Packing a child’s lunch for school may not always be the easiest job. There is a lot to consider to achieve the perfect balance between healthy and inexpensive foods for a picky eater. One thing that doesn’t have to be a challenge is keeping your child safe from foodborne illnesses.
“The easiest food safety rule to remember is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, or send foods that don’t require refrigeration,” said Judy Harrison, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension foods specialist.
The general rule is to make sure perishable foods are not left at room temperature for more than two hours. Using a thermos or aluminum foil to insulate hot foods or placing an ice pack in the lunchbox for cold foods can prevent foods from going bad and becoming unsafe.
“One idea is to use a frozen juice box as a way to keep the food at or below 40 degrees,” Harrison said.
Lunch foods that can be quick to make and kept at room temperature include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tuna lunch kits and whole fruit such as apples, oranges and bananas.
Bacteria grow quickly in moist foods that aren’t very acidic but are high in protein. Items such as deli meats, dairy products, cut fruits and vegetables and cooked foods like soups or stews should be kept at an appropriate temperature.
Harrison also stresses the importance of washing your hands, preparing food in a clean work area with clean utensils and using storage containers you can clean after each use.
“Although soft lunch boxes may provide adequate insulation, hard lunch boxes are easier to clean,” Harrison said. The typical brown paper bag is best for foods that don’t need to be refrigerated.
It’s also important to make sure your children know the importance of washing their hands before eating. Harrison suggests talking with teachers to make sure students have the opportunity to wash their hands before lunch.
Another option is to include a moist toilette that can be used to wipe away dirt and germs. While hand sanitizer gets rid of bacteria, it doesn’t do much in terms of cleaning.
Teaching young children the importance of food safety practices will help them know how to safely pack their own lunches as they get older.
(Andrea Gonzalez is a writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)