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Back to School: Pack a Safe and Healthy Lunch

School bus

Officials with the National School Lunch Program are working hard to ensure that the meals that schools serve are more nutritious than ever, but not every child is going to participate for one reason or another. If you pack a school lunch for your child, I’m sure the first goal is that they eat it (!) but ultimately you also want it to be healthy and safe.

Safe? Yes – if you pack a lunch without taking a few precautions, your child could be at risk for a food-borne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year 48 million illnesses (1 in 6 people affected) in the US can be traced to food-borne pathogens. Children are at a higher risk, particularly young ones.

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“When you’re packing a school lunch, it’s important to think about the perishability of the foods you’re making,” says Rutgers University professor Don Schaffner. “Perishable foods can remain at room temperature for no more than two hours – one in the summer due to the heat. Properly refrigerated foods can last a long time, but most school children won’t have access to a refrigerator where they can store their lunchbox.”

The Institute of Food Technologists, a nonprofit scientific organization focused on the science of food offers advice for parents packing lunch for their kids:

  • Start each day with a clean box or bag (clean it the night before with warm soapy water so you aren’t rushed during the chaos of a typical school morning.) Choose insulated, vinyl lunch bags which are better at keeping foods cool versus paper bags or metal lunch boxes.
  • Choose secure packing materials, such as sealable, single-use sandwich bags that can be disposed of when used, or reusable plastic wear that is dish-washer safe.
  • As much as possible, opt for foods that are not perishable, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Single-serve fruits in pre-packaged containers, such as apple sauce or fruit cocktail, are also great options.
  • If you do have a food that is best kept cold, pack it separately with a cold pack. For example, pack the bread for a sandwich in one container and the meat/cheese in another that sits close to the cold pack. Remember though that these cold packs are designed to keep cold food cold – they cannot cool down food that is warm. Start off with properly refrigerated food. Remember to wash the cold pack each night with warn soapy water before returning it to the freezer.
  • For hot foods like chili, soup or stew, use an insulated container. Before storing the food, fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it and then add the hot food. Keep the container closed tightly until lunchtime to help minimize the risk of bacterial contamination and growth.

Institute of Food Technologists
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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