More than 90 percent of packed lunches susceptible to foodborne illness

School lunches aren’t that great for your kid. They’re not nutritionally solid or very green. In my opinion, unless your child’s school is one of the few instituting healthy lunch changes, you should, when possible, pack a lunch for your child.

Now, that said, packed lunches aren’t perfect. Unless you pack it right, a packed lunch may contain too much packaging waste. Many food containers contain stuff like BPA – so you have to aim for safe school lunch containers as well. On top of all that, a new study shows that a high percentage of packed school lunches aren’t packed or stored in such a way that keeps the food at proper temperatures.

Researchers involved in this study tested a bunch of packed lunches about an hour and a half before lunchtime. Each lunch tested contained at least one perishable food item. The results of the test weren’t good. 39% of the 705 lunches analyzed contained no ice packs and 45.1% had just one ice pack. Worst of all, just 1.6% of perishable items were in the safe temperature zone for consumption. The researchers point out that even when a lunch contained multiple ice packs, the majority of lunch items, more than 90% were tested at unsafe temperatures.

The problem here is foodborne illness, a serious issue all around, but worse for young children who are more susceptible to bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli and Salmonella, although keep in mind that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified more than 250 different foodborne diseases in total. Bacteria multiplies at a much quicker rate when warm, so that food sitting in your child’s lunch bag, gets more dangerous as the day goes on.

What to do?

If you’re packing a lunch for your child, here’s what you can do to make it safer…

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An unsafe lunch bag choice!

Keep it clean: Food that is packed clean is safer than food that’s packed already contaminated. For example, wash your hands before handling foods you pack for your child. Also make sure that cutting boards and knives used for food prep are clean when you start. Wash any fruits and veggies in clean water before packing. Additionally, wash your child’s food containers each day with hot soapy water and wipe down the lunch bag itself too.

Don’t mix foods: If you cut turkey or cheese on a cutting board, wash it or us a different cutting board for other foods, like fruits and veggies.

Cook it right: If you’re sending meat, poultry, eggs or other cooked foods in your child’s lunch, make sure to cook it thoroughly. Hard boiled eggs, for instance, a packed lunch favorite around here, should be entirely cooked until the yolk is firm. A food thermometer is the best way to be sure food is cooked correctly.

Refrigerate: If your child has access to a school refrigerator, tell him to use it. Bacteria grows fastest at room temperature. The CDC says that perishable foods should be refrigerated if they are not going to be eaten within 4 hours.

Ice packs are your friend: The researchers on the packed lunch study say that you should pack your child’s lunch with,  “Lots of ice packs” and then if possible, as noted above, have your child place the lunch in a school fridge. Obviously not all kids have access to a fridge at school, so in this case, the more ice packs the better. You can also use an insulated lunch bag, one designed to keep food cold or hot, plus insulated food containers. For best chilling or heating results, rinse out the thermos or food container with very hot, or very cold water (depending on the food item) to either heat it or cool it before adding hot or cold food.

Don’t mix hot and cold foods: When I send Cedar something cold and hot, I pack them separately. It’s more obnoxious, because Cedar has to carry two lunch bags to school, but at least the hot food isn’t heating up the cold food and the cold food isn’t cooling off the hot.

Make cold foods the night before: If you make a tuna fish sandwich in the evening, then place it in the fridge all night, it’s at a much better, cooler temperature for the day than a sandwich you make fresh in the morning. Same with items like pasta, hard boiled eggs, cut veggies and fruit salads.

Leftovers are a no-go: I know, it’s seriously not eco-friendly to toss food out, however, any perishable foods that come home uneaten CAN NOT be safely saved for another time. There’s no such thing as an insulated container or ice pack that will keep foods at a safe temperature all day.

Don’t forget fluids: Milk, juice and other non-water beverages should be kept cold. Use an insulated thermos. Many fluids can even be frozen, then packed and will thaw (but stay cold) by lunchtime.

To learn more about how to pack a waste-free lunch see the following:

+ Source: Pediatrics

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  1. Lynn says

    As usual, Jennifer, you’ve put your own spin and used your skills to come up with a piece that ALL parents should read. Important topic that I’ve already started sharing. Thanks!

  2. Jennifer Chait says

    Thanks Lynn :) – I personally need to pay better attention to this stuff, so it was good practice to write. I’ve only been using one, sometimes two ice packs.

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