• Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Lunch box safety

    A study from the University of Texas was recently published in the journal, Pediatrics, and was widely covered on morning talk shows and in web articles. Basically, these scientists went into several pre-schools and daycare centers in Central Texas and took the temperature of perishable foods in kids’ lunch boxes about an hour and a half before lunchtime. What they found was very concerning. Only about 12% of the lunches were stored in refrigerators. (My lunch was never stored in the fridge at school, either). Most lunches were stored in the air-conditioned classrooms in cubbies. Over 97% of the meats, 99% of the dairy and 98% of the perishable veggies were at unsafe temperatures, in the DANGER ZONE of temperatures between 40 and 140°F. Realize this study was conducted in Central Texas in the fall of the year. The outside temperature was 81°F at 9:00 and 9:30 am, so it’s probably a worst-case scenario for temperatures.

    Furthermore, the food disease specialists that were interviewed in this article by Food Safety News said that they didn’t know of any cases where children were sickened by their packed lunches, but they were still concerned because the sickness would be isolated incidents and probably not reported. My opinion is similar in that, school lunches getting above 40°F for a very short time is probably not going to cause sickness most of the time, but this was an hour and a half before lunch. It also made me think that many ‘stomach bugs’ that kids get are packed in their lunches and sent with them to school.

    So, what to do?

    My first thought was to just put an ice pack in the lunch box. Duh! BUT, over 60% of the lunches in the study contained an ice-pack, some contained 2 or more. (Some contained five… I don’t really know how there was any room for food).
    The first step is to keep their food clean and cold for as long as possible. Minimize the time in the DANGER ZONE.

    Make sure you have an insulated lunch box/bag for your kids’ lunch. One website suggested storing them in the freezer, so the ice packs aren’t wasting energy by cooling down the lunch box (Note to all the Sheldon Cooper’s out there: let’s not get into true thermodynamics today). You could make their lunch the night before and store the whole thing in the fridge overnight, then stick an icepack from the freezer in there on your way out the door.

    Make sure your ice packs are as cold as possible. And, use real ice packs or blue ice. Baggies with ice cubes are not going to stay as cold. Some lunches in the study contained frozen teething rings (no joke) or frozen juice boxes. Those aren’t going to work either. Buy two or three ice packs and rotate them in the freezer, so that the one you are putting in the lunch box is as cold as possible.

    For older kids, you can make a build-your-own-lunch. Pack the meat in its own baggie and make sure it lies right next to the ice pack. It will stay coldest that way. Then, pack the bread, cheese, and veggies separate. Remember that veggies, like lettuce, also need to stay cold. Bread is a good insulator; put it closest to the opening of the lunch box. Also, don’t use a lunch box that is too large. All the air in the extra space in a large lunch box is hard to keep cold. 

    If you are worried about processed meats, you should check out my blog posts on processed meats or nitrates.
    The use by date on this package of ham
    is at the top under the word 'RESEALABLE'
    Pack as fresh and clean a lunch as possible. When preparing kids’ lunches, make sure you wash your hands (especially grubby little helper’s hands). Make sure the counter top has been washed. Wash the inside of the lunch box out. Keep your own fridge as cold as possible and check the dates on your deli meats. You don’t need to store unopened deli meats in the fridge for longer than two weeks, and once you open a package of deli meats, you need to use it all in 3 to 5 days. Remember that every time you put your hand in the package, you are potentially exposing the meat to germs, so make sure your hands are clean. Hot dogs are another popular option for kids’ lunches, but treat them like a deli meat. If you only go to the store once a month, freeze your extra deli meats until you are ready to use them.
    Some scientists suggest that the condiments on the sandwich help minimize bacterial growth. Mayonnaise and MiracleWhip are acidic, and mustard can also slow bacterial growth, so adding these may help, too.

    Another option is to only pack non-perishable items in kids’ lunch boxes. I am not saying that means cutting out meat. Rather than a ham or turkey sandwich, pack beef jerky or beef sticks with crackers, cheese, and fruit (How Mediterranean!). There are some shelf-stable (don’t need refrigeration) pepperoni products out there. Some types of summer sausage don’t need refrigeration. Occasionally packing a peanut butter (and jelly) sandwich may also be an option, but some kids have peanut allergies.

    You could always ask your kids’ teachers about keeping their lunch in the fridge.

    I hope this post helps you to feel better about fixing your child's lunch for school. If you have any ideas for lunches, comments or questions, please comment below.



    1. This is a great article for mom's!!! Good job on relating to your target audience!! I am going to go post it on some mom's wall's now :)

    2. Most of the schools doest not have fridge available. So, I prefer avoiding meat, diary and some veggie in lunch box for children.

    3. my kids go to school at 8 and they dont eat lunch till 11 will hotdogs stay good until then.

      1. I would make sure they are good and cold when they leave. Maybe put an ice pack in with them. Pack the hotdog separate from the bun.