By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia
As your child leaves for school in the morning, the greatest risk to her safety could be in the lunch you packed for her. Foodborne illnesses can be serious, even deadly, for young children especially. But lunch doesn't have to be risky.
"It's not hard to keep packed lunches safe," said Connie Crawley, an Extension Service nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "But it takes some thought and preparation."
Select foods that won't spoil easily
In a packed lunch, food safety depends on what you pack and how you pack it, Crawley said.
Choosing the food is a big step. Many of your child's favorites are perfectly safe at room temperature.
Peanut-butter-and-jelly, for instance, is a standard that doesn't need to stay cold. Cut-up veggies and fresh fruit aren't perishable short-term, either. They provide nutrition kids need in a way they like.
But choose new lunch foods carefully. "Practice lunch at home, especially if you start packing cans of shelf-stable pudding or cut-up fruit," Crawley said. "Then you'll know if your child can safely and easily open the container."
Pack 'em like you bought 'em
A good rule to remember is to pack foods the way you bought them. "If it was refrigerated, keep it cold," Crawley said. "Shelf-stable items may taste better cold but won't spoil at room temperature."
You can safely pack perishable foods, too. But you can't let them stay at room temperature, Crawley said.
A critical first step to packing safe lunches is to get a well-insulated bag or box. The most important thing in food safety, she said, is keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
Keep cold foods at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and hot foods at or above 140, she said. The danger zone is between those two temperatures. If a perishable food stays at room temperature for 2 hours, it's risky to eat it.
The same temperatures that make your child comfortable at school, Crawley said, are perfect for Staphylococci, Salmonella, Campylobacter and other pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses.
Many children prefer their foods cold. For them, Crawley said, gel ice packs or frozen juice bags or boxes provide a cold source that can keep perishable foods safe until lunchtime. Frozen juice drinks will usually thaw in time to go with lunch, so they won't take up extra space in the bag.
Hot foods raise concerns for your child's ability to open the container and serve herself safely. Pack these foods in quality vacuum-insulated bottles and containers. But have your child practice opening the container at home. Be sure she can do it well without spilling.
To pack hot foods, Crawley said, first warm the container by filling it with hot water. Then, right before the child leaves for school, pour out the water and add the hot food. Don't fill it too full. Remember that the food should be well above 140 degrees when you pack it.
Keep cold and hot foods apart
If you're packing a cold food as well, keep the hot-food container away from the gel ice or frozen juice so it can stay hot.
As you're preparing lunch, be especially careful. "Bacteria can be introduced while you pack," Crawley said.
"Don't leave food out at room temperature too long before you pack it," she said. "Keep the cold foods refrigerated and pack them only when the child is ready to leave for school."
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)