With many children already back at school and others returning soon, parents and caregivers will again be faced with decisions on what food items they should pack for their child’s school lunch. Oklahoma’s current heat wave can impact food choices for those children who bring lunch from home rather than eating a prepared lunch from the school cafeteria. State health officials are reminding parents to practice basic food safety when preparing a lunch to send to school.
“It’s really simple to make a safe lunch but it can easily be overlooked in the morning rush,” said K.C. Ely, director of Consumer Protection for the Oklahoma State Department of Health. “Remember to start clean, keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot through the lunch period. In Oklahoma, our biggest concern is keeping foods cold enough to prevent the growth of bacteria.”
The good news is that very often a healthy lunch is also a safe lunch.
“Most fruits and vegetables do not spoil at room temperature,” said Ely. “Low-fat milk is available in boxes that don’t need refrigeration until opened. There are many healthy choices that are easily included in a packed lunch.”
The risk with a packed lunch is that food such as milk, meats and cheese may grow bacteria if exposed to unclean food preparation practices followed by several hours in an improperly cooled lunch bag. A recent University of Texas study of 700 pre-school children showed that more than nine out of 10 of these items were kept at temperatures considered unsafe. They also found that even the lunches that included ice packs or were stored in a refrigerator were still usually warm enough to pose a concern.
Keep food safety in mind and follow these basic precautions to prevent illness:
- Keep everything clean when packing the lunch. Use hot, soapy water to clean hands, clean preparation surfaces, and clean utensils. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food. Wash insulated lunch bags with warm soapy water after each use.
- Use an insulated lunch box to help keep foods cold. Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes are best for keeping perishable foods chilled. You can also use a thermos to keep milk or juice cold until lunchtime. Perishable foods should not be out of refrigeration for more than two hours
- Use freezer gel packs that are widely available in stores. If you cannot get freezer gel packs, freeze a juice box or plastic water bottle overnight and put that into your lunch box next to your sandwich.
- Keep your lunch in the coolest place possible! If there is a refrigerator at school, put your lunch in there. If not keep it out of the sun and away from the heat.
- Pack shelf-stable foods, especially if you have a brown paper bag lunch. These food items include fresh fruits and vegetables, crackers, peanut butter sandwiches, canned meats, shelf-stable cheeses, packaged pudding, and canned fruits and juices.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Blot dry with a paper towel before packing them in your child’s lunch.
- Use a thermos to keep soup, chili and stew hot. Use an insulated bottle stored in an insulated lunch box. Fill the bottle with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated bottle closed until lunch to keep the food hot.
- Make sure kids wash their hands before eating lunch. Encourage at least 20 seconds– about the time it takes to sing two choruses of the "Happy Birthday" song – of hand washing in warm soapy water. Include a moist towelette or hand sanitizer in your child’s lunch box.
- Discard perishable leftovers after lunch. Pack non-perishable food items for an afternoon snack. Discard all used food packaging since bacteria can grow on plastic bags, aluminum foil, and paper. If you’re packing your child’s lunch with reusable bags, be sure to wash them daily with soap and hot water.
Find more information about food safety visit www.health.ok.gov.