping leftovers at the correct temperature on the commute home.
  • Preparing the food the night before and storing it in the refrigerator will help keep the food cold longer.
  • Discard of all used food packaging and paper bags after eating. Throw away perishable leftovers, unless they can be safely chilled immediately after lunch and upon returning home.
  • Pack all beverages and perishable foods in separate containers/coolers.
  • When storing leftover food in the refrigerator, use smaller containers for hot food. A storage container two inches deep or less is ideal for chilling food quickly.
  • Label storage containers with the date you packed the container, so you know when it is time to either eat or dispose.
  • When using the microwave oven to reheat lunches, cover food to hold in moisture and promote safe, even heating. Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees, ensuring that they are steaming hot. Cook frozen convenience meals according to package instructions.

Now if I can just make sure I always avoid the horror of the soggy sandwich, I’ll be good to go! —Erin

Ben Chapman, PhD, IFT Spokesperson, North Carolina State University Assistant Professor
Don Schaffner, PhD, IFT Spokesperson, Rutgers University Professor

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