How to Keep School Lunches From Spoiling

A recent NPR piece on Morning Edition (this morning, in fact) by Allison Aubrey discussed the safety of school lunches that are not kept cool in a frig.  Bacteria that is present when the lunch is prepared do have enough time to multiply over the 2-4 hours that the lunch sits out, unrefrigerated.  The same is true of office and cubicle lunches, though businesses may be more likely to offer refrigerators for lunch storage.

Below is the link to the entire story.

Sending kids to school is usually a recipe for colds and flu illnesses, so why multiply the chances of your kids or family getting sick if it is not necessary? This information does not prevent colds and flu, but it will help lessen the likelihood of getting a stomach ache from a spoiled lunch. It was striking how quickly the food gets overrun with bacteria!

Sara Sweitzer, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the time it took for packed lunches to warm up to unsafe temperatures.  She said that you want the whole lunch, excluding dried food like chips, to be stored at 40 ºF or below. Almost all of the lunches they examined were within the unsafe range.

Given that it only takes a few hours for bacteria to multiply, it is a good idea to take some precautions to preserve the food you’re packing for your child.

Here are the recommendations in a nutshell:

  1. Use insulated lunch bags and put the empty bag in the freezer overnight. That way it will be chilled when you put the food in.
  2. Use 2 ice packs (they can be small), and pack them at either end of the perishable foods, sandwiching the contents in between them.
  3. Before you prepare the lunch, wash both your hands and the counter top. It’s simple but it’s the most important component of healthy food preparation.

You have probably heard the stories in the past 5-10 years about hand washing in hospitals cutting down on many, many infections.  Well, this is the same principle.  You can’t wash your hands too many times!

What I didn’t think about was the countertop. Naturally, no one would prepare a meal on an obviously dirty counter top. But some can be dirty (e coli bugs, etc.) without any visible indicator.

The commentator said that hand sanitizers do work, so some parents may include a small bottle of hand sanitizer or hand wipes for your child to use before eating. This may be controversial because of the chemicals in the sanitizers, so use your own judgement on that.  Hand sanitizers have nothing over soap and water when it comes to spreading colds and flu, however.

You can read the entire transcript at NPR here:

Simple Things To Do To Lessen Back-To-School Stomach Bugs

Best of luck getting everyone back-to-school and in good health!


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