As parents, we try to choose the most healthy options — and also provide a variety of items — at lunchtime. When kids are at home and during the summer, we can monitor how and what they eat, but back-to-school season is a different story. The morning rush (or evening activities) can hinder time spent ensuring lunches are packed not only healthily, but safely.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 estimates, each year roughly one out of six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. The top five known pathogens are norovirus, salmonella, clostridium perfringens, campylobacter spp and Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause illness and hospitalizations — and possible death.
Many causes are from undercooked or raw food, cross contamination, and improper food preparation and storage.
“Lunch box safety is important because you want to make sure hot foods stay hot and cold foods stay cold,” says Sarah Lichtman, spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “You want to make sure the lunch itself stays out of the danger zone.”
The USDA recently provided information for consumers about how to keep lunches safe. Here are some tips parents need to know.
Clean Before you Pack
Take time out to clean surfaces, cutting boards and countertops before preparing food items. It’s important to also wash your hands and keep pets away from counters before and during lunch packing.
Deciding to use the same lunch bag from last year? Marianne H. Gravely, spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, recommends to replace bags if there are any rips or tears, and also to clean them everyday. She does recommend using insulated bags, rather than brown paper ones, for better storage.
Lichtman explains it’s also recommended to use soapy water or a disinfectant wipe to clean out the lunch bag every night, even if there is not a visible spill.
Right Food Temps
The USDA has some recommendations for food temperatures to ensure they remain safe for when your kids are ready to eat. It suggests to “prepare cooked food, such as turkey, ham, chicken, and vegetable or pasta salads, ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator [40 °F (4.4 °C) or below]. Keep cooked food refrigerated until it’s time to leave home. To keep lunches cold away from home, include at least two cold sources (such as a cold pack and a frozen juice box). Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili and stew hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot: 140 °F (73.9 °C) or above.”
Throw Out Leftovers
While you want to ensure your kids eat all the food you pack, you don’t want them snacking later in the day on foods that are unsafe to eat at room temperatures. Lichtman says kids should toss any leftovers. If you want to see what your kids are eating, talk to them about not snacking on those foods, but have have them bring home the lunch box — just be sure to throw away any leftover perishable items.
Quick Tip: Parents ask kids to wash hands before dinner or lunch at home, why not ensure they do it before eating a school lunch? Gravely recommends packing disposable hand wipes in lunch bags so your kids can easily wash their hands before they eat.
Lunch Bag Experiment: Not sure if your cold packs can hold up for several hours until lunch? Marianne H. Gravely, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, recommends doing a science experiment with the kids by packing a sample lunch and allowing enough time to see if the cold food stays cold and the hot food stays hot.