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Back to School Meal Prep as Easy as 1, 2, 3, 4

Back to school marks new beginnings, mixed emotions and all of a sudden…stress! How can you manage your time, juggle more responsibilities and, of course, pack lunch for your picky eater?

Don’t worry. We have the perfect back to school meal prep to keep you and your family safe… and it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4:

1: Weekly Menu Planning and Grocery Shopping

Depending on what your kids like eating for lunch, it’s easy to search the internet for ideas and menus to help create a shopping list before you leave for the grocery store. When shopping, pick up frozen or refrigerated food last, right before heading to the cashier, so it can stay cold longer. Separate raw meat and poultry products from other foods in your shopping cart. Consider placing raw meat and poultry in a bag to help catch any leaking juices. Also make sure that perishable items are placed in the fridge or freezer within two hours after you finish your grocery shopping.

2: Safe Food Preparation

The easiest way to keep germs out of your kitchen is to make sure everything that will come in contact with your food is clean, including your hands. Handwashing is the first and easiest step to avoid foodborne illnesses. A recent study conducted by USDA shows that 97 percent of the times participants should have washed their hands they did not do so correctly or at all. This poor hand hygiene caused participants to cross-contaminate spice containers, refrigerator handles, even ready-to-eat foods and other areas of their kitchen with a harmless tracer bacteria.

Be sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water for a full 20 seconds and dry them with a clean towel.  Also, clean your utensils, countertops and cutting boards with soap and hot water. With the clean step accomplished, begin preparing your lunches for the week. You can prep ahead by cutting ready-to-eat items like fruits, veggies or deli meats and placing them in storage bags or food containers. You also can boil eggs a day ahead or make sandwiches and refrigerate.

3: Safe Packing

It’s packing time! Before leaving for school grab your insulated lunch bag — never use a paper lunch bag if packing perishable items — and fill it with the ready-to-go food items and two cold sources like frozen water bottles, frozen juice boxes or freezer packs. Consider storing the insulated bag in the freezer overnight to make sure it’s as cold as possible when you pack it in the morning. With two cold sources, your perishables should be kept safely cold (at 40°F (4°C) or below) until lunch time. If there is a fridge in the classroom, the lunch bag can be stored there with the lid open so the cold air can circulate faster. When packing hot items (soups or chili) use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty and then put in the piping hot food. Tell your child to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food at 140°F (60°C) or above.

4: Safe Cooking

Cooking food to pack for lunch, like chicken nuggets or frozen meals? Remember to always use a food thermometer! Using a food thermometer is the only way to know foods are fully cooked and safe to eat, and using one will help prevent you and your children from getting sick. Follow the safe internal temperatures for different food products, and always remember to follow manufacturer cooking instructions on frozen foods.

Done! Back-to-school safe meal prep has never been so easy. By following these guidelines, you can have a healthy and safe school year.

Have Questions?

Talk to a food safety expert and get answers to your questions:

  • For non-meat food products (cereals, fish, produce, fruit juice, pastas, cheeses, etc.), call the FDA at 1-888-SAFEFOOD (1-888-723-3366).
  • For meat, poultry and egg products, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).
  • For more questions about food safety or chat live at from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

If you have questions about storage times for food or beverages, download USDA’s FoodKeeper application for Android and iOS devices, or visit the website version here. Consumers can learn more about key food safety practices at, by following  @FoodSafetygov and @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter, and by liking