Packing a lunch has some awesome benefits. It’s healthier than ordering out, and it’s an affordable alternative to eating out with co-workers or even opting for hot lunch at school (psst…here are some inexpensive lunch ideas to pack).
But the most important thing about packing lunch is something you likely forget about: lunch box food safety.
Food safety matters just as much for your bagged lunch as it does for any outdoor party you throw or restaurant you visit. Foods not only need to be cooked to a certain temperature to kill bacteria, but they also need to be properly stored to make sure bacteria doesn’t have a chance to grow between the time you prep that lunch and when you eat it.
Be mindful of food safety while prepping your lunch. If you’re using a cutting board, keep raw foods separate from cooked foods. Buy a food thermometer that can accurately measure cooking temperatures to make sure all foods are cooked thoroughly—here’s our Test Kitchen’s favorite. And always wash your hands before and after handling raw meat or poultry. Try this proven method.
Make sure food is kept at the proper temperature
Perishable foods should not be kept above refrigerator temperature (40ºF) for more than two hours—only one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90ºF. When you arrive to work, make sure you head straight to the break room so you can put your lunch in the fridge.
Most schools don’t have accessible refrigerators for students, so the USDA recommends sending at least two cold sources, such as a frozen water bottle and an ice pack (these skinny ones work great), along with your child’s lunch to keep everything at the appropriate temperature.
Hot foods also need to be kept—you guessed it—hot. It’s worth investing in a high-quality thermos to avoid hot foods falling below 140ºF. To keep your thermos hot for as long as possible, the USDA recommends that you boil water, add it to a thermos, then let it stand for a few minutes before emptying. Add hot food to the hot thermos, then pack it in an insulated lunch bag—these grown-up totes are super cute!
Your lunch bag should be cleaned, too
Illness can come from perishable food that’s improperly handled, but the lunch bag itself can also harbor dangerous bacteria. Clean your lunch bag regularly, and if you’re packing lunch for little ones, send them with hand sanitizer or moist towelettes to clean their hands before they eat. (You might want to give your reusable grocery bags a cleaning, too—they get dirty fast!)
With these tips, you and your kids will be eating safe. Now get going with these tasty lunch ideas.