School is upon us again, and with that exciting news comes a whole lot of packed lunches which can become more of a hassle then many parents are prepared for. While packing a lunch for your child’s day is in no way rocket science, there are actually a lot of risks involved in making food and leaving it in a lunch box for hours for your child to eat later. Cross-contamination and food poisoning risks are high and certainly not something you want your child to encounter. If you’re not careful, then you might accidentally pack these consequences in with your child’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so be sure to follow a few simple rules in order to keep your child happy and healthy this school year.
- Clean the lunch box thoroughly before packing it with the day’s food!
Small amounts of food spillage can turn into a bacteria magnet. A harmless drop of cheese in the corner of a lunch box can quickly become a massive food poisoning risk to your child without either of you knowing it. Be sure that you scrub your child’s lunch box with hot water and soap regularly in order to avoid bacteria contamination.
- Think before you pack.
Different foods spoil at different rates and under different circumstances, so you want to be sure that you’re adding food to your child’s lunch box that has a small chance of spoiling. Think about adding crackers and chips; uncut, dried, or canned fruits; whole, raw veggies; hard cheeses; canned meats and fish; individual serving sizes of pudding, apple sauce, juice, etc. You want to be sure to avoid foods that spoil easily, such as milk products, egg products, meats that aren’t canned, and a good deal of leftover meals.
- Keep the food cold, even while packed.
Cold packs, even ziplock bags filled with ice, work wonders on maintaining a healthy packed lunch. All lunches that have been packed at home should be kept reasonably cold throughout the day in order to avoid bacteria growth. Using insulated lunch bags with an ice pack inside are great ways to keep lunch cold, but even using paper backs and double-bagging is a good way to create additional insulation.
- Refrigerate the food if at all possible!
If your child’s school, daycare, or specific classroom has a refrigerator, take advantage of it! Ask the teachers if you can use it. You want to keep hot foods hot and cold foods col, so use a thermos if you are packing your child a hot lunch, or make sure it is properly refrigerated at school and then properly heated in time for lunch. When hot foods cool and then sit at room temperature, it’s a bacteria breeding ground and potentially harmful bacteria can thrive.
- Do not reuse disposable products
Reusing paper bags, sandwich bags, ziplock bags, plastic wrap, or tin foil might sound like a great way to save a little bit of money, but these items just happen to be fantastic places for bacteria to grow. Food gets caught in small creases and crevices, and bacteria grows unhindered from there. The best thing to do is use new packaging material every day, if possible, in order to discard as much contaminated packaging as possible.
- Do not reuse leftover lunch for tomorrow
Leave the leftovers for the trash. While some kids like to keep a portion of their lunch for an afternoon snack, which is usually fine as long as they’re only saving the nonperishable items. Encourage your child to throw out the remainder of their food once they’ve finished lunch, and perhaps pack an extra non-perishable box of food for them if they want a snack later. Additionally, should your child bring home uneaten food for their day’s lunch, be sure to discard it. Don’t reuse food that’s been left in the box all day, as it may be contaminated with bacteria already.
Food contamination is a real problem and can occur by accident in any child’s school lunch. Should your child ever suffer from food poisoning, and if you believe they may have gotten an infection from the food you packed, contact your doctor’s office right away for treatment and be sure to report the issue. Keep any food you believe to have caused an infection preserved so it might be tested.
As a parting recommendation, our friends at FoodSafety.gov remind us to:
“Back to school, back to the books, back in the saddle or back in the car for all the parents. The new school year means its back to packing lunches and after-school snacks for students, scouts, athletes, dancers, and all the other children who carry these items to and from home. One ‘back’ you do not want to reacquaint children with, however, is Bacteria.
Bacteria that cause foodborne illness, commonly known as food poisoning, grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In just two hours, these microorganisms can multiply to dangerous levels, which can cause foodborne illness. To make sure lunches and snacks are safe for those you pack for, you should follow the USDA’s four steps to food safety: Clean – Separate – Cook – and Chill.”
A Word on Food Allergies
We always want to do our best to protect our children, especially when they have food allergies. The University of Rhode Island’s Food Safety Education department recommends:
“If you have a food allergy, always be prepared for unintentional exposures.
- Wear a medical bracelet or necklace stating you have a food allergy.
- Carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine (i.e. Epi pen).
- Seek medical help immediately if you are experiencing a food allergic reaction.
- Know how to read food ingredient labels.
For more information, visit: www.foodallergy.org/file/tips-avoid-allergen.pdf
- Know how to avoid cross-contact.
For more information, visit: www.foodallergy.org/file/avoid-cross-contact.pdf
- Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is mistakenly transferred from a food containing the allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen.
- Cooking does not reduce or eliminate food allergens.
- Carefully cleaning all surfaces and utensils that have come in contact t with the food allergen using soap and water and manual scrubbing action.
- Sanitizing gels or water alone will not remove an allergen.”