It’s time to start thinking about school lunches and how to prevent food-borne illness from accompanying your kids back to school. Londa Nwadike, the University of Vermont Extension food safety specialist, offers these easy lessons for packing school lunches safely.
Before handling any food, always wash your hands, counters, and other food preparation areas thoroughly. Use clean utensils and containers for packing the food.
If preparing several different foods for lunch, be sure to wash cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after each use to avoid cross-contamination.
Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables, even foods such as bananas that will be peeled, before packing. A dirty peel could contaminate other foods in the lunch container or your child’s hands.
Ensure that perishable foods will be in the temperature danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees F for less than two hours as any bacteria present can double every 20 minutes in that temperature zone. This can be a challenge if a lunch is kept in a backpack or school locker for several hours prior to eating.
One safe solution is to freeze an insulated lunch box with an ice pack in it overnight. Wait until morning to pack foods in it. This will help keep the foods cold longer.
You also might consider freezing foods, juice boxes, or water bottles overnight then adding them to the lunch bag frozen. Sandwiches made with cheese or deli meats freeze well although if adding lettuce, tomatoes, or mayonnaise, refrigerate those items separately for assembly later.
Consider making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are not perishable and don’t require freezing or special storage conditions to prevent foodborne illness. Skip pasta salads and other perishable salads unless there’s a refrigerator at school where students can store their lunches.
Shelf-stable foods such as crackers, packaged pudding, trail mix, granola bars, dried fruits, single-serve canned applesauce, or other fruit are great items to pack in lunch bags. If possible, pack in a separate compartment from the perishable items.
“Be sure to remind your child to throw away any perishable leftovers from lunch,” Nwadike says. “Any non-perishable foods are safe to save for an afternoon snack. Also, remind your child to always wash his or her hands before eating.”
Finally, discard waxed paper, plastic sandwich bags, or other packaging, as reusing these can contaminate other foods. A safe and environmentally friendly option is to invest in small, lidded containers for sandwiches and other items as these can be cleaned and sanitized after each use.
More information on packing school lunches safely is available at www.foodsafety.gov/keep/events/backtoschool/index.html.