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Back to school with safe lunches

Packing the right foods and using proper handling techniques can keep lunches safe

Shutterstock photo
Shutterstock photo

Sep 4, 2013

(Oregon Department of Agriculture)  Whether it comes in a Disney Princess lunch bag, Spiderman lunch box, or a brown paper sack, the meal you send to school with your child must be packed with care and consideration. Kids are back in school this week, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture has some helpful hints on how to make that home-packed lunch as safe as possible.

“Children are more susceptible to food borne illnesses than adults, so it becomes even more important that we protect the lunches they take to school,” says Susan Kendrick, education specialist with ODA's Food Safety Program.

From the preparation of the food that goes into the lunch to the consumption of the meal at school– and all the steps in between– there are several important factors to keep in mind for the sake of your kids.

“It all starts in the kitchen with clean hands, clean surfaces, and the washing of fruits and vegetables before they are put into the school lunch,” says Kendrick. “We want to avoid cross contamination. In other words, don’t use the same surfaces for raw foods that you use for cooked foods. Don’t give those bugs a chance to hop into the lunch pail.”

Making the lunch the night before is a good idea so that the preparer isn’t rushed into doing something improper, such as using dirty surfaces.

Maintaining a proper temperature for the school lunch is very important. If the lunch is prepared the night before, putting it in the refrigerator to keep it cold overnight is essential for most foods. Given the fact that the food is not likely to stay in a refrigerator once the lunch is taken to school, it is critical that steps are taken at home to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. 

“If you are going to send a cold lunch, use a gel-pack, a frozen individual juice box, or a frozen sandwich as a source of cold temperatures so that the entire lunch can stay cold,” says Kendrick. “Depending on the type of container you have available– there are things you can do to keep food at a safe temperature. An insulated lunch bag is probably best. But even a brown paper bag will work, especially if you double bag to provide a little bit more insulation.”

If your child is going to take a hot lunch to school, chances are it will be something like soup, which would probably be inside a thermos.

“You can preheat the thermal container by putting boiling water in it first, letting it sit for a few minutes, then dump out the hot water,” says Kendrick. “That way, you have a preheated container that will keep food safely hot enough to prevent food borne illnesses all the way through the lunch hour.”

Chances are the lunch you send to school in the morning will be consumed within a few hours. Still, that’s plenty of time for bacteria to grow if the lunch is not stored properly. Once again, maintaining a proper temperature is important.

“A gel-pack in an insulated lunch bag can keep the food safe until lunchtime,” says Kendrick. “But it won’t keep the lunch safe all day. Putting the lunch in a locker– someplace quiet and dark– is a good idea. But remember, the lunch should be kept away from direct sunlight or heat sources like a classroom radiator.”

Kids need to know that lunches are to be eaten at lunchtime– or not at all.

“Leftovers are a no-no in school lunches,” says Kendrick. “Once your child is finished eating, they need to throw the rest of it away.”

There may be some exceptions– depending on what foods are packed. Some items are potentially more hazardous than others. Kendrick prefers to look for low-risk foods that are easily packed into lunches.

“Crackers, pretzels, raisins, peanut butter sandwiches, and the little individual cans of fruit– these are all things that are shelf stable and don’t require refrigeration,” she says. “To reduce the chances of illness, other foods, like whole fruits and vegetables, should be washed before they are placed into the lunch bag. Once you begin to cut up the fruits and vegetables, though, they should be kept refrigerated because the internal surface area has been exposed to potential contamination.”

Sandwiches with meat, eggs, or dairy products should be packed directly next to the cold source in the container. The optimum temperature for cold foods is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. How do you know that’s the temperature of the lunch?  Put together a “home test” lunch on a Saturday or Sunday. Use a kitchen thermometer and check the reading throughout the day to see how long the cold temperature actually lasts.

Packing leftovers from last night’s dinner is okay, as long as that food was chilled within two hours of cooking and kept in the refrigerator overnight.

Another consideration for the school lunch is what your child ultimately does with it. It is common for kids to swap lunch items at school, preferring a classmate’s cuisine instead. 

“Remember that your child’s friends may have food allergies,” says Kendrick. “It’s really not a good idea for them to share their lunch with other kids unless they are sure those friends are not allergic to what was brought in the lunch.”

Finally, remind your children of the importance of handwashing before eating. Many times recess precedes lunch. Even more often, kids will need to go to the bathroom sometime before lunch. Washing hands often with soap and warm water is a great way to cut down on potential food borne illnesses.

Keeping lunches safe is every bit as important as making them tasty.

Additional food safety tips can be found at here.

For more information, contact Susan Kendrick at (503) 533-0835.

For an audio version of this story, please click here.

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