Whether you're going back to school as a student or teacher, it's important to take extra care of your take-along lunch that’s been waiting all morning for you to eat. You don’t want to get a foodborne illness.
LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames says foodborne illness occurs as the result of eating food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins. Foodborne illness causes 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.
Reames recommends these guidelines to help keep your foods safe to eat:
– Start with clean hands and work area. Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces with hot, soapy water before preparing food. If hot, soapy water is not available, use antibacterial wipes or lotions.
– Keep cold foods 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 two hours to cause sickness.
– Insulated lunch boxes are preferred over paper bags. If using paper bags, double them to help insulate. Place the ice source in an airtight, sealed bag.
– Ice packs in various sizes and shapes are available. You can make your own ice packs. Fill an airtight bag with water within 1 inch of the seal and freeze it.
– Freezing a juice drink and packing it with the lunch will help keep the lunch cold and will provide a cold drink once lunchtime arrives.
– If you do not have ice packs at your disposal, freeze your sandwich. Coarser bread, such as whole wheat, works best. White bread tends to become soggy. Toppings such as dressings, lettuce and tomato should be packed separately and put on the sandwich later to preserve freshness.
– Most schools provide cold milk at minimal cost. If you choose to pack your own, store it in a well-insulated thermos.
– Keep hot foods hot. Hot foods need be kept above 140 degrees to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If the temperature drops to 140 degrees or below, enough bacteria can grow within the first two hours to cause sickness.
– Put hot foods in a thermos that has been pre-heated. Before placing the hot food in the thermos, put hot water into the thermos. Let the hot water sit for 2-3 minutes, empty the thermos and fill it with the hot food. To keep food hot, do not open the thermos until you’re ready to eat.
– Use insulated lunch containers. They are better than non-insulated ones. If you prefer paper bags, do not grab used bags or grocery bags. They already could contain harmful bacteria.
– Clean lunch boxes, food containers and thermoses 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.
– If you can’t keep food at a safe temperature, pack foods that do not need to be kept hot or cold. These include peanut butter, packaged fruits, preserved/canned meats and poultry that have not been opened or refrigerated, bread, dried fruit, single-serving juices that have not been opened or refrigerated, nuts, crackers, fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been cut, cereal, cookies, unopened cheese spread and unopened canned fruits.
The Centers for Disease Control also offer sack lunch safety tips:
– Don't allow food to remain at room temperature for more than 2 hours; 1 hour in hot weather. The appearance and smell of food are not always changed by the presence of bacteria. If your child brings his lunch home after school, the leftovers probably are not safe to eat. When in doubt, throw it out.
– Do not re-use airtight bags or food wraps.
– If a refrigerator is not available at school, keep the lunch in a cool, dry place, not in the sun.
– Sandwiches that have been made the night before should be refrigerated and placed directly into a cooled lunch bag in the morning.
– Before your child heads back to school, test lunchbox safety. Pack and store a lunch in the exact way you would if your child was off to school. At the designated lunchtime, measure the temperature of the foods with a food thermometer.
For more information, Reames advises reading Keeping “Bag” Lunches Safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Editor: Mark Claesgens