How to keep your kid's lunch safer for meal time
Over 98 percent of packed lunches for preschoolers were deemed unsafe to eat in a recent study published in Pediatrics. The study measured the temperature of 1361 perishable items packed in 705 preschoolers’ lunches. Only 22 items were kept stored at a safe temperature for consumption.
Sometimes the source of the issue was obvious; 39 percent of the lunches were not packed with ice packs. In some cases items such as teething rings and juice boxes were used as “cold packs.” Using just a thermal lunch carrier, as 91 percent of lunches were packed in, was not enough, either, to keep foods safe.
Other sources of the issues were a lot harder to understand. For example, 90 percent of lunch items packed with multiple ice packs were still at unsafe temperatures. And, 11.8 percent of lunches were stored in a refrigerator, but still had temperature issues.
So, what’s happening here? How can parents keep packed lunches safer?
- Pack it cold. Keep it cold.
Placing warm items into a lunch sack with the cold items may cause them to not stay cold enough to be safe. For example placing a warm apple in the lunch alongside the sandwich that needs to stay cold will cause the sandwich to elevate in temperature, or placing cold lunch meats in room temperature breads just before the lunch goes to school. Pack the lunch the night before, and place all items in the refrigerator overnight, even items that do not have to be refrigerated such as the bread for the sandwich.
- Think about safe temperature zones.
Use a lunchbox with two compartments, one that stays cold for only cold items, and place room temperature items like a granola bar in the room temperature compartment. It will be easier to keep the cold items colder and safer.
- Use the safer types of lunch boxes and multiple ice packs.
Use a well-insulated cooler-type lunch box with multiple, large ice packs, preferably lead-free with BPA-free containers. However, if you know your child’s lunch will be stored in a refrigerator, the insulated lunch box may prevent the lunch items from being chilled well, too. The key is knowing the lunch box will be placed in the refrigerator promptly if you are not going to use and insulated carrier and ice. In the study, researchers noted that teachers “often failed to use the available refrigerators and left lunches at room temperature for an average of 2 hours before refrigeration.”
- Keep it cold longer before you pack it. Pack the cold lunch items from the refrigerator directly into the lunch box with ice just before leaving home to minimize the time your child’s lunch is exposed to unsafe temperatures.
- Toss the leftovers for safety.
Tell your child to discard the leftover food after eating, so you know your child doesn’t snack on the leftovers later when they are not safe to eat.
- Consider packing less perishable items. If you are concerned, or can’t keep the lunch cold enough, pack lunch items that are less perishable. Think nut butter instead of meats or cheese. Avoid things like mayo and eggs. Try bananas or oranges, or grapes instead of cut melon. Have your child buy cold, unflavored milk at school if available.
These tips were kindly reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Shu, pediatrician, CNN Health Correspondent and author of Food Fights, Baby and Child Health, and Heading Home with Your Newborn.
Temperature of Foods Sent by Parents of Preschool-aged Children Fawaz D. Almansour, Sara J. Sweitzer, Allison A. Magness, Eric E. Calloway, Michael R. McAllaster, Cynthia R. Roberts-Gray, Deanna M. Hoelscher and Margaret E. Briley Pediatrics; originally published online August 8, 2011; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-2885