Back to School:  Lunch Safety I know a lot of you out there still have a while before school starts back, but here our children go back on August 1st, so it is time to do some school lunch planning.  If you are packing lunch for your child, there is a good possibility that your main reason for doing so is that the food you are packing is healthier than what they are serving at school.  But, no matter how healthy the lunch you made at home was when it left the house, it might not still be healthy at lunch time if you are not careful.  So, today I am going to talk about lunch safety.

Now, this might sound easier than it really is.  I used to be a teacher and had the same twenty-something minutes to eat lunch without refrigeration that your child has.   And, believe me, it is difficult.  I have owned almost every type of keep-it-cold or keep-it-hot device out there, and a lot of them just don’t work long enough.  I also used to sell cupcakes at a local farmers’ market where I had to learn a lot about food safety and had to test my cooling methods.  So, I am going to put those two experiences together to help you keep your child’s lunch safe.

I am going to give you some guidelines below, but really the key here is testing.  This is why you need to do it now.  The plan you have might now work, so you may have to come up with another and that could take time you won’t have the week before school starts.  The first step is finding out what time school starts and when lunch is.  You can probably find out what time school starts right now on you school or district website.  And, you may even be able to find out a range of possible lunch times – hint:  check bell schedules.  Even if you can’t find out when lunch starts, a good rule of thumb is no earlier than 10:30 and no later than 1:00.  To do your testing, you are going to need a few things:  the container(s) you plan to use lunch box/bag, thermos, etc. and thermometer that reads below 40 degrees, and above 140 degrees – you may have to have two separate ones. 

So, basically you are going to pack a typical lunch and then test the temperature at lunch time.  For a cold lunch that has perishables in it, you need the temperature to be below 40 degrees at lunch time.  For something hot in a thermos, you need the temperature to be above 140 degrees at lunch time.  When you pack the cold lunch, just drop the thermometer in the bag or box, and check the temperature when it is time to eat.  For a hot lunch, you are going to have to put a thermometer in the the lunch after you open it.  If you have an instant read thermometer or at least a pretty quick one, it will be more accurate because the instant you open the thermos, your food will begin losing heat.

Now obviously, if you just put food in a lunch bag/box/thermos, it is probably not going to be the right temperature at lunch time, so here are tips to help you keep everything the correct temperature.

For a Cold Lunch

    • Use an insulated lunch boxor bag.  It is very difficult to keep things cool without insulation.
    • Use am ice pack/gel pack– preferably two.
    • Freeze a juice box to add to the lunch.  It will probably be thawed by lunch time, but will help keep the lunch cool.  However, if your child has that 10:30 lunch time, it may not be thawed, so test both ends of the time spectrum.  You don’t want your child to end up with nothing to drink.
    • Make the lunch the night before, and keep it refrigerated until the last possible moment.  You could also pack it in the lunch box/bag and refrigerate the whole thing, but leave the box/bag open in the refrigerator because insulation can keep the cold out as well as in.


    For a Hot Lunch

      • Read the label before you buy the container.  Sometimes it will tell you how long and how hot the container will keep your food.  Still test it, but this could keep you from buying the wrong container.
      • Pour boiling water into the container, and let it sit a few minutes.  Pour the water out and then immediately put in the food.  This allows your container to start out hot.  If you put the food into a cool container, it will immediately lose heat.
      • Put the food into the container very hot – boiling if possible.  The hotter it is when it goes in, the more heat it can lose and still be hot enough.
      • Heat and pack the food as soon as possible to leaving time.


       Other Tips

      • Pack food that doesn’t need to be hot or cold such as chips, crackers, whole uncut unpeeled fruit.  Use mustard instead of mayonnaise. 
      • Don’t forget good ole PB&J!  It is non-perishable and good at a variety of temperatures.  Want to make it healthier?  Use all-natural peanut butter and all-fruit spread or stir in dried fruit, and put it on whole-wheat bread.
      • Wash and dry fruit.  Most fruit can easily rot or mold quickly, so even if you are packing whole, unpeeled fruit, make sure it isn’t wet.
      • Wash your hands before making the lunch and in between preparing each item.
      • Make sure all your utensils are clean for each item you prepare.  If you are using the same knife for two different items, wash it well between uses.
      • Have your child throw away any trash, wrappers, etc., so that bacteria doesn’t grow in the box or bag after lunch and before he or she gets it back home.
      • Wash everything well before packing another lunch.  Yes, even the box or bag.  Crumbs and spills – even ones you don’t see – can breed germs.

      Hope you and your children have a happy, healthy, school year!

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