What a Food-Safety Pro Wishes You Knew About Packing Your Lunch

updated May 1, 2019
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Packing my daughter’s lunch is certainly a chore, and sometimes a straight-up struggle. Trying to keep that lunch bag filled with nutritious foods that she will actually eat — especially for a girl who doesn’t want to eat the same thing every day — is a continuing challenge. Then beyond that, I worry about food safety.

About four hours go by between the moment she heads out to the bus to when she opens her lunch pack, which is plenty of time for finicky perishable foods — like lunch meat or cut fruit — to get a little too warm for my comfort zone. In pre-k, the classes were small enough that they had a little fridge for the kids, but now that she’s in big girl elementary school, that lunch bag is destined for an un-cool cubby.

So I reached out to Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation, to see whether my worries had any grounds or were just paranoia. In short: Yes, this is a real risk.

“Perishable items that you’d normally keep refrigerated shouldn’t be held at room temperature for more than two hours, otherwise you’re at a risk for foodborne illness,” says Dr. Sims. And if it’s super-hot out, like the 80- or 90- degree days we’ll have during September here in the South, that food might only be safe for an hour if it’s in an uninsulated bag. Yikes!

But most kids don’t carry their food in brown paper bags anymore, or even those cute metal lunch boxes. “An insulated, soft-sided lunch tote is best for keeping perishable food chilled — especially if you use a cold source in there,” says Dr. Sims.

So the good news is that when you add a cool pack to your child’s insulated lunch box, perishable foods will stay safe to eat for an extra three to four hours.

Whether your “source” is a hard-sided ice pack (the coolest, but also the heaviest) a frozen gel pack, or just a frozen juice box, adding a cooling source to your child’s lunch every day you pack perishables is a must. “While they’re not meant for all day, using an insulated lunch bag with a chill pack will keep food safe well into lunchtime,” says Dr. Sims. Plus, most schools maintain an inside temperature in the 70s, so you don’t risk the accelerated heating time like you might at, say, sports camp.

So I can feel safe tucking in a sandwich with mayo or some sliced fruit instead of relying on packaged, shelf-stable food. Plus, Dr. Sims reminded me, whole fruits like a whole apple or cherries will generally last longer outside of the fridge than cut ones.

Now I just have to make sure she doesn’t try to finish her sandwich in those ravenous moments between getting off the bus and getting dinner onto the table. By then, it’s definitely not safe!

For more information on lunch box safety, visit the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s Fight Bac! site.