Back to School: Packing Safe Lunches

It's that time of year again! Across the country, teachers and parents alike are preparing for students to head back into the classroom - and the lunchroom. Although many students purchase meals from the school cafeteria, home-packed are lunches are still very popular. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers the following tips to ensure the lunches you pack for your child are safe.


Keep everything clean when packing the lunch. That not only goes for the food, but also food preparation surfaces, hands and utensils. Use hot, soapy water. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters. "Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food," Berry explains.


The best way to keep food cold is with an insulated lunch box. When packing lunches, include either freezer gel packs widely available in stores or cold food items such as fruit, or small frozen juice packs. Nestle perishable meat, poultry or egg sandwiches between these cold items. Sandwiches can also be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated or frozen before placing in the lunch box.

Freezer gel packs will hold cold foods until lunch time, but generally will not work for all-day storage. Any perishable leftovers after lunch should be discarded and not brought home.

Instead of the insulated lunch box, can brown paper bags or plastic lunch bags be used to store cold foods? These are OK, but do not work as well as insulated lunch boxes because the bags tend to become soggy and do not retain the cold as well. If you must use paper or plastic lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food." Also, control the environment where the lunch bag or box is kept at school to help keep foods cold. Keep out of direct sunlight and away from radiators or other heat sources.


Foods like soup, chili and stew need to stay hot. Use an insulated bottle stored in an insulated lunch box. Fill the bottle with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated bottle closed until lunch to keep the food hot.


For more information on packing safe lunches for school (and yes, work, too!) call the toll-free nationwide Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. In the Washington, D.C. area, the number is 202-720-3333.

The Hotline is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern Time, year-round. Also, an extensive selection of timely food safety recordings are available 24 hours a day, every day, by using a touch-tone phone and the "user-friendly" menu which prompts callers.

In addition, helpful food safety information is now available on the Internet. Simply call up the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Home Page at home or school. The address is The Home Page is an electronic avenue by which students and others can "click" icons to a wealth of food safety and handling subjects.