How to keep your child's lunch safe

Be sure to follow food safe guidelines when packing food on-the-go.

We all want our children to be eating nutritious and safe food. Sure, it is easy to throw some packaged treats into a lunch box with a PB&J; sometimes this is our only option. However, it is also important that we give our kids fresh foods, which are often higher in nutrients, so they can maximize their learning potential. Many of these items will require paying a little extra attention to preparation and temperature control. 

First thing’s first. Before packing your child’s lunch, it is important to keep your hands and the preparation area clean. We can have bacteria or viruses on our hands, which can be transmitted to food. Start with washing your hands and cleaning counters before the lunch is made; this helps prevent cross-contamination. Do you have pets? They should not be allowed on counters used for food preparation as they can be a source of foodborne pathogens (did they just walk through the kitty litter for example?).  Always use a clean cutting board and utensils – and don’t use the same one for raw meat as you do for fresh produce or breads.

Be mindful of realistic portion sizes for your child; children don’t usually eat a lot so it is important to pack the appropriate amount of perishable food in the lunch. This reduces food waste and limits the chance that the child will eat any leftover food before you have a chance to discard it. Leftovers should be discarded because bacteria could have grown on them since lunchtime due to a lack of temperature control. If there are leftovers, discard them along with any used food packaging and paper bags. 

Mornings can get very hectic for families, so it is okay to make the sandwich the night before and then refrigerate or freeze them. However, if it is frozen make sure that it does not contain condiments or toppings that do not freeze well, like mayonnaise, lettuce or tomatoes. It is best to just add those in the morning.

Clean and sanitize the inside of lunch boxes regularly, you can use soap and water and a sanitizing solution or wipe. Clean the countertop after packing the lunch as well – you do not know where the lunch bag has been, and this can be a source of contamination. Some soft-sided lunch boxes can be washed in the washing machine, others need to be spot cleaned. This should be done regularly.   

Keep refrigerated food cold! If you don’t, you pave the way for harmful bacteria to grow which can cause food poisoning. Soft lunch boxes are best to keep food cold if two ice sources such as gel packs or even frozen juice boxes or bottles of water are included in the lunch box. Some foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables (apples, oranges, carrots, and celery), are safe without using the cold sources, along with canned meat and fish (as long as it is kept canned until eaten), pretzels or chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles. If you are sending hot items, like soup or stews in a thermos, first fill the container with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then fill with the heated food. Keep this closed until lunchtime. 

Michigan State University Extension promotes safe food handling and has programs to educate the public on food safety – visit the website to find out more.

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