Pack a healthy and safe lunch

September 12, 2007|By LYNN LITTLE

September marks National Food Safety Education Month and the early part of the school year. As kids go back to school, parents have many things to worry about, including the safety of food their children carry to school in their lunchboxes or brown bags.

It's a good time to review the following steps for packing a safe lunch:

  • Keep everything clean. Start with clean hands. Wash with soap under running water, and clean food preparation surfaces and utensils.

  • Bacteria that can cause illness might be on the outside of fresh fruits and vegetables. Rinse fruits and vegetables under running tap water and blot dry with a paper towel before packing.

  • Keep hot foods such as soup, chili or stew hot - 140 degrees or above - by using an insulated container. First, preheat the container by filling it with boiling water and letting it stand for a few minutes. Drain and then fill with hot food.

  • Lunch meats should be consumed within three to five days once opened. Unopened lunch meats can be kept in the refrigerator for as long as two weeks, unless advised otherwise by the manufacturer.

  • Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes are best for keeping perishable food cold, but metal or plastic lunchboxes and paper bags also can be used. Paper lunch bags do little to help insulate the food, but doubling the bags will help. After lunch, discard all used food packaging and paper bags due to the possibility of prior contamination.

  • Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly between the temperatures of 40 degrees and 140 degrees. A cold source, such as a small frozen gel pack, should be packed in any type of lunch container with food that can spoil easily. Freezer gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime but are not recommended for all-day storage.

  • Another option for keeping cold foods cold is to try freezing single-sized juice packs overnight and placing the frozen drink in your child's lunch. If your child's lunchtime is late enough, the juice will thaw by lunchtime, but it will still be cold.

  • If a refrigerator is available at school, that's the best option to keep food cold. If not, make sure your child understands the importance of keeping their lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators, baseboards and other heat sources found in the classroom.

  • Any food left after lunch that was not eaten and could spoil (such as meat, poultry, egg sandwiches and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables) should be thrown away.

  • Consider keeping a supply of shelf-stable foods on hand for easy packing. These include crackers, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, packaged pudding and canned fruits or meats.

  • Making up the lunch the night before can really save time. Sandwiches should be kept in the refrigerator until time to pack and go in the morning.

Additional food safety tips, activities for kids and interactive games are available on Visit the Web site to learn how you can become a BAC! Fighter.


Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator and county extension director with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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