Packing a Safe Lunch for School

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN
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Make sure your child's lunch passes from your kitchen to the school lunch room in A+ condition! Review the tips below and download: Safe Lunch Tip Sheet.

Start Off Each Day Fresh

  • If you prepare your child's lunch in the morning before school, avoid time-crunch shortcuts that can lead to foodborne illness. Make sure counter surfaces are clean and last night's food remnants are gone. This helps to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Clean your child's lunch box or lunch bag with warm soapy water before each use.

Wash Hands Often

  • Wash hands before, during and after preparing children's lunches.
  • Teach children to wash their hands before digging into lunch. For extra protection, pack moist towelettes in the lunch box or bag.

Separate Raw Meats, Seafood, and Poultry from Ready-to-Eat Foods

  • At home, store fruits, vegetables and cooked and ready-to-eat meats for kids' lunches separately from raw meats.
  • To help prevent cross-contamination, keep a supply of shelf-stable foods that don't require much preparation or refrigeration such as crackers, fresh fruits, packaged puddings and canned fruits or meats.

Mind Your Fruits and Veggies

  • In addition to washing vegetables and ready-to-eat fruits such as apples and grapes, rinse peel-and-eat fruits such as bananas and oranges. This eliminates harmful bacteria that can spread during peeling or cutting.

Cook to Proper Temperatures

  • Pack hot foods such as soup and chili in well-insulated, tightly sealed containers until ready to eat.
  • Instruct older children how to microwave a meal carefully according to package directions so that it reaches the proper internal temperature

Keep It Cool

  • If you prepare your child's lunch the night before, keep foods that can spoil in a refrigerator set below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Not sure how cool it is in your fridge? Use a refrigerator thermometer to keep tabs on the temp.
  • Perishable foods should not be out of refrigeration for more than two hours. Keep your child's lunch safe by packing it in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack to keep foods cold. As an alternative, use a frozen water bottle. It works just as well and doubles as a refreshing noon-time drink.
  • Consider replacing foods that can spoil with more shelf-stable options. Try trail mix, granola bars, bagels, carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, whole fruit, single-serve applesauce, cans of tuna or peanut butter.
  • Find out if students have access to a refrigerator at school and instruct them to put lunches in the refrigerator as soon as they get to school. Make sure children's lunches are clearly identified.

Finally, instruct your child to throw away all perishable leftovers after lunch. Lunch leftovers might seem like a good late-afternoon snack, but not all foods can go the distance. Encourage your child to throw away uneaten perishable foods right after lunch.

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