School Bells Are Ringing - Is Your Child's Packed Lunch Safe?

Posted: September 1, 2011

Like many parents, you probably send your children off to school every day with a home-packed lunch that is healthy and catered to your children’s individual tastes. But if that lunch isn’t also packed and handled with food safety in mind, it could wind up making your child sick.

A study in the September 2011 Pediatrics journal revealed some interesting findings – more than 90% of home-packed lunches for 700 children in a Texas daycare had reached unsafe temperatures by the time the they were eaten.

When children arrive at school, most place their lunches in their desk or locker, all of which are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and in the middle of the danger zone. If these lunches are left at room temperature for more than two hours, it places them at increased risk of making children sick. While many children survive eating food above these temperatures, it only takes one time to make them sick. When their immune system is compromised for one reason or another, they may not be able to fight the infection from food.

The good news is there are a few simple steps you can take to help prevent children from coming down with a foodborne illness and the uncomfortable effects of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and chills.  And while rare, the worst-case scenario of foodborne illness can be death if children eat specific bacteria or a toxin produced from a bacterium.

It’s usually easier to keep food cold rather than hot; however, it is next to impossible to keep a lunch below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a non-insulated container, like a brown paper or plastic bag. Using an insulated lunch container, along with a box of frozen milk or juice and 1 or 2 frozen ice packs will help to keep the temperature of the food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The beverages should thaw within three to four hours.

If your children enjoy sandwiches, freezing them overnight can help to keep the temperature below the danger zone throughout the next morning. Certain sandwich fillings freeze better than others, including cheddar and cream cheeses, sliced meats, poultry, and cooked egg yolk. Try to avoid sandwich fillings that contain raw vegetables, egg whites, jelly, and mayonnaise, as these tend not to freeze well. Be sure to use a freezer bag, not a thin plastic baggie, for the sandwich, and pack any lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickle in separate bag without freezing. The frozen sandwich will thaw within a couple of hours, just in time for growling stomachs.

Other foods, such as chicken strips, should be cooked thoroughly the night before, and then placed in a sealable plastic bag and directly into the refrigerator. The next morning just as your child is ready to leave for school, take the bag out of the refrigerator and place it into the insulated lunch container along with the frozen beverage and ice packs.

Taking hot foods to school and keeping the temperature above 140 degrees Fahrenheit presents some challenges. If your children wish to eat a hot entrée for lunch, especially in the winter, rinse a thermos with hot water, and then fill it with boiling (212 degrees Fahrenheit) soup, stew, or chili.

If your children should have leftovers, instruct them not to eat any potentially hazardous leftovers on their way home from school or for an after-school snack, since they will no longer be safe.

For more information on handling foods safely, call your local Penn State Extension office or visit Penn State Extension Food Safety.