Often-overlooked back-to-school danger: Tips to pack safer lunches

Often-overlooked back-to-school danger: Tips to pack safer lunches

(BPT) – You’ve survived the back-to-school season, and transitioned from lazy summer days to the familiar routine of early rising and the roar of school buses in the neighborhood. But before you usher your children out the door tomorrow, you should know a few things about that lunch you may have packed bleary-eyed in the wee hours of the morning.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that every year one in six Americans will become ill from a foodborne illness. As you commit your child’s bus and class schedule to memory, don’t forget the four simple steps to keep your family safe from food poisoning at home: clean, separate, cook and chill.

“We always ask our kids to wash their hands before every meal and the same applies to the parent when preparing any meal,” says Maria Malagon, Food Safety Education Director with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). “Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. The same holds true for cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops. Wash thoroughly with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item, and before you make the transition to next item. Harmful bacteria can spread onto cutting boards, utensils and countertops.”

“Kitchen dish cloths, sponges and kitchen towels are potential sources of bacteria,” says Tina Hanes,  a technical information specialist with USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. “Wash dishcloths and dish towels often in the hot cycle of your washing machine and replace sponges frequently.”

Here are some other important food safety tips to remember:

* Prepackaged foods are sometimes packed for lunch, but be aware these combos often contain perishable items such as luncheon meats, cheese and cut fruit. Always keep them refrigerated.

* Don’t go overboard when putting lunch together; pack only the amount of perishable food that can be consumed. This eliminates the problem of proper storage and the safety of leftovers. After lunch, don’t keep any leftover food, used food packaging and paper bags. Packaging materials should never be re-used because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

* Keep cold lunches chilled with frozen gel packs or combine a frozen gel pack with a frozen juice box or frozen bottle of water. Position them on top and bottom of the perishable food items to keep them cold. Certain foods are safe without a cold source such as whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.

* Hot foods are a different story. An insulated container will keep foods like soup, chili and stew hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot – 140 degrees F or above.

“Ask Karen,” the USDA’s virtual food safety representative, is available around the clock at AskKaren.gov. Weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available by calling 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854) or via live chat at AskKaren.gov.

For more information on back-to-school food safety, view a free “Back to the Basics” webinar series held by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The sessions introduce the basics of food safety and explain how pathogens, such as Salmonella, can affect young children who are at a high risk of contracting foodborne illness.