As children head back to school this fall, parents and caretakers may wonder, “What’s the most important thing that the kids should take to school with them?” From my perspective as a food safety specialist, I’d recommend an insulated lunch box as the best investment of the school year. For a few dollars, an insulated lunch box can keep children healthy and engaged to learn by protecting them from foodborne illness.
If you pack perishable food in an old-fashioned brown paper bag, it can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime. When children are sent home sick or stay home because of illness, it’s difficult for them to succeed in their school work.
Insulated lunch boxes help maintain food at a safe temperature until lunchtime. Perishable lunch foods, such as cold cut sandwiches and yogurt, can be left out at room temperature for only 2 hours before they may become unsafe to eat. But, with an insulated lunch box and a chilled freezer gel pack, perishable food can stay cold and safe to eat until lunch.
Why keep food cold? Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the "Danger Zone" — the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. So, perishable food transported without a cold source won't stay safe long.
Here are some other tips to keep food safe until lunchtime:
- Clean Hands: Always make sure your hands are clean before preparing lunches. And, make sure your children understand that they need to wash their hands thoroughly before eating lunch or snacks. “Washing hands thoroughly” means using soap and warm water, and rubbing hands for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). If water is not available, provide moist towelettes or hand sanitizing gels in the lunch box.
- Freeze your juice box: You can freeze juice boxes and use them as freezer packs. By lunchtime, the juice should be thawed and ready to drink.
- Hot Foods: To keep hot foods hot, use an insulated bottle like a thermos for foods such as soup, chili, or stew.
- Non-Perishable Food: Some food is safe without a cold source. Lunch items that don't need to be refrigerated include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.
If the lunch box comes home with food in it, make sure to throw away any perishable food items, because they have been unrefrigerated too long!
If you have any other questions about packing lunches safely or have other food safety questions, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at AskKaren.gov.
In my job as a bilingual technical information specialist with the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline, one of my responsibilities is to answer food safety questions from callers who speak Spanish. Since 2002, when we started offering our hotline services in Spanish, we’ve learned that the members of our Hispanic communities across the country are increasingly interested in getting advice from food safety experts.
The Hotline is open Monday thru Friday, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (EDT). If you happen to call after hours, you can listen to recorded food safety messages in English and Spanish. But, what do you do if you have a food safety question that just can’t wait? What if it’s 2:00 a.m.?
Pregúntele a Karen is a free online service that provides consumers with answers in Spanish to over 1,200 questions about food safety – questions like:
- How do I thaw a whole chicken safely?
- If my hamburgers are still pink inside, are they safe?
- If the leftovers stayed out on the counter all night, are they safe to eat?
With Pregúntele a Karen, all you need to do is type a question, keyword, or phrase, and then click Ask. (Or you can cheat and look at the answers at the end of this blog.) The great thing about both PregunteleaKaren.gov and AskKaren.gov is that they’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
On our Web site, FSIS En Español, we provide many other resources for food safety information in Spanish, which are also available 24/7:
Now, for the answers to those questions (with links to our fact sheets – in Spanish):
- Chicken: USDA recommends three safe ways to defrost chicken: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave (not on the counter). Remember to cook it immediately after thawing with cold water or in the microwave. Fact sheet: The Big Thaw
- Hamburgers: The only way to tell whether a hamburger is done is to use a meat thermometer. Fact sheet: Is It Done Yet?
- Leftovers: Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Fact sheet: Basics for Handling Food Safely
How can you make sure that eggs are safe when you’re eating out, especially with all of the egg recalls in the news?
According to the CDC, public health officials have identified 26 restaurants or “event clusters” where more than one ill person with Salmonella Enteritidis has eaten (that’s the type of Salmonella associated with the current egg recalls).
Some people, such as children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems or debilitating illnesses, are at higher risk for a Salmonella infection and need to be particularly careful when eating out.
Here are some practical things that you can do to keep you and your family safe:
- Always ask your server whether the food contains raw or undercooked eggs. If so, find out if the eggs are pasteurized. If not, order something else. Some foods that may contain raw or undercooked eggs include:
- Hollandaise sauce
- Caesar salad dressing
- Cold soufflés, chiffons, or mousses
- Ice cream
- Meringue-topped pies
- Certain ethnic dishes, such as Japanese sukiyaki or Korean bibimbap.
- If you order cooked eggs, make sure that they’re thoroughly cooked. Scrambled eggs should be firm, not runny. Fried, poached, boiled, or baked eggs should have firm whites and yolks.
- Avoid eating eggs at a buffet, since the eggs may be undercooked or may have been at room temperature for too long.
- If you plan to save leftovers to eat later, refrigerate egg dishes as soon as possible – always within two hours (or one hour if it’s a hot day).
If you think that you have become ill from eating recalled eggs, contact your health care provider. For more information, see Eggs and Egg Products.