10 Ways to Keep School Lunch Safe

Chances are, if you’re stuck in the rut of making school lunch day after day you’re more worried about what to put in it than avoiding food-borne illness, but each year an unknown number of kids are sickened by food that sat in the cubby or locker too long. No wonder PB&J on Wonder Bread got so popular; it’s unlikely any living creature could survive in that stuff.
Here are some tips to avoid feeding your kiddo a petri dish full of micro-organisms.
  1. Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Use insulated lunch boxes with a thermos or freeze pack as needed.
  2. Life begins at 40, meaning dangerous bacteria grow best between 40 degrees and 140 degrees — pretty common in packed lunches that sit in warm classrooms for hours.
  3. Send pantry-safe foods packed in easy-to-open containers, like tuna or almond butter that can be eaten with bread or crackers.
  4. Boxed milk or juice sold unrefrigerated is a safe bet. You can freeze these (as well as a water bottle) ahead of time and use them as cold packs. As they defrost they’ll keep the lunch chilled.
  5. Sandwiches made with lunch meat, hummus, tuna or egg salad can be made the night before and frozen; they’ll defrost by lunch time.
  6. Ditto for leftovers from dinner the night before. If they love your homemade mac ‘n cheese, freeze a portion and pop it in tomorrow’s lunch.
  7. Dried and fresh fruits like apples, bananas, oranges and grapes  can be kept safely at room temperature. But all fresh fruits, even those that will be peeled, must be washed.
  8. Teach your child to toss the leftovers. Food saved for an after school snack may be teeming with bacteria by the end of the day.
  9. Wash your hands and countertops before making lunch. Even if you’re bleary-eyed and half asleep.
  10. Encourage kids to wash hands before eating, but if it’s not possible provide a small bottle of hand sanitizer for quick de-bugging.

And remember; even if your packed lunch isn’t perfect chances are it beats that old school staple, mystery meat.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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