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Preschool Kids' Lunch From Home May Not Be Safe


What’s in your preschool child’s lunch from home today, and will it be safe to eat when lunch time rolls around? A new study out of Texas found that only 1.6% of more than 1,000 perishable food items were at a safe temperature when lunch time arrived, even when ice packs were used.

Is your child’s lunch safe and healthy?

Many day care and preschool centers require parents to supply their children with lunch from home. These facilities may or may not be equipped with refrigeration to store these lunches, and so a great number of homemade lunches are left at room temperature for hours until they are consumed, allowing bacteria to flourish.

A research team in Texas examined 705 homemade lunches of children attending full-time child care at nine central Texas centers. The investigators measured the foods packed by the parents using a noncontact temperature gun 90 minutes before lunchtime.

A total of 276 lunches (39%) had no ice packs, 318 (45.1%) had one ice pack, and 622 (88.2%) were at nearly room temperature. Even though 91 percent of the lunches from home were in insulated plastic bags, the food inside reached a mean temperature of 63.7 degrees F.

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Few (11.8%) of the 705 lunches were stored in a refrigerator, but even these lunches were often left at room temperature for hours before they were stored for cooling. Of the 1,361 perishable items found in the lunches, only 22 (1.6%) were found to be at a safe temperature (below 39.2 degrees F), even though some of the lunches had more than one ice pack.

The study, led by Fawaz D. Almansour of the University of Texas at Austin, and colleagues, did not document any sickness among the children, although the authors warned that food-borne bacterial infections occur more often and are typically more serious in younger children.

The authors also pointed out that their findings “indicate an urgent need for parents and child care personnel to be educated in safe food practices.” Foods that should be kept cold, for example, should be thrown away if they are left at a temperature more than 39.2 degrees F for more than two hours because bacteria can produce toxins during that time that can cause food poisoning.

Nutritious, safe foods parents can pack in their child’s lunch include dried fruit such as raisins and dried cranberries, whole grain crackers, whole fresh fruit (e.g., grapes, berries, bananas), granola bars, dry roasted nuts, peanut butter and jelly, baby carrots, whole grain chips, and pickles.

To help ensure lunches from home are safe for preschool children, as well as for older children and adults who bring lunch to work, the public needs to be better educated about food safety and on how to pack lunch in a safe manner. Parents of preschool children can also talk to personnel at their child’s facility to inquire about food storage practices.

Almansour FD et al. Pediatrics 2011; 128
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service