QUESTION: School is back in session for my fourth grader, and he’s decided this year that he wants to pack lunch for the first time. Any tips on how to make sure his packed lunch is safe and healthy?
ANSWER: Considering that nearly 40% of school-aged kids bring their lunches to school on a given day, it’s important to take some simple precautions to ensure that your son has a safe, nutritious meal to eat and enjoy.
When deciding what to pack, it’s a good idea to include lean proteins, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products in his lunch. If you want to pack your son a sandwich, opt for whole-grain bread and veggies for toppings. If you want to be a little fun and adventurous, use a cookie cutter to cut the sandwich into fun shapes for your child.
As a time-saving measure, you can prepare snack-sized bags of fruits and veggies in advance, store them in the fridge, and let your child choose which ones he wants to put in his lunch that day. In-season whole fruits such as apples, peaches, pears, bananas, and tangerines are also good choices, said Shari Gallup, an Ohio State University Extension educator.
OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
When packing a lunch for your child to take to school, remember that cold foods need to stay cold and hot foods need to stay hot, she said. This will help to avoid the development of harmful bacteria that could cause a foodborne illness. When a food’s temperature reaches between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, also called the “Danger Zone,” bacteria grows rapidly.
To help avoid that from happening and make sure your child’s perishable foods stay cold until lunchtime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advises that you pack two cold sources in his lunch.
Frozen water bottles or frozen juice boxes can count as a cold source, as well as a freezer pack that you stick into the lunchbox. Lunches that contain perishable food items such as luncheon meats, eggs, cheese, or yogurt can be kept cold this way. Be sure to place the cold sources onto the top and the bottom of the perishable food items to keep them cold.
If you plan to pack soup, stew, or chili for your child’s lunch, you will need to use an insulated container. Before adding in the hot item, you can fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it, and then add the hot food, advises the USDA. Also, tell your child to keep the lid on the container closed until lunchtime to help prevent bacterial contamination and growth.
The USDA also advises the following:
If you pack your son’s lunch the night before, leave it in the refrigerator overnight. The meal will stay cold longer because everything will be refrigerator temperature when it is placed into the lunchbox.
If possible, your child’s lunch should be stored in a refrigerator or cooler with ice upon arrival at school. Leave the lid of the lunchbox or bag open in the fridge so that cold air can better circulate and keep the food cold.
After lunch, make sure your child discards any leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Don’t reuse the packaging, because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.
Once home, you should clean the insulated lunchbox or bag with hot, soapy water after each use.
Lastly, while it’s best that kids wash their hands before eating their lunch, we all know that there is a possibility that they won’t be able to do so right before lunch. With that in mind, you can pack disposable wipes in your son’s lunch bag or container so that he can at least wipe his hands before and after eating lunch.
Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or firstname.lastname@example.org.