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School Lunch Alert! The Dangerous Mistake Even Smart Parents Make

Posted on by Joel S.

Here’s something new to worry about: Kids’ school lunches can — and often do — reach unsafe temperatures well before lunchtime, even when parents pack it along with ice packs or a frozen juice pouch.

When researchers analyzed the lunch bags of hundreds of preschoolers in Texas, the results were somewhat shocking. Less than 2 percent of the food items checked were at a safe temperature 90 minutes before lunch. The rest of the food — even food that had been stowed in a fridge or packed with ice — was warm enough to be considered unsafe for human consumption.

Before you try to make yourself feel better with the I-ate-packed-lunches-for-years-and-I-turned-out-fine argument, consider this: kids under the age of 4 get bacteria-related food infections 4.5 times more often than adults. And bacteria thrive in dark, warm, moist environments, like your kid’s sandwich.

That doesn’t mean that you have to pony up for hot lunch every day, but it’s important to keep food safety in mind when packing your child’s meal. To be safe, food must be kept at less than 39.2 degrees or heated to more than 140 degrees Farenheit. These tips from the University of Washington can help keep your child safe:

Freeze it up. Meat is particularly vulnerable to bacterial growth. Freezing sandwiches prior to packing retards the bacteria. The best part: meat and cheese sandwiches can be frozen in bulk weeks before you need them. (Skip the sandwich veggies, though — they don’t freeze well.)

Plan ahead. It’s best to make lunches the night before you need them and place them in the fridge. That way the lunch has time to chill in the fridge before you send it to school. Also be sure to utilize any available fridges at school or daycare. While most of the refrigerated lunches in the study were still out of the safe zone, researchers suspect that’s because the teachers often didn’t put the lunches in the fridge right away. If possible, put your kid’s lunch in the fridge as soon as you arrive.

Keep it cool. Use a large ice pack or two small ones to keep food cold and use and insulated lunch box or bag rather than a paper bag.

Make safe choices. Nuts, peanut butter, breads, jam, butter, dry cereal, raw veggies, hard cheeses, yogurt, canned foods, dried sausages (pepperoni, jerky, salami) and raw, cooked or dried fruit can all be kept at room temp for up to six hours. (Check with your child’s school before sending nuts or peanut butter.) Handle-with-care food include meat, fish, and poultry, milk and soft cheeses. Cured meats that contain nitrites — such a bologna and ham are somewhat safer than fresh meats because the nitrites inhibit bacterial growth.

Try it hot. Heat soup or stew to boiling, then place in a thermos. It’ll stay hot (and safe) ‘til lunchtime.

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