Whether it's off to school or work we go, millions of Americans carry "bag" lunches. It’s time to do your homework so that food brought from home can be kept safe. Whether traveling by bus, bicycle, on foot, or in a car - perishable food must be kept cold. After arriving at school or work, perishable food must be kept cold until lunchtime.
Why keep food cold?
Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the "danger zone" — the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. Perishable food transported without an ice source won't stay safe long. Foodborne illness occurs as the result of eating food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins. Foodborne illness causes symptoms such as upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea and headache. Most cases of foodborne illness last only a couple of days but can be serious for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and the immune-compromised. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illness occur. An estimated 128,000 of these cases lead to hospitalization, and, for 3,000 people, the illness leads to death.
Begin with Safe Food
Food should not be left out at room temperature more than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F). The appearance and smell of food is not always changed by the presence of bacteria. Prepackaged combos that contain luncheon meats along with crackers, cheese, and condiments must also be kept refrigerated. This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham which are cured or contain preservatives.
"Lunches you pack for children or adults to take along with them can be both healthful and delicious," says retired LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames. Lunch should include about one-third of the day’s protein, calories, vitamins and minerals. A nutritious lunch includes two or more servings of fruits and vegetables, one or two servings of grains, some protein and a beverage – preferably milk or a milk product for children.
Keep Everything Clean
Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item. A solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water may be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters.
Harmful bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and countertops. Always use a clean cutting board. Be sure to wash the board after using it to cut raw meat and poultry. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry. After lunch, throw away all used food packaging and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness. Make sure to clean the lunch boxes and food containers with hot soapy water after each use.
Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunch. That way, there won't be a problem about the storage or safety of leftovers. Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food. An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.
Keeping Cold Lunches Cold
Cold foods need to be kept below 40 degrees to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If the temperature is allowed to rise to 40 degrees or above, enough bacteria can grow within the first 2 hours to cause sickness. To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack, frozen water bottle, or frozen juice box. Ice packs in various sizes and shapes are available. You can also make your own ice packs by filling an airtight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and freeze. Some food is safe without a cold source. Items that don't require refrigeration include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.
Think Outside the Lunchbox
¦ Include foods from the five food groups - fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy.
¦ Keep calories in mind. Fats and sugars can quickly add more calories than you need. Lunchtime beverages and desserts are two possible sources of extra sugars and fats.
¦ Pack foods with dietary fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads.
¦ Choose low-sodium foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, and poultry.
¦ Offer foods of different shapes and textures.
¦ Include one of your child’s favorite foods even if it contains a little more sugar, sodium, or fat than you think he needs. Balance foods that contain more sugar, fat, and/or sodium with foods that contain less of these components at other meals.
¦ Keep sandwiches simple.