Growing concern about the level of nutrition our children are receiving from public schools has started a resurgence of the home lunch movement. A healthy sack lunch is a great idea, but if it isn't stored properly, all your work may mean nothing when your child gets sick from food-borne illness. Fresh box lunches, packed properly, will ensure that your child gets a healthy meal without any unintended side effects.
The Insulated Lunch Box Experiment
A recent experiment by the California Health and Longevity Institute tested various types of lunch containers for their ability to keep food at safe temperatures for eating. The results were surprising. Four identical lunches were packed with ice packs in the following containers: a brown paper bag, a metal lunch box, an insulated lunch box, and a small cooler.
The warmest lunch after two hours was the one in the metal lunch box, perhaps because metal conducts heat easily. The next warmest lunch was the one in the brown paper sack. Both of these lunches had reached unsafe temperatures that would allow potentially harmful bacteria to grow on food.
The lunches packed in the hard lunch cooler and the insulated lunch box were both safe to eat, but surprisingly, the soft-sided insulated lunch bag was 3 degrees cooler than the traditional hard-side cooler.
Cold food should be 41 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler when consumed in order to be safe. Keeping lunch cool can be a challenge when most schools don't offer access to refrigeration, and some don't even have air conditioning. Follow these tips to increase the chances of packing a safe lunch for your child.
- Freeze any liquids and solids possible to keep temperatures down. This includes drinks, yogurt, bread and fruit snacks.
- Include an ice pack with lunch. Make it part of the daily routine for your child to replace the ice pack in the freezer when she gets home from school. Keep a spare just in case.
- Keep everything cold until the last minute. If you make lunch before breakfast, keep it in the fridge until the kids leave.
- Use an insulated lunch sack or box. Avoid metal lunch boxes and paper bags.
- If you live near the school, consider dropping your child's meal off at lunchtime to avoid temperature control problems.
- Store insulated lunch containers in the fridge or freezer until ready to use.
- Wash lunch containers regularly, even if they don't look dirty.
Use common sense when preparing lunches and avoid foods that spoil easily. The fresher the ingredients you use in your homemade school lunch, the less chance they have of spoiling. Fresh fruits and vegetables are great ways to increase nutrition and decrease risk of disease. Nuts, if your school allows them, are an excellent source of spoil-proof protein. Whole grain crackers, pretzels and chips are good choices as well. When it comes to safely packing school lunch, remember to keep it cool.