By Double Duty Mama
For the last two years, I’ve packed a lunch for my older son every day. With my youngest son about to start kindergarten, I will be doubling that daily chore. As if it’s not hard enough deciding if I’m packing too little (or too much) and if the meal is nutritious and well-balanced, now I also have to worry about filling their lunch boxes with potentially tummy-ache causing food, too.
Honestly, I’ve never given much thought to the temperature of their food. They get sandwiches, fruit and vegetables, chips and granola bars, as well as items like cheese and yogurt (and, of course, water to drink). I figured: “Eh. They’re boys. They don’t care if their food is warm. They eat anything.”
A study released last week found that 98 percent of perishable food in preschoolers’ sack lunches reached unsafe temperatures even before lunchtime. Researchers at the University of Texas examined 700 lunches packed for 3 to 5 year olds attending child care centers and found that the food was not packed to stay cold (or hot) enough to prevent bacteria from growing.
Even with multiple ice packs, most of the perishable foods had reached an unsafe temperature.
The study, which will be published in September’s Pediatrics, called foodborne illness a “major public threat” in the U.S., adding that it has a “significant impact on the well-being of young children.” Symptoms can range from the mild, like upset stomachs and diarrhea, to severe, like kidney problems, malnutrition and death — especially in young children whose immune systems are not fully developed.
The study’s authors admit it’s difficult to keep food packed in lunch sacks at safe temperatures. However, the USDA has some tips that can help keep us from packing a side of disease with our kids’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches:
- Keep perishable food, like raw or cooked meat and poultry and eggs, cold or frozen at home.
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before preparing or eating food.
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and moving on to the next. (Double Duty Mama hint: I keep an anti-bacterial disinfectant spray handy in the kitchen for easy clean-up.)
- Don’t re-use disposable food packages, like zip sandwich bags.
- Pack just the amount of perishable foods in lunch boxes that will be eaten at lunchtime. Tell your kids to throw away any perishable food they don’t eat.
- It’s OK to prepare lunch the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator. Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold, but, if you do, add mayonnaise, lettuce and tomatoes later.
- Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold. If you use paper lunch bags, use two to help insulate the food.
- An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any lunch sack. This could be a frozen gel pack or frozen drink container.
- Keep perishable food cold until the last minute before leaving the house.
This study scared me enough to do some things differently. I’m going to freeze my kids’ water bottles and sandwiches overnight, and buy some ice packs or gels.
What do you think of this study? Do you have any hints to share?
- from HealthyChildren.org: Preschoolers’ Sack Lunches Reach Unsafe Temperatures (hartsped.wordpress.com)
- School Lunch Safety (nlm.nih.gov)