Food safety tips for back to school lunches

Keep the nourishing lunch you send to school safe with a few easy steps.

Two happy school-aged children eating lunch together out of lunch boxes.
Photo: Pexels/Katerina Holmes.

Back to school is a very busy time in households with preschool or school-age children. Even amidst the stress of morning hustle, it's important to remember that children who eat well do better in school. So not only is morning breakfast critical for kids heading off to school, so is what goes in your child's lunch box.

Now that school is back in session, chances are you may pack a cold lunch some of the time. Keeping those nutritious foods safe from bacterial growth is a challenge, though. A significant amount of time passes from early morning when the lunch leaves your home until your child’s lunch time at school. Keeping perishable foods cold during this entire time is critical to preventing bacterial growth. Michigan State University Extension recommends these tips to help keep those packed lunches safe:

  • Always start your lunch packing and food prep with clean hands and clean surfaces to reduce the risk of contamination. Get your child involved in packing their lunch, and ensure that everyone washes their hands for at least 20 seconds before beginning. This will decrease the spread of bacteria.
  • Perishable foods — such as leftovers, casseroles, soups, meats, meat sandwiches, eggs, dairy products and vegetables — must be kept cold below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent bacteria from multiplying and contaminating food.
  • Add a cold source to your child’s lunch. Use an icepack or consider freezing part of the lunch such as water bottle, yogurt, pudding, applesauce or a 100 percent juice box, and pack it next to the perishable food right before your child leaves for school.
  • Use an insulated lunch bag. Empty and wash the bag each night after use.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water and dry them before adding them to the lunch box.
  • Pack lunches the night before and store them in the refrigerator to keep them cold and safe. This also makes the morning rush easier.
  • If a refrigerator is available at preschool or school, remind your child to put their lunch inside.
  • Remind children not to eat any foods leftover from lunch after school on the bus or at home if they have not been kept cold since lunch time.

Also remember if packing safe lunches isn’t convenient in your household, school lunches provided by the school are a healthful and free or low-cost option. If you would like to know if your child is eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals, contact the school food service director or your school principal.

For more information on keeping your family's food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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