Foodborne illness isn’t cool but packed lunches should be

Two children peeking into a lunch bag.
Two children peeking into a lunch bag.

New studies have shown that it’s likely necessary to pack more than one ice pack in your child’s bagged lunch to ensure that food stays at its proper temperatures.  Just because you pack your child’s ham and cheese sandwich and apple slices in an insulated lunch bag with one ice pack in it doesn’t mean the food is staying chilled enough.  Food science experts at the University of Texas in Austin tested the temperatures of foods in over 700 packed lunches that belonged to pre-schoolers who attended daycare.  They found that nearly 40% of parents didn’t even put an ice pack in the lunch and that more than 90% of lunches tested contained perishable foods that had entered the danger zone–that is, those foods had reached temperatures over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes them risky to eat.  When food temperatures deviate from that safe zone, there’s a greater likelihood that the food becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, potentially sickening the person who eats it.  This is especially significant when it comes to children, as kids aged 3 or younger are 4.5 times more likely to suffer from a foodborne illness.  So what can you do to ensure that lunches are packed as safely as possible for your children?  Read on.

  • How to safely pack a lunch that contains foods that should be chilled:
    • Use an insulated lunch bag/tote to help keep food cooler.  Some even have compartments to hold the next item on this list, which is…
    • Ice, ice, baby!  It’s recommended that a packed lunch has more than one ice pack in it to keep food properly chilled.
    • Make juices and water serve as makeshift ice packs.  Sending a bottle of water or a juice box in the lunch tote?  Freeze the drink overnight, and then put it in the tote before your child goes to school.  The frozen drink–which will thaw out during the day so your child can drink it later on–will help keep food in the lunch tote cool.
    • Check on fridge availability.  Ask school personnel if there is a refrigerator your child can put their lunch in until lunchtime.
    • Remember which foods need to be refrigerated.  Meats, cheeses, sliced fruits, and milk should all be kept chilled.  If your child’s lunch includes one or more of these foods, make sure their lunch is properly chilled and can stay chilled until your child’s lunch period.
  • No ice packs in the freezer? These tasty, healthy lunch items don’t need to be chilled:
    • A peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole-wheat bread, or peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers
    • Individually packaged servings of pineapple chunks, mandarin oranges, or cinnamon applesauce
    • Certain fresh fruits such as bananas and navel oranges
    • A serving of antioxidant-rich dried cranberries
    • Cherry or grape tomatoes
    • Bottled water or a juice box of 100% fruit juice

These tips are ideal for adults as well as children–so if you take a packed lunch to the office, it’s a good idea for you to make sure your own lunch stays properly chilled, too.  Want to learn more about preparing a healthy lunch and packing it as safely as possible?  Talk to a nutritionist or wellness coach.  You may even have access to these kinds of professionals through your benefits plan at work.  Check into whether or not your employer offers the services of a company like Health Advocate, whose perks can include nutrition and wellness coaching.

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