If your child will not be paying for lunch in the cafeteria, you likely put some thought each day into tasty lunch box fare. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers recommendations to parents for improving lunch box safety as well. They advise putting a few extra items on your school meal shopping trips to keep eating homemade meals at school safe.
“Every day, parents focus on the health and safety of their children, and this focus includes how they prepare and pack lunches,” said Sandra Eskin, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Because children are particularly at risk for serious foodborne illness, food safety must be at the top of the list when preparing lunches for school and field trips.”
Of course school lunch times are short and it’s hard to pack a lunch that will give kids the fuel they need that they can eat in such a short window. To learn more about winning lunchbox strategies check out Seattle’s Child’s article “How to pack a good meal your kid can eat quickly.”
Safety additions to lunch box planning
Then a you start stocking up on school lunch items and thinking about lunch boxes for the 2022-23 school years, consider having these extras recommended by the USDA onhand:
- Clean and sanitize surfaces and utensils: Clean your prep area before you start that school lunch. A recent USDA study showed that cross-contamination was prevalent in the kitchen during food prep. Therefore, be sure to wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with soap and after preparing each food item and before proceeding to the next item. A homemade bleach-based solution of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach to one gallon of water can be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils in the kitchen.
- Different colored cutting boards: Separate meat and poultry from ready-to-eat foods (such as fruits, vegetables, cheeses, etc.) to avoid cross-contamination during your food preparation.
- Food thermometers for food prep: If you are cooking a frozen item for your child’s lunch, use a food thermometer to check whether a meal has reached a safe temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. Beware: some frozen foods are not fully cooked or not ready-to-eat, but have browned breading, grill marks or other signs that suggest that they are cooked. Make sure they are cooked to a safe internal temperature: meat (whole beef, pork and lamb) 145 F with a 3-minute rest; ground meats 160 F; poultry (ground and whole) 165 F; eggs 160 F; fish and shellfish 145 F; and leftovers and casseroles 165 F.
- Insulated lunch boxes and gel packs: Perishable food can be unsafe to eat by lunch time if packed in a paper bag. Keep your meal cool by storing it in an insulated bag. Place a frozen gel pack, combined with a frozen juice box or bottle of water to keep food cold and to avoid the “Danger Zone” (temperatures between 40 F and 140 F where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause illness).
- Insulated containers If hot liquids such as soup, chili or stew are on the menu, use an insulated container to keep items hot at 140 F and above. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then pour in the hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime.
- Handwashing aides: Hand wipes and 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizers are ideal for children to clean their hands before they eat when water and soap are not available.
More food safety tips
Read more about USDA’s four steps to food safety and get your food safe lunch questions answered by calling the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), email MPHotline@usda.gov or chat live at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.