Some tips for packing a safe lunch

September 07, 1999

Bag or box lunches often stand at room temperature for several hours before being eaten and many contain foods that require special care.

Meat, fish, poultry, dairy products and eggs are the most likely to cause illness if not handled properly.

[cont. from lifestyle]

Let's look at what happens to food, causing some to spoil and some to cause illness.

Most of the foods we eat contain living organisms too small to be seen. The important difference between the spoilage bacteria and food-borne illness bacteria is the temperature at which they grow or multiply.

The organisms causing foods to spoil grow when foods are kept for a long time, even at refrigerator temperature.

You might find moldy cheese or sour milk in your refrigerator. The food looks or smells bad, so you throw it out.


The ones causing illness grow best at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. This range includes room temperature.

These bacteria are not as obvious as the others; most cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.

The keys to preventing illness from food are cleanliness, temperature and using fresh, thoroughly cooked foods.

Almost everything has microorganisms in it.

So, before starting lunch preparations, make sure utensils, countertops and hands are clean. Wash with hot, soapy water and rinse. Wash again after handling raw foods, especially meats, since they tend to contain a lot of microorganisms.

Wash vacuum bottles and all containers after each use. Use hot, soapy water and a bottle brush and rinse. Let dry with lids off.

If a vacuum bottle has a bad odor, there may be spoiled food clinging to the inside. Fill it with a solution of bleach and water (1/2 teaspoon bleach to a quart of water) and let stand for 10 minutes.

Then wash and rinse the bottle and cap thoroughly. Cleaning your child's lunch box is an important way to fight microorganisms. Compare the ease of cleaning when shopping for a lunch box. Hands also need to be washed with soap and water before preparing or eating foods. Parents can pack antibacterial hand wipes if the child goes straight from class to lunch.

Microorganisms grow very rapidly at room temperature, especially in hot weather, but their growth is slowed at very hot or cold temperatures (below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees). Bag lunches will be safer to eat if they are well chilled or thoroughly heated.

They also will taste fresher than lunches held at room temperature.

Adding commercial mayonnaise does not increase the risk of food poisoning. The acid - lemon juice and vinegar - in these dressings slows bacterial growth. The problem stems from the meat, fish, poultry and eggs used in the filling and the fact that they have been chopped, sliced or diced, allowing greater exposure to bacteria.

Many lunch foods freeze well. By lunch time, they are thawed, but still cool. You can make sandwiches with frozen bread or with slices of frozen meat. Yogurt is another favorite that freezes well.

When packing a bag or box lunch, prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator. To keep the lunch cool away from home, pack a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. To keep the juice cold throughout the day, put the box in the freezer the night before. Then, put the box in the lunch box as an ice pack to keep other foods cold. If the juice box or gel pack tends to sweat, place it in a plastic bag before putting it in the lunch box or bag. Or, make your own. Buy an inexpensive plastic container with a screw lid, fill with water and then freeze. Make sure to leave room for water to expand when it freezes. A handful of ice cubes in a leak-proof bag or container also works fine.

During the winter months, many children want something warm for lunch. Parents packing hot foods have several ways to keep the food hot until the child's lunch period. One way is to heat the food to the highest possible temperature before pouring it into a vacuum bottle rinsed with hot water. Insulated lunch packs are another option. Some of these lunch boxes come with a hot pack that can be microwaved to keep food hot longer.

Healthy foods and safety are the keys to packing a great lunch for your child. Planning and preparing these meals takes a few extra moments, but it is worth it.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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