Follow these three tips for packing a safe lunchbox that is sure to keep your kids healthy and out of the nurse’s office. By: Toby Amidor, MS, RD
Is Your Lunchbox Making You Sick?
© JLP/Jose L. Pelaez/Corbis

School Lunchbox Safety

Sending the kids to school with a healthy and enjoyable lunch is a challenge all by itself. Then there is worry of making sure the food you pack is safe to eat. Luckily, a few simple steps can ensure the well-being of your little ones.

Why Worry?

Years ago parents sent their kids to school with brown bagged lunches that sat out all day. We assumed there was really no problem (but who really knows where that bout of diarrhea or vomiting came from?). These days, food is imported from all over the world. Many of these countries do not have strict food safety guidelines in place. Even food grown within the U.S. is shipped hundreds of miles cross country and has many more opportunities to be exposed to microorganisms than ever.

Foods like dairy products, deli meats, tuna, eggs, mayonnaise, and other popular kid-friendly goodies are high risk foods. When these foods are kept at room temperature, it creates the perfect environment for bacteria to multiply. Kids have a weaker immune system than adults, which puts them at higher risk when exposed to food bugs. Here’s what you can do to help.

Tip #1: Pack Safe Food

Start out by safe packing:

Proper hand washing: Wash hands using warm soap and water.

Clean reusable bags: Clean spills and debris from lunch bags. Odors can be removed with a touch of baking soda on a damp cloth. Wipe and rinse with clean water.

Avoid cross-contamination: Harmful bacteria can easily be transferred from one surface to another. Be sure cutting boards, utensils, and countertops are cleaned and sanitized before getting started. If you are preparing raw and ready-to-eat foods (like raw chicken and fresh vegetables), consider using 2 different cutting boards.

Start cold: Place closed jars of mayonnaise, cans of tuna, bread, and other ingredients in the refrigerator the night before. Starting with cool ingredients, keeps food colder for a longer period of time.

Tip #2: Control the Temperature

A basic food safety rule is to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria love the temperatures between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. By keeping food out of this temperature range, it helps slow down their grown. The first step is finding out if the school refrigerates your child’s lunch. If not, you’ll need to take some action.

Use insulated bags: Insulated bags help keep the appropriate temperature for a longer period of time. Reusable brown bags don’t hold in temperatures and can easily rip or tear.

To keep food cold: Reusable ice packs cost about $1 and can keep food cold for hours. Be sure to place in freezer the night before. Be aware that sometimes ice packs burst—keeping them in a re-sealable plastic bag can help avoid a big mess. Juice boxes and bottles of water can be frozen the night before.

To keep food hot: Use a thermos for hot food. If you are using leftovers, be sure to reheat properly in microwave or stovetop before placing in thermos.

Tip #3: Toss When Necessary

Items like unopened granola bars, pretzels, nuts, dried fruits can be re-used. However, leftover refrigerated items like milk, cheese, yogurt, deli meats, cottage cheese, and sliced fruits and veggies should be tossed. These foods should not sit out at unfavorable temperatures for more than 2 hours. If there is any doubt as to whether a food is still good, then toss it out. Better safe than sorry, especially when it is your precious ones!