Is Your Child’s Packed School Lunch Safe?

by on March 8th, 2015
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Parents choose a packed lunch for a variety of reasons. Many parents believe that they can pack a healthier lunch than what is served up on the school lunch menu. Others believe they can pack a healthy lunch for less than the price of a school lunch. Some parents just feel comforted knowing that they can choose items that their child is more likely to eat and they’ll have less worry that their child is hungry and undernourished during the school day. Is packing a healthy lunch, and keeping it healthy for up to six hours, as easy as ABC?

According to a study published in Pediatrics that caught the interest of the Southern Early Childhood Association, a minimal number of packed lunches are actually kept cool enough to ward of potential food borne illnesses.

The facts and figures from the University of Texas study are startling.

When tested 1 ½ hours before they were to be served, only 1.6% of the items in children’s packed lunches were in a safe temperature range.

With over 1,300 items tested that means only 22 food items were as cold as they should safely be.

But what about ice packs? Do they really help?

Items in lunches with 1 ice pack fared only slightly better with 2.3% of the items found at a safe temperature.

Two or more ice packs made a difference and yet only 8.2% of items in lunch boxes with two or more were at safe temperatures prior to lunchtime.

Of course, we know that all those prepackaged lunch box foods from crackers and cookies to pudding and applesauce can be left unrefrigerated. Many of us want to limit or at least balance prepackaged foods with fresh, whole foods.

Is their any good news for parents who want to pack a healthy lunch with fresh, whole foods?

There is. The free printable hand out from the SECA, “Sack Lunch Safety” lists “safe” foods for unrefrigerated lunches.

-Peanut butter, jams, honey, crackers and bread are all safe choices so those peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and honey sandwiches or those peanut butter crackers will be fine.

-Fresh, cooked or dried fruits are all safe choices so there’s even better reason to include those apples, bananas, peaches, grapes and raisins and even more reason to introduce new choices like dried apricots or tangelos.

-For yogurt-lovers there’s good news that yogurt is considered a “safe” food that can be left at room temperature for up to six hours. Although as a parent and a yogurt eater, I would still argue that yogurt would be more appealing kept cold.

-Raw vegetables too are on the safe list so parents have more reason than ever to include those carrot sticks, celery sticks, cucumber slices and broccoli flowerets although if your child is accustomed to eating them only with dressing, watch out and make sure dressings are kept at a safe temperature with the tips to follow.

Parents should also check out the unsafe list on the SECA handout that includes of course meats, and processed meats including hot dogs and cheeses except for hard cheeses. Wouldn’t we all love to imagine our children dining on some grapes and Asagio for lunch?

Cooked vegetables are the unsafe lists too which makes those left over carrots a challenge but not impossible. It may be surprising to some that cooked cereals and legumes like rice, one of my son’s favorite left-overs, and beans are also on the unsafe list for leaving at room temperature.

Try these tips for lunch box safety from the USDA.

Invest in insulated soft side lunch boxes. That means no matter how cute that classic metal cowboy lunch pail is, it’s just not a good idea for keeping lunches safe. Ditto for paper bags and reusable plastic bags.

Freeze sandwiches the night before that have meats and cheeses. Add toppings like lettuce and tomato in the morning.

For those lunch items that can’t be frozen, making them and putting them in refrigerator ahead of time (like the night before) can help get them properly chilled.

Use frozen gel packs, surrounding “unsafe” foods and even freezing juice boxes and using them to cool is helpful.

The packed lunch box topic is one that is important to my family times three, fives days a week. Here are the tips I’ll take away and start using right away.

-I can freeze juice boxes the night before and even that will help keep lunch boxes cooler.

-I can freeze meat and cheese sandwiches but since my kid’s lunches don’t get refrigerated, we’ll just have to skip the mayo altogether.

-One ice pack isn’t enough. We’ve invested in the wine chiller packs that can literally “wrap” lunch items in a frozen pack.

-We’ll keep encouraging our kids to try cut veggies without dressing and tell them why it’s important.

-We’ll make sure there are plenty of fresh fruit options available. Fresh fruits are a healthy and safe choice but we’ve learned that just after a couple of weeks of school, variety is key.

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