Send Children Back to School With Food-Safe Packed Lunches

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The new school year is off to a start with many children being sent off with a packed lunch to feed their hungry stomachs. Depending on what time the lunch was packed in the morning and when the child may have their designated lunch time, the food may be left sitting in the temperature danger zone for too long. The FDA Food Code defines the temperature danger zone as being between 41°F and 135°F. When perishable foods are left in this danger zone for 4 hours or more, it provides an environment where tiny microbes grow the fastest and can make children sick. According to the USDA, perishable food items are ones that when left at improper holding temperatures for too long would spoil, decay, or become unsafe to consume. Perishable foods that need to be controlled by time and temperature for safety include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and cooked leftovers. Other commonly lunch-packed perishable items that are considered time/temperature control for safety (TCS) foods are cut melons, cut tomatoes, and cut lettuce.

PB&J and deli meat are two of the most commonly packed sandwich fillings, but do they have the same inherent risk when left in the temperature danger zone? In knowing what is considered perishable items that need to be controlled by time and temperature, PB&J filling consists of non-perishable ingredients whereas traditional deli meats such as turkey, ham, and roast beef are perishable ingredients. Where one could be left out at room temperature, the other one would need to be kept cold at or below 41°F. Outside of the sandwich fillings, consider other foods you may pack for your child that would be considered perishable and would need to be kept cold or hot until lunch time.

At NC State University, the Safe Plates team is the best source for evidence-based food safety programming and resources for retail, community and home-based food safety. Safe Plates is sharing our food safety tips to keep in mind when preparing healthy and nutritious back to school lunches that limit the time the foods are in the temperature danger zone.

    • Pack lunches in a clean insulated lunch bag or cooler.

    • Use a thermos to keep cooked foods like soup, rice or vegetables hot until lunch time.

    • Add freezer packs or ice to lunchboxes.

    • Freeze water bottles or juice boxes in lunch boxes that will defrost by lunch time.

    • Include non-perishable foods like whole-grain crackers or cereals, whole unpeeled or uncut fruit, or unopened single serving containers of fruit in children’s lunches that do not require refrigeration.

    • Teach children to throw away any leftover scraps of perishable foods to help eliminate odors and bacteria at the end of the day. If a snack is needed later in the day, label and pack an additional non-perishable food item.

N.C. Cooperative Extension’s goal is to provide the residents of the community with research-based knowledge. For more information on nutrition, health, food preservation, and food safety in Lee County please contact the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Ashley Szilvay at 919-775-5624.