Time and space constraints in schools mean that students often toss lunch bags into a shared classroom bin, cubbies, lockers, or other storage spaces. Sometimes bins are kept outdoors, exposing lunches to heat or cold. Most schools simply cannot offer students space in a refrigerator to keep their food safe from bacteria or cross-contamination. Parents can prevent foodborne illness by practicing a few simple safety habits:
Pack for posterity: The foods that can "keep" the longest are a better bet for lunch bags.
- Minimize highly-perishable foods, like mayonnaise, eggs, butter, milk-based products, and even those popular lunch meat combos kids seem to love.
- Opt for non-perishable foods and drinks - water, whole and dried fruits, crackers and chips, cereals and breads, or nuts and seeds.
- Sandwiches make an easy go-to choice, but keep in mind that lunch meats and tuna require refrigeration to stay safe. Old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly may be nixed from many menus because of fear of food allergies, but it is a natural in a sack lunch because it won't go bad.
Pack with temperature in mind: Depending on schedules, your child's lunch will need to "keep" for at least 2 to 3 hours.
- If food should be eaten cold, use frozen freezer packs or an insulated lunch box.
- If food should be eaten hot, heat food before your child leaves for school and store in a heat-preserving container or thermos.
- Freeze a juice box or yogurt snack ahead of time and use these items to keep other foods cool until mealtime.
- Consider an insulated lunchbox or freezable gel packs to keep lunches at their safest temperatures.
Practice a safe lunchtime routine with your child: Remind your child of the habits they need to practice each day when they hit the cafeteria.
- Talk to your child about the lunch bag storage situation and remind them to store their lunch in a cool, dry place out of the sun and away from other heat sources.
- Discuss hygiene, going over the right way to wash your hands or how to use a sanitary hand wipe before and after their meal.
- Remind your child to throw out perishable leftovers instead of toting them home. Too many moms and dads have found rotten, stinky surprises in their children's lunch bags!
Sort out sharing rules: You try your best to raise generous kids who share without prompting, and then turn and tell them not to share their lunch food or drinks!
- In an age-appropriate way, explain to your child why sharing a drink bottle or straw is not a good idea (risk of spreading germs).
- Talk to your child about why you probably shouldn't swap snacks with a schoolmate (you never know who's allergic to what).
Keep a clean, tidy lunch bag: While you can't control what happens to your child's lunch during the school day, you can work together with your child to keep their lunch bags clean.
- Follow manufacturer's instructions for cleaning lunch bags.
- Teach your child to wipe down and clean their own lunch bag inside and out after they've eaten their school meals.
Food safety starts at home: Follow smart food safety practices when preparing lunches at home.
- Thoroughly wash your hands before and after handling food.
- Wash fruits and vegetables well.
- Keep kitchen surfaces sanitized and have plenty of laundered dishcloths or towels on hand.
- Pay attention to the "use by" dates on food packaging.
- Do not reuse plastic bags and food wrappers.