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Food Safety 101: How to Dodge an Attack of Bacteria in Lunchboxes

Mother giving boy school lunch back-to-school food

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) makes it their mission to start schooling students about lunch food safety.

As a reminder, here are basic food safety tips when preparing bag lunches.

Before you even start preparing lunch:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm or hot water for at least 20 seconds before AND after handling food. If water isn’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid handling cellphones and other electronic devices, mail, keys, and bags during food prep. Keep these items off food preparation and eating surfaces.
  • Always use clean spoons, forks, plates, and cutting boards. Remember to use separate cutting boards – one for fruits and vegetables and the other for meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Remember the 2-Hour rule: you must keep hot foods HOT and cold foods COLD. Meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs (also known as perishables) only last 2 hours at the room temperature of 90 °F or below before they go bad. If the room temperature exceeds 90 °F, the perishables will only last 1 hour before they must march back into the refrigerator or freezer.

While preparing lunch:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables with running tap water.
  • Include at least two cold sources such as gel frozen gel packs or frozen bottles of water. A frozen juice box can also be used.
  • Pack lunches containing perishable food in an insulated, soft-sided lunch bag. Perishable food can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime if packed in a paper bag.
  • Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunchtime. That way, there won’t be a problem with scrambling to store leftovers safely.
  • It’s fine to prepare the food the night before, but pack lunch bags right before leaving home. Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold. You’re advised not to freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes. Add these later.

When Your Child Arrives at School

  • If there is a refrigerator at school, your child’s lunch should be stored there upon arrival. But leave the lid of the lunchbox or bag open in the fridge so that cold air can better circulate and keep the food cold.

Reheating and chowing down:

  • If reheating any items, always use microwave-safe plates. Some non-microwave safe containers can melt or warp and may leak harmful chemicals into food.
  • Cover food with a lid, plastic wrap, or wax paper, turning up one corner to let steam escape. Also, rotate or stir food halfway through cooking. This helps to heat food evenly and removes cold spots.

Follow these tips and you’ll keep bacteria out of your lunchbox! Make sure to share these tips with your loved ones and friends too!  

For more information about packing lunches, visit out Back to School page.

You can also ask our virtual food safety representative, Ask Karen, or contact the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854).

Have a great school year!

Back-to-school food safety infographic

Posted in: SchoolTagged: School | Food Safety | Kids | Family | Food Prep