If your children will be packing a school lunch this year, there are some important tips that you should know to help keep their lunch safe.
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 are safe to pack without refrigeration, including peanut butter; whole grain breads, bagels and English muffins; pretzels; 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, poultry or fish that can be opened and eaten immediately.
If you do pack perishable foods such as luncheon meats or prepackaged cheese and crackers, include a frozen gel pack or a frozen juice carton with the food in an insulated lunch bag or box.
If you're packing hot foods such as leftover soups or stews, re-heat the food on the stove to at least 165 F. To help keep it hot until lunch, pre-heat a thermos with hot water, let it stand for a minute or two, empty the thermos, then fill with the hot food and close it quickly.
Pack only the amount of perishable food that your child can eat at lunch and advise them to throw out any leftovers.
Don't reuse packaging materials such as paper or plastic bags, foil, etc. as they can contaminate other foods and cause foodborne illness. Have your child discard all used food packaging and paper bags after lunch. Wash lunchboxes, thermoses and reusable food storage containers daily with soap and hot water.
Preparing lunches the night before and storing them in the refrigerator until you pack your child's lunchbox in the morning is not only a timesaver, but it can also help keep the food cold longer the next day.
According to an NSF International germ study, the kitchen contains more germs than any other place in the home — including staph and coliform bacteria. Avoid introducing bacteria into a lunch when packing it by regularly cleaning and sanitizing your kitchen counter, dish sponge and kitchen sink.
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 you would if your child was off to school. At the designated lunchtime, measure the temperature of the foods with a food thermometer. Cold foods should be less than 40 F, while hot foods need to be above 140 F.
Don't forget to always wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before preparing any meal and remind your child to do the same before he/she sits down for lunch. Handwashing is one of the best ways kids and parents can protect health and stop the spread of germs.