Packing a Safe Lunch

by in Back to School, Food Safety, August 31, 2011
kids looking into lunchbox
Feed them well, keep them safe.

A new study published in the August issue of Pediatrics may change the way you pack your child’s lunch this school year. Find out the shocking results and what you can do to keep your child safe from food-borne illness.

The Study
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin tested temperatures of pre-school lunches in 9 Texas day care centers. Lunches of 235 kids with at least one perishable food items were checked 90 minutes before lunch. The researchers also noted whether lunches contained ice packs. The results were astounding:

  • 39% of the lunches had no ice packs.
  • 45.1% of the lunches had at least 1 ice pack.
  • 88.2% of the lunches were found to be at a hazardous temperature.
  • 1.6% of perishable items checked were found to be safe.
  • Even lunches with multiple ice packs were found to be at unsafe temperatures.

This means that most kids (at least from the sample studied here) were eating food that was unsafe. This is especially scary since we’re talking about young children who are more susceptible to becoming sick from food bugs due to a weaker immune system. So what’s a parent to do to keep their kiddies safe?

Take Action
As a parent, my first reaction was, “yikes!” which is probably not far off from what you’re thinking right now. But there are actions that can be taken to help keep food safe.

  • Start clean: Parents or caregivers packing the lunch have the opportunity to easily contaminate the food being packed. This means that it’s important to start making lunch by washing your hands properly and by making sure you’re working with clean counter-tops, utensils, dishes, and anything else that’s going to touch your child’s food.
  • Start cold: I pack my 3 kids lunches the night before and store the food in the refrigerator so it’s super cold. Items like bottles of juice and water can be placed in the freezer and be used like an additional ice pack.
  • Talk to the school: The ice packs may not have worked as well as expected, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Talk to the school about having a cooler for each classroom— they’re not as expensive as refrigerators and don’t use extra electricity. Another option for the cooler states is to place lunches outdoors once the temperature outside is about 37 degrees or lower.
  • Check the lunch hour: Some kids eat lunch at 10:20 am (yes, I’ve had clients who eat lunch this early!) and some are scheduled to eat lunch at 2:00 pm. It’s important to ask your school what time lunch is scheduled. If it’s earlier in the day, the bacteria has less time to multiply on the food while the later lunches may deserve to be refrigerated. This is something you may decide to discuss with your child’s school if there is limited refrigerator space.

Pack Safely
Packing food that doesn’t need refrigeration can become challenging, especially if your child loves mayo-based salads or deli meats. Below you will find some healthy options.

  • Aseptically packed soy milk or low fat milk or chocolate milk.
  • Whole fruit like apples, bananas, peaches, plums, oranges, uncut strawberries.
  • For older kids, whole and unpeeled veggies like grape tomatoes and or Kirby cucumbers
  • Single-serve cans of tuna or vacuum-sealed packs of tuna or salmon.
  • Sandwich with nut butters like peanut butter, soy nut butter, sunflower seed butter, or almond butter.
  • Whole grain cereal with one of the aseptically packed milk options listed above.
  • Make your own trail mix with dried fruit, whole grain cereal, and nuts (if allowable).
  • Make your own healthy muffins with wholesome ingredients.
  • Cheese (like Laughing Cow or Baby Bel that don’t require refrigeration) and whole grain crackers.

TELL US: How will you safely pack your child’s lunch?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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Comments (67)

  1. heather says:

    I've been reading about this study, I hope it makes schools pay attention and offer cold places for kids to store their lunch!

  2. sarah says:

    I keep juice boxes in the freezer and pack them with my son's lunch, by the time he gets to work the juice is slushy and fun to drink and his lunch is cold

    • tobyamidor says:

      Hi Sarah,
      That's another great tip! A frozen water bottle or juice makes a fun kids drink and helps keep lunch cold too. Thanks for your comment!
      -Toby

  3. [...] How to Pack a Safe School Lunch [...]

  4. [...] How to Pack a Safe School Lunch [...]

  5. Pamela says:

    Sometimes I wonder how paranoid this kind of article is. I am really OCD about doing it safely, but with all the parents who you say aren't I'm not hearing about ANY illnesses from these lunches. Maybe building up a little immunity is a good thing? :)

  6. Lynne Carpenter says:

    I have read that it is not safe to freeze water bottles. The same would apply for anything in a bottle I assume. must have something to do with the plastic. Juice boxs seem like a great idea!

  7. Jill says:

    I use a PackIt lunch sack for my son. The whole thing is made from freezer pack material. It really does stay cold for hours longer than just an insulated bag with an ice pack inside.
    I stick the PackIt bag in the freezer at night and fill it with his lunch items in the morning before he heads to school.

  8. Jan says:

    When packing fresh fruit such as strawberries, peaches, grapes, cherries, etc. I put them in the freezer when i wake up so they get frozen, but not rock solid. I do the same with her drink. She loves the icy fruit for lunch & slushy juice after having a hot recess! This reassures me that her lunch is staying called because she likes mayo & lunchmeat or tunafish! I still put in a fun shaped freezer packs since she has a later lunch.

    The packIt lunch sack sounds like a great idea, I am going to look into purchasing a few! Thanks!

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