Make lunches safer, back to school safety tips

As the school buses make their rounds, the kids stock up on pencils and parents get giddy with excitement, back to school season is in full swing. While families and school often focus on school supplies and preparedness, one aspect can be overlooked, foodborne illness. 

Parents often think about germs being spread through sneezes, unclean hands and other issues. But, foodborne illness can occur in your child's school lunch. A thoughtful preparation of kids' school lunches can prevent a bad situation. 

STOP Foodborne Illness has come up with several lunch packing suggestions that help prevent foodborne illness this school year.
  • Keep in mind the bacteria danger zone. Bacteria grow rapidly in the temperature "danger zone" of 40-140° F. 
  • Wash your hands. When preparing lunches, STOP Foodborne Illness emphasizes the importance of washing your hands thoroughly and keeping all surfaces you're working on clean. Use this as an opportunity to explain the importance of hand-washing in preventing foodborne illness.
  • Use an insulated lunch box. Whether hard-sided or soft, this helps keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot until it's time to eat them. Food safety experts agree: This is a "must have" item. Using an insulated box will help keep your child's food out of the bacteria "danger zone."
  • Use ice packs. Another "must have," according to STOP Foodborne Illness, these inexpensive items are vital for keeping cold foods cold. You can pick them up for about $1 each.
  • Use an insulated thermos. This keeps hot foods hot, like soups, chili, or mac and cheese. 
  • Freeze drinks before packing. Frozen milk, juice boxes, and water bottles will help keep the drinks cold, along with other cold foods you've packed. Frozen items will melt during morning classes and be ready for drinking at lunch.
  • Pack hot foods while hot. Don't wait for hot foods to cool down before packing. Instead, pour piping hot foods like soups immediately into an insulated thermos. You can also preheat your thermos by filling it with boiling water, letting it sit for a few minutes, pouring out the water, and then adding your hot food.
  • Wash and separate fresh fruits/veggies. STOP Foodborne Illness recommends washing produce thoroughly before packing in plastic containers to keep them away from other foods. After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.
  • Use individual snack packs. Portions packed from larger bags of items like pretzels, chips, and cookies means potential exposure to bacteria from many hands that have been in and out of the bag. To help prevent the spread of germs, STOP recommends using individual-sized servings.
  • Add room-temperature-safe foods. Use nonperishable items or foods that do not need refrigeration like peanut butter, jelly, cookies, crackers, chips, dried fruit, and certain whole fruits. 
  • Encourage your child to wash their hands. Before and after eating their lunch, STOP Foodborne Illness asks you to stress how important it is to wash their hands. Hand-washing with soap and water is best, but wet wipes or hand sanitizer will work in a pinch.
  • Avoid putting food on tables. Once kids are in the cafeteria, they shouldn't put their food on the table. Pack a paper towel or some wax paper they can use instead.
  • Explain the 5-second myth. Be sure your child knows that the "5-second rule" is a myth. Any food that touches the floor needs to be thrown away.
  • Toss perishable food. To avoid foodborne illness, let your child know it is okay to throw away perishables like meat, poultry or egg sandwiches, if not eaten at lunchtime. Unopened, room-temperature-safe foods and uneaten fruit can be kept.
  • Make sure lunch boxes are regularly cleaned and sanitized. We recommend you clean your child's box each evening before packing the next day's lunch. Find out more with these box cleaning tips.
 These tips from STOP Foodborne Illness can help everyone have a better, safer school year.

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