Perryman/Nutrition Column – Pack a Healthy and Safe Lunch

Juggling work and family places a premium on time. In 78 percent of today’s families, both parents work away from home, and stay-at-home parents will tell you their lives are equally busy. If you remember the television program, "Leave It to Beaver," mom always packed the lunch for school, but today more kids are taking on this task themselves.

Kids need to learn how to pack a lunch in a healthy and safe way. This should start with having children accompany a parent to the grocery store to help choose a variety of healthy lunch items. This teaches them to plan ahead and ensures they’ll put items in their lunch they’re less likely to toss or trade and more likely to eat. Since September is National Food Safety Education Month, it’s a good time to review the steps to pack a safe lunch.

Teach kids the basics of food safety as outlined below by the Partnership for Food Safety Education.

– Keep everything clean. Start with clean hands – wash with soap under running water, and clean food preparation surfaces and utensils.

– Germs that can make you sick may be on the outside of fresh fruits and vegetables. Rinse them under running tap water and blot dry with a paper towel before packing.

– Keep hot foods such as soup, chili or stew hot – 140 degrees F or above – by using an insulated container. First, preheat the container by filling it with boiling water and letting it stand for a few minutes. Drain and then fill with hot food.

– Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes are best for keeping perishable food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. Paper lunch bags do little to help insulate the food, but doubling the bags will help. After lunch, discard all used food packaging and paper bags due to the possibility of prior contamination.

– Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly between the temperatures of 40 degrees and 140 degrees F. A cold source, such as a small frozen gel pack, should be packed in any type of lunch container with food that can spoil easily. Freezer gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime, but are not recommended for all-day storage.

– Another option for keeping cold foods cold is to try freezing single-sized juice packs overnight and placing the frozen drink in your child’s lunch. If your child’s lunchtime is late enough, the juice will thaw by lunchtime, but it will still be cold.

– If a refrigerator is available at school, that’s the best option to keep food cold. If not, make sure your child understands the importance of keeping their lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators, baseboards and other heat sources found in the classroom.

– Any food left after lunch that was not eaten and could spoil (such as meat, poultry, egg sandwiches and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables) should be thrown away.

– Consider keeping a supply of shelf-stable foods on hand for easy packing. These include crackers, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, packaged pudding and canned fruits or meats.

– Making up the lunch the night before can be a real time saver. Sandwiches should be kept in the refrigerator until time to go in the morning.


Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D., Cooperative Extension Specialist

Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University