The days are getting shorter and the leaves are turning yellow, as the old cliché goes. It’s that time of year. Teachers are decorating their classrooms, children are squeezing the last days of summer for every free moment that they can, and parents are going to Walmart and Target to buy pencils and binders. That’s right: it’s back to school season once again.
Going back to school means that many kids will be eating lunch away from home five days a week. That’s a change that brings some unique food safety considerations with it. Some kids will bring their lunches from home with them; others will be eating food served in the cafeteria. Teachers, lunch ladies, and administrators will be there to help them, but they’ll also be making some food safety decisions on their own. A bit scary, isn’t it?
Luckily, there’s a lot that can be done by you as parents on your end to make it more likely that your little ones don’t get sick from the food that they eat. One of the best things that you can do is to drill them on good habits at home so that they can learn good food safety practices while they’re away.
The first and most important thing, of course, is to teach them to wash their hands before they eat. Wash them right, too; that means at least twenty seconds with hot water and plenty of soap. There’s all kinds of different techniques that you can use to wash your hands, but I like to rub my palms together like a greedy bad guy in an old cartoon. Make sure they know to get the back of their hands and between their fingers as well. If your kids are going to eat lunch somewhere that hot soapy water isn’t available, send them along with wipes or antibacterial gel to clean up with instead.
The bacteria that cause food poisoning thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In as little as two hours, these harmful bacteria can reach dangerous levels.
Keep cold things cold if you can. Items like lunch meat, eggs, cheese, and yogurt can quickly grow bacteria if they’ve not kept cold. You can avert this by packing them alongside reusable cold packs – think the kind that you might use to ice a sore muscle for physical therapy. You can also freeze juice boxes or water bottles and pack them alongside the lunch. They should be thawed by the time that your kid sits down to lunch, and they’ll keep meat and dairy items cold enough that any bacteria present won’t have the wherewithal to multiply. The USDA recommends that, “If the lunch/snack contains perishable food items like luncheon meats, eggs, cheese, or yogurt, make sure to pack it with at least two cold sources. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly so perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long.” Getting an insulated lunch box instead of a paper bag helps with this; it’ll provide a sealed container, which helps to keep out bacteria that might be in the air or on different surfaces in the environment, and it’ll slow the loss of heat, trapping the cold air that you need to keep a ham sandwich safe.
In a similar fashion, you should try to keep hot things hot. This goes for soups or chilis that you might send along to have at school. In order to prevent the growth of bacteria, you need to keep the food in question above a temperature of 140 Fahrenheit. To do this, you’ll need insulated Tupperware or a thermos. Be sure to preheat any containers before you send them along with your kids; heat some water up to 140 degrees, put it in the thermos or container beforehand, and let it sit for three minutes before transferring the soup. If you’re doing this with leftovers, remember not to reheat them more than once – cycling foods through cold and hot states before you eat them allows for transition periods where temperatures are suitable for bacteria to grow.
Most parents don’t have time to do this all in the morning; getting yourself ready for your day and making sure your kids are dressed, washed, and equipped with everything they need for school is more than enough. One way to get around the morning bottleneck is to prepare foods the night before. If you do this, be sure to put the food in the fridge overnight. Leaving out bag lunches on the counter provides pathogens a prime opportunity to grow. Similarly, you should have your kids store their lunches in a fridge once they arrive at school if they have access to one. If they don’t, tell them to store their lunch in a cool, dark place, like a locker. Sunshine and heat should be avoided until they’re ready to eat the lunch.
For parents packing school lunches, here are some tips from the USDA:
- With perishable foods (like meat, eggs, cheese, or yogurt), include at least two cold sources (like a freezer pack)
- Frozen water or juice can help keep perishable foods cold. Just freeze the water or juice overnight. Be sure to include at least one other freezer pack.
- Paper bags alone won’t keep perishable foods cold enough. Insulated lunch boxes or soft-sided lunch bags can help keep in the cool, keeping cold foods cold.
Back to school means more than just school lunches. If you’re the parent of a young athlete, it’ll probably fall to you at least once a season to come up with snacks for the team. For items that aren’t individually packaged, you’ll probably want to prepare a cooler full of ice to keep the orange slices below 40 degrees Fahrenheit – the temperature at which bacteria start to wake up and breed. Try to serve food that’s been separated into individual containers or packaging, as situations where everyone’s eating from the same bowl are primetime for pathogens seeking chances to jump from one child to another.
Follow these rules, and you can do a lot to push back against the chance that your child will get sick from foods at school. There’s enough to worry about between school supply shopping, parent-teacher conferences, sports and music practice, and everything else without a case of food poisoning in the mix. By putting these basic tips to use, however, you can rest easy and enjoy not having them around the house all day long.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)