Food safety tips for packing lunch
School has been back in session for several weeks, and many choose to pack school lunches. When you’re rushing to pack school lunches every day, food poisoning is probably not on your radar, but it should be. One out of every six Americans eats contaminated food and gets sick each year, according to Centers for Disease Control.
While anyone can get sick from food poisoning, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautions that young children are more prone to serious foodborne illness because their immune systems are still developing.
Follow these food safety tips to reduce the chances of food poisoning:
- If it’s not for food prep, keep it off the counter
FoodSafety.gov advises keeping backpacks, schoolbooks, toys, shoes, sporting equipment and lunch boxes off the counter. It’s likely that your children place these items on the floor at school, so make sure they know that they don’t go on any surface where you prep food. Better yet, make sure all of these items have a designated “home.”
- Keep lunchbox drinks stored in the freezer for an easy bonus cold source
Do you like to pack lunch meats, eggs, cheese or yogurt in your child’s lunch box? Foodsafety.gov advises using two cold sources in each lunch box to ensure these perishable items are safe to eat at lunchtime. One should be a frozen cold pack, and the other can be a frozen juice box or water bottle (which will usually thaw and be perfectly drinkable by lunchtime). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, some foods are safe to pack without a cold source: whole fruits and vegetables, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.
- Wash everything before you start packing
Be sure the lunch box starts out clean; check for leftover food debris and spills when you unpack it each evening. Use an antibacterial wipe to clean any spots of food debris. Check the label for washing instructions, and if it’s machine washable, toss it in the laundry to remove odors and stains before re-packing. Wash your hands and all utensils, boards and containers before you start prep. Foodsafety.gov advises washing all fruits and vegetables under running water and drying them thoroughly before packing. Choose harder-skinned fruits (apples and tangerines instead of pears or peaches, for example) and don’t pack any with bruises or mold spots on them. Softer-skinned fruits can be cut up and placed in a container. Keep two separate, dedicated cutting boards — one for meats and another for fruits and vegetables — to avoid cross-contamination.
- Use an insulated lunch bag to keep perishables cold
Foodsafety.gov cautions that the type of lunch box you use makes a difference. A soft-sided, insulated lunch box is preferable to using a brown paper bag, or even a hard metal or plastic lunch box, because it will keep the cold in better. If you’re packing cold lunches the night before, keep them in the refrigerator overnight to get the lunch box itself cold, so it will keep its cold contents fresher longer.
- Keep the hot foods hot … and safe to eat
Does your child enjoy hot soup, chili or stew for lunch? The good old thermos is still the way to go. Here’s how foodsafety.gov advises packing hot foods safely that morning: Fill up the thermal container with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes to heat up. Then, empty the water and replace it with hot food.
These food safety tips for packing lunch boxes not only protect kids from foodborne illnesses, but they also make lunch-packing easier once these tips become regular habits.
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