Time and space constraints in schools mean that students often toss lunch bags into a shared classroom bin, cubbies, lockers, or other storage spaces. Sometimes bins are kept outdoors, exposing lunches to heat or cold. Most schools simply cannot offer students space in a refrigerator to keep their food safe from bacteria or cross-contamination. Parents can prevent foodborne illness by practicing a few simple safety habits:
Pack for posterity: The foods that can "keep" the longest are a better bet for lunch bags.
- Minimize highly perishable foods, like mayonnaise, eggs, butter, milk-based products, and even those popular lunch meat combos kids seem to love.
- Opt for non-perishable foods and drinks - water, whole and dried fruits, crackers and chips, cereals and breads, or nuts and seeds.
- Sandwiches make an easy go-to choice, but keep in mind that lunch meats and tuna require refrigeration to stay safe. Old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly may be nixed from many menus because of fear of food allergies, but it is a natural in a sack lunch because it won't go bad.
Pack with temperature in mind: Depending on schedules, your child's lunch will need to "keep" for at least 2 to 3 hours.
- If food should be eaten cold, use frozen freezer packs or an insulated lunch box.
- If food should be eaten hot, heat food before your child leaves for school and store in a heat-preserving container or thermos.
- Freeze a juice box or yogurt snack ahead of time and use these items to keep other foods cool until mealtime.
- Consider an insulated lunchbox or freezable gel packs to keep lunches at their safest temperatures.
Practice a safe lunchtime routine with your child: Remind your child of the habits they need to practice each day when they hit the cafeteria.
- Talk to your child about the lunch bag storage situation and remind them to store their lunch in a cool, dry place out of the sun and away from other heat sources.
- Discuss hygiene, going over the right way to wash your hands or how to use a sanitary hand wipe before and after their meal.
- Remind your child to throw out perishable leftovers instead of toting them home (this may not be possible if the school has a waste-free lunch policy). Too many moms and dads have found rotten, stinky surprises in their children's lunch bags!
Sort out sharing rules: You try your best to raise generous kids who share without prompting, and then turn and tell them not to share their lunch food or drinks!
- In an age-appropriate way, explain to your child why sharing a drink bottle or straw is not a good idea (risk of spreading germs).
- Talk to your child about why you probably shouldn't swap snacks with a schoolmate (you never know who's allergic to what).
Keep a clean, tidy lunch bag: While you can't control what happens to your child's lunch during the school day, you can work together with your child to keep their lunch bags clean.
- Follow manufacturer's instructions for cleaning lunch bags.
- Teach your child to wipe down and clean their own lunch bag inside and out after they've eaten their school meals.
Food safety starts at home: Follow smart food safety practices when preparing lunches at home.
- Thoroughly wash your hands before and after handling food.
- Wash fruits and vegetables well.
- Keep kitchen surfaces sanitized and have plenty of laundered dishcloths or towels on hand.
- Pay attention to the "use by" dates on food packaging.
- Do not reuse plastic bags and food wrappers.
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