Many parents focus on what’s in their child’s lunch—Is it healthy enough? Will they eat all those fruits and veggies? But sometimes they forget about how that important midday meal makes it into the lunchbox.
Back-to-school season is the perfect moment for some reminders about what you can do to ensure your child’s school lunch is safely prepared and packed. IFT’s Food Traceability and Food Safety Scientist Sara Bratager elaborates below on recent safety recommendations from the USDA that everyone should follow. Avoiding cross-contamination is key, but don’t let things get too complicated, she says. “Cook your food thoroughly, wash it well, and keep it cold when it should be cold and hot when it should be hot. It becomes overwhelming if you have too many bullet points for people to follow.”
Here are five quick and easy recommendations:
Clean and sanitize surfaces and utensils: The USDA urges parents to start by cleaning the food prep area to prevent all-too-prevalent cross-contamination, according to its recent study. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with soap and water after preparing each food item and before proceeding to the next one. If you want to save money, you can use a homemade bleach-based cleaning solution, and keep it in a ready-to-use spray bottle (one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach to one gallon of water).
Bratager: I wholeheartedly agree with keeping your surfaces clean. You don’t know what’s sitting on your countertops. I constantly set my purse on the ground and then went home and put it on my counter. There are bacteria all over the ground. Who knows what I am transferring there? So, yes, always wash countertops and utensils. If you don’t have time to make a homemade bleach solution or don’t want to handle bleach, use a store-bought, all-purpose kitchen cleaner. They’re convenient and get the job done.
Opt for different-colored cutting boards: To further curb the incidence of cross-contamination, separate meat and poultry from ready-to-eat foods like fruits, vegetables, and cheeses by using dedicated boards for each.
Bratager: I’m paranoid about cutting boards and making sure I separate meats from other foods. If different-colored cutting boards help you keep track of that, then use them. Just remember to wash them with dish soap or in the dishwasher afterward. I avoid wood cutting boards for anything other than cutting and serving baked bread. Wood cutting boards are porous, so there’s room within them for bacteria to grow. Bacteria need protein, fats, and water to survive. If you cut something like chicken or steak, which has plenty of proteins and often fats, and your cutting board is moist, then you’ve got all these nutrients sitting there. Bacteria like Salmonella can live inside your wood cutting board and contaminate the foods you cut on it—and eat. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Use food thermometers for food prep: When cooking a frozen item for a child’s lunch, use a food thermometer to check whether the meal has reached a safe internal temperature. For quick reference: meat (whole beef, pork, and lamb) should be 145°F, with a three-minute rest; ground meats 160°F; poultry (ground and whole) 165°F; eggs 160°F; fish and shellfish 145°F; and leftovers and casseroles 165°F. Beware: some frozen foods have browned breading, grill marks, or other signs that suggest that they are fully cooked—when actually, they are not.
Bratager: I would never tell someone not to use a food thermometer. That being said, I don’t always use one. For example, I often skip the thermometer if I’m cooking chicken strips. They’re always consistently sized, my electric stove has consistent heat, and I’ve cooked them enough times with a thermometer to know how long it takes to reach 165°F. However, I always use a thermometer for roast chicken, anything I grill, or foods I’ve never cooked before. I recently made turkey meatballs and was shocked at how long it took to bring them up to a safe temperature. This is particularly important when children are involved, as they’re at higher risk of contracting a foodborne illness because of their still-developing immune systems. If I’m cooking for small kids or my immuno-compromised grandparents, I’m far more cautious about temperature monitoring.
Choose insulated lunch boxes, containers, and gel packs: Perishable food can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime if packed in a paper bag. Keep your meal cool by storing it in an insulated bag with a frozen cold pack to keep food out of what the USDA calls the “Danger Zone” (temperatures between 40°F and 140°F where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause illness). For hot liquids, such as soup, chili, or stew, use an insulated container to keep items at 140°F and above.
Bratager: If you’re going to buy a lunchbox, why not buy an insulated one? It’s not hard to throw an ice pack into the lunchbox to keep food cold. You can also freeze a juice box or water bottle and let it thaw. For hot items, a thermos does the trick. Warm it up with boiling water, add the hot food, then keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime. This will keep it safe at 140°F and above—plus, no one wants to eat cold soup anyway.
Pack a handwashing aid: If kids skip handwashing, disposable hand wipes or 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer come to the rescue.
Bratager: Kids should definitely wash their hands before eating. If they don’t use soap and water, these other aids work. Schools are full of germs. If kids don’t clean their hands, they’re more likely to pick up a cold or a gastrointestinal illness.
For more helpful food safety tips and background, visit our Food Safety Information and Insights page.
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