Packing safe lunches for school and work

Food from home needs to be packed properly so it is still safe to eat by lunchtime.

As summer fun winds down, it is time to begin thinking about returning to school. While it is important to think about the nutritional quality of the packed lunches you are making for your children it is also important to make sure that each lunch is safely packed. Children are one of the most susceptible groups when it comes to food poisoning, extra care should be taken when packing lunches for them. Of the estimated 42,000 annual Salmonella infections, almost 50 percent of those are infants and school-age children.

Here are some back-to-school food safety tips for parents and caregivers

Packing tips:

  • Wash hands before, during and after packing lunches.
  • Make sure counters are clean. Wipe out the lunch box before filling it.
  • If the lunch or snack contains perishable food items (lunch meats, eggs, cheese or yogurt) make sure to pack it with at least two cold sources. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly so these foods won’t stay safe long if they aren’t kept cold.
  • Frozen juice boxes or water bottles can be used to keep food cold. Freeze them overnight and use with at least one freezer gel pack. Fruit cups may be frozen too and added to the lunch as an ice source.
  • Pack lunches containing perishable foods in insulated lunchboxes. A paper bag cannot keep food cold until lunchtime even with iced products; it will also become a soggy mess and may rip.
  • If packing hot items (soup, stew or chili) use an insulated container to keep it hot. Prior to putting the food item in the container, fill it with boiling water, let it stand a few minutes, empty and then add the hot food. Teach your child the importance of keeping this container closed until it is lunchtime in order to keep the food hot – 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • If you choose to save time by packing lunches the night before, make sure the food items remain in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning place the food into the lunchbox, with the appropriate ice packs.  This will keep everything colder until lunchtime.
  • When packing a snack or meal for a large group, keep perishable foods in a cooler with ice packs or frozen gel packs until it is time to eat. The cooler should be kept at 40 degrees F or cooler to keep all perishable items safe. Pack food items in individual bags or containers to eliminate everyone eating from the same dish.

Storage tips:

  • Lunches and snacks should be stored in a refrigerator or cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. Leave the lid of the lunchbox or bag open in the fridge so cold air can better circulate and keep food cold. 
  • If lunch boxes are not stored in the fridge, keep out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources.
  • Label lunch boxes to avoid mix-ups.
  • If there are any spills in the refrigerator, cooler or lunch box wipe them up immediately.

Eating and disposal tips:

  • Pack disposable wipes for washing hands before and after eating, if hand washing facilities are not available.
  • After eating, discard all leftover food, used packaging, bags and utensils. Do not reuse packaging because it can contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

Remember bacteria that causes food poisoning grows very quickly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. Michigan State University Extension recommend following the four steps to food safety: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. Lunch packing can be a fun, creative family activity by chilling food safely, cooking it correctly, separating raw food from ready to eat food and working in clean conditions. Safely packed lunches means that everyone can enjoy tasty food at school, work and on the go.

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