Packing a Safe School Lunch

If your children carry a packed lunch to school, these important tips help keep their lunch safe.

Pack Nonperishable Foods

The USDA recommends that half of a meal be fruits and vegetables, which is convenient because most produce does not spoil at room temperature. Many healthy foods don’t require refrigeration, including peanut butter, whole grain breads, bagels, English muffins, dried fruit, whole fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. You can also include unopened cans of unsweetened fruit, canned and bottled juices, soy milk or canned meat that can be opened and eaten immediately.

Keep Cold Foods Cold and Hot Foods Hot

If you do pack perishable foods such as luncheon meats or prepackaged cheese and crackers, add a frozen gel pack or a frozen juice carton to the insulated lunch bag or box. If packing hot foods such as leftover soups or stews, re-heat the food on the stove to at least 165ºF. To help keep it hot until lunch, fill a thermos with hot water, let it stand for a minute or two, empty the thermos and then fill with the hot food and close it quickly.

Minimize Time Food Spends at Room Temperature

Preparing lunches and storing them in the refrigerator the night before you pack your child's lunchbox in the morning is not only a timesaver, but it also helps keep the food cold longer.

Keep It Clean

According to an NSF germ study, the kitchen contains more germs -- including staph and coliform bacteria -- than any other place in the home. Avoid introducing bacteria into school lunches by regularly cleaning and sanitizing kitchen counters, sinks and dish sponges.

Throw Out the Leftovers

Pack only the amount of perishable food that your children can eat at lunch and advise them to throw out any leftovers.

Don't reuse packaging materials such as paper or plastic bags, as they can contaminate other foods. Have your child discard all used food packaging and paper bags after lunch. Wash lunchboxes and thermoses daily with soap and water, and look for reusable food storage containers certified under the NSF Home Products Certification Program™.

Perform a Lunchbox Safety Test

If you plan to send a hot or cold lunch to school with your child, perform a lunchbox safety test first. Pack and store a lunch in the exact way your child would do in school. At the designated lunchtime, measure the temperature of the foods with a food thermometer. Cold foods should be less than 40º F, while hot foods need to be above 140º F.

Don’t Forget the Importance of Handwashing

To protect against germs, wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before preparing school lunches, and remind your child to do the same before eating. Check out the NSF Scrub Club website for fun ways to teach your kids about the importance of handwashing at an early age.

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