Chances are you worry more about whether your kids will eat the food you put in their lunch box than whether it is safe to eat. But food poisoning strikes one in six Americans each year, and children are among the most vulnerable.
Chances are you worry more about whether your kids will eat the food you put in their lunch box than whether it is safe to eat. But food poisoning strikes one in six Americans each year, and children are among the most vulnerable. It makes good sense to take precautions when packing lunches to prevent food poisoning. Here is what you need to know.
Before you start making lunches, be sure you have clean hands and a clean place to prep.
Then remember this basic rule: Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot or cold food should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. Bacteria rapidly multiply at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. You can prepare lunches the night before, but don’t pack any perishables in the lunch box until just before leaving the next morning.
Meat, eggs and dairy foods are the most prone to spoiling and causing illness, so they deserve the most attention. Cold foods should be packed in an insulated lunch bag with two ice sources. You can either use freezer gel packs or freeze individual containers of yogurt or juice (do not freeze glass containers). A frozen water bottle also works. Put one ice source on the bottom and the second on top of the cold food. This will keep the food cold enough for a few hours but may not last all day. For after-school activities, pack shelf-stable items.
Hot foods can be difficult to pack if there is not a way to reheat them for lunch. Soups and other foods can be put in vacuum bottles to stay hot until lunchtime. Boil the soup or heat the food to steaming, and then put it in a vacuum bottle that you have rinsed with boiling water. Ask your child if it is hot at lunchtime or just warm. If it isn’t hot, you may need to invest in a new thermos.
Safe, shelf-stable foods that can be packed without worrying about keeping them hot or cold include unopened individual cans of meat, dried fruits, jerky, peanut or other nut butters, nuts, hard cheese, uncut fresh fruit (rinsed), raw vegetables, individual fruit cups, packaged pudding cups, juice boxes, pickles, granola bars, breads, baked goods and cereals. Prepackaged lunch combos with meat, cheese and crackers do need to be kept cold.
Try not to pack more than will be eaten at lunch. Any leftovers should be discarded and not reused except for unopened shelf-stable items. Although it may be tempting to reuse sandwich bags, foil or plastic wrap, it isn’t a safe choice. Reusable containers should be carefully washed in hot water with soap. Give the lunch box a sanitizing rinse of water and a little bleach each evening. If the lunch box label says it’s OK, stick it in the dishwasher.
It can be a challenge to pack a lunch that is both healthy and safe to eat. Following are some ideas for a safe unrefrigerated lunch other than the usual PB&J.
•Tortilla spread with almond butter and rolled around a banana
•Hummus, either as a dip with veggies or rolled into a tortilla or pita
•Pasta salad with an oil-based dressing
•Beans, corn and pepper salad with tortilla chips for dipping
•Beef jerky, cheddar cheese slices and crackers.