Back-to-School Tips for lunch box safety

It’s back-to-school time, and many parents are stocking up on school supplies and snacks. This short article provides tips for packing lunches, in order to prevent foodborne illness from harmful bacteria.

school cafeteria

Best practices for packing lunches

If perishable food is not stored properly, harmful bacteria may grow after as little as two hours, which can cause foodborne illness. The USDA has provided four steps to ensure food safety:

  1. Clean: Wash hands, lunch boxes, storage containers, and surfaces often. Encourage your student to clear out their trash rather than putting it back in the box. Clean all food containers, ice packs, and lunch boxes each night.
  2. Separate: Don’t allow raw meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, or any of their juices to contaminate other foods.
  3. Cook: Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and egg products should be cooked to the proper temperature to kill bacteria. Verify the internal temperature with a food thermometer.
  4. Chill: Refrigerate food promptly and don’t leave it at room temperature for more than an hour or two.

packed lunch

High-risk foods that should stay chilled

Fortunately, it’s simple to keep food bacteria-free if you can maintain proper temperatures. Many lunch boxes are insulated or have chill-packs, which can help to slow the growth of bacteria. Avoid “higher-risk” foods if you are unable to keep them cold. Some high-risk foods include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Tofu
  • Dairy products
  • Open canned fruit
  • Cooked fruits/vegetables
  • Cut/peeled fresh fruits/vegetables
  • Pasta
  • Rice

Safe foods include:

  • Popcorn
  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Bagels
  • Unpeeled/uncut fresh fruit
  • Unopened single-serving containers of fruit, fruit juice, and pudding
  • Dried fruits
  • Dried beans
  • Commercially prepared meats, poultry, and seafood
  • Nuts
  • Cookies
  • Cereal bars and granola bars

When it comes to food safety, the role of temperature cannot be overstated. Hot food should stay hot, and cold food should stay cold, to help ensure that the food remains safe to eat and bacteria-free.

  • When packing cold items: Chill food before adding it to the lunch box and include an ice pack, freezer gel pack, or a frozen water bottle. Keep at least two cold sources in an insulated lunch bag and place the most perishable food closest to the cold sources.
  • When packing hot items: Use an insulated container, such as a thermos. Heat the container by filling it with boiling water before you pack hot food and leave it closed until lunchtime.