Food Safety for the Lunchbox Brigade

When my children were younger they took a “home lunch” several times a week, and each day when they brought home their lunch box/bag I was happy to see that they had, in fact, eaten their entire lunch (usually). I was less pleased with the messes they left in those lunch boxes….which leads me to my topic for this blog—lunchbox food safety. Here are a few of the main things you can do to keep brown bag lunches safe for your kids (or you).

Kid Crunch Trail Mix

Keep it Clean

Starting with a clean lunch box or bag is important (and by the way, an insulated container is a great idea as opposed to a brown paper bag). To save time in the morning, take care of cleaning it out the day before—or right when it arrives back home. Toss any uneaten perishable food, dump any trash, crumbs or big pieces of food, then wash it out with hot soapy water, rinse and air dry, or put it through the dishwasher (if dishwasher-safe). If it’s an insulated lunch bag, I’ve had good success keeping down the external grime with a once-a-week trip through the washing machine (then simply air dry it—don’t put it in the dryer).

Keep it Cold

Food can go for hours before being eaten, which can allow harmful bacteria to reproduce, but keeping perishable foods cold puts the freeze on bacteria growth. If you pack lunch the night before, keep the lunch box or bag open and in the refrigerator so that cold air can circulate around the food. Also, the government site suggests using two cold sources if the lunchbox contains meat (including lunch meats), eggs, yogurt, cheese or milk. Small, reusable freezer packs work well as long as they don’t get inadvertently tossed into the garbage. Another option: using a frozen, small bottle of water or juice box or even a small container of yogurt—they’ll keep things cold but will be thawed enough to consume by lunchtime. Finally, if available, have your child keep his or her lunch in a refrigerator at school until lunchtime.

Or Keep it Hot

My daughter likes to take homemade soup for her lunch. Not only is lukewarm food unappetizing, it can be unsafe. Here’s how to safely tote hot foods: First, use an insulated container with a leak-proof lid. Fill the container with boiling water while heating the food you want to pack. If time gets away from you, just dump out the cooled water and put more hot water back in—the point is to get the container nice and hot ahead of time or the food will cool throughout the morning, lingering in an unsafe temperature zone (between 40° and 140°). Once the food is piping hot, dump the water and immediately pack the hot food into the hot container.

Emphasize Hand Washing

Ok, this isn’t about the actual lunch, but about cleaning up before eating. Lots of younger kids have recess before lunch, so it’s important to stress to your child that he or she should stop to wash hands before eating. Some schools build in hand washing time, which is excellent. Oh, and even teens need reminding to wash their hands before they dig in to lunch. If there’s simply no time or your child can’t break away to do a thorough washing (20 seconds with soap and warm water), pack a little bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in the lunchbox, or a disposable hand-washing wipe.

Want more tips on packing safe lunches? Check out this previous Guiding Stars blog post.