In the Bag: Keep Your Packed Lunch Safe

by in Food Safety, Healthy Tips, April 27, 2009

When trying to trying to cut calories or costs, brown-bagging your lunch is a good option. But sometimes it’s not as easy as just tossing food in a sack and being on your merry way. Here are 4 main rules to remember.

1) Chill Out
Make a plan based on your office set up. Is there access to a refrigerator? If so, is there room for your lunch every day? Would you actually want to store something you’re going to eat in there? If that’s a definite no, ice packs are another alternative. Small, reusable ice packs cost about $1 each and can keep food cold for hours (this is great choice for kids’ lunches, too). Just don’t forget to bring them home to refreeze every night.

2) Keep Bacteria Under Control
Bacteria begin to thrive on prepared foods that get above 40 degrees Fahrenheit — so keep cooked food cooled (or warmed). A sturdy thermos is smart for warm foods. It might cost you at first, but it’ll last longer (and be safer) than disposable plastic containers. Don’t leave sandwiches and salad at room temperature for more than two hours — ditto that for any leftovers from last night’s dinner.

3) Don’t Take “Brown-Bagging” Literally
Skip buying those paper bags at the grocery store each month and switch to a reusable sack. They hold up better than paper bags, too (no soggy mess in your car from accidental spills or ripped bags). Get an insulated one, if possible.

4) Know What Stays and What Goes
Pack only what you’ll eat from day to day. Stash extra granola bars, fruit and things like nuts and crackers in your desk drawer, but don’t put any yogurt, cheese, sandwiches, sliced fruit and cottage cheese that’s traveled to and from work back in your home fridge. When in doubt, throw it out! If you can leave things at the office, label them with your name and date — just don’t forget about them. That’s how mystery foods accumulate in workplace kitchens and turn communal food areas into bacteria nightmares.

    More quick tips:

  • Rather than stashing a frozen pack in a kid’s lunch, consider freezing a juice box or small bottled water. It will thaw by lunchtime and keep the foods around it chilled.
  • The cooler a food starts out, the safer it will be during transport. Making a tuna sandwich? Store the unopened canned tuna and bread slices in the fridge so they’re cold for morning prep.
  • Clean out reusable sacks every night to kill bacteria from any spills. A dash of baking soda will tackle odors, too.
  • Freeze sandwiches (but hold off on the mayo, lettuce or tomatoes till later) to keep them colder longer.

This USDA article has some more lunch-safety info.

TELL US: What are some of your favorite lunch-packing tips?

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Comments (13)

  1. greenish says:

    try to think about using non plastic lunch bags. they trap bacteria and are impossible to clean, ever wonder why they smell so bad?! Gross. I use a Hero Bag zipper top cotton lunch bag – l love them and they are machine washable.

  2. carma says:

    I have a large lunch box and a freezer pack I carry everyday. It keeps my frozen foods frozen and my berries fresh everyday. When I have left over dinners for lunch, I always pack it in a glass pyrex.

  3. lj says:

    Instead of plastic bags, I use Wrap-N-Mat ( It has a coating on the inside that prevents leakage and fabric on the inside. It’s re-usable and completely washable. Plus it doubles as a placemat. If I have something that oozes, like pb&J, I wrap it in a little parchment paper before putting it in the wrap-n-mat since the parchment paper is recyclable.

  4. Jill says:

    Thanks people for the tips on the Hero Bags and the Wrap-N-Mat. I had never heard of them before. Good to know!

  5. Betsy says:

    I cut down on the number of sandwich bags I use by packing my sandwich, carrot sticks, cookie etc all in one bag. I use wax paper bags when I can find them.

  6. Claudia says:

    the correct webpage is

  7. Lily says:

    Check out They have tons of great options for reusable lunch bags, containers, bottles, snack bags- just about everything you need to have a zero-waste lunch and keep down the exposure to many of the unhealthy chemicals found in the traditional plastic lunch ware. I have ordered several items from their site and given many as gifts. I always receive a great quality product and all of it is eco-friendly. They carry wrap-N-mat as well as other versions of the reusable snack bags.

  8. Wendy says:

    Bacteria start, not bacteria starts! The word "bacteria" is plural; bacterium is singular. Does Healthy Eats need an editor?

  9. guest says:

    You might love to try Happy Tiffin's stainless steel container. Unlike plastic bags it does not leak, its totally 100% BPA free as well as leech free. Don't worry its really portable, so you can bring it with you anywhere. There are many design, styles and sizes to choose from so, don't hesitate to try it. And if you're not satisfied with the result of your experience with this stainless steel container, you can return the item back as long as it is in perfect condition and within the limit of time. But I'm sure you'll going to love it.

  10. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.Keep working ,great job!

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