The little ones are back in school again, and that means warnings about packing them healthy lunches to keep their brains fueled and ready for learning.
A study in the September 2011 issue of Pediatrics (which got quite a bit of attention) found that 90% of the packed lunches tested – even those that included an ice pack – had risen to temperatures above the “safe” range defined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Some parents are quick to point out that we’ve been sending our kids to school with these “unsafe” lunches for years. In fact, researchers in the Pediatrics study did not say if any of the children eating the warmer-than-recommended food actually got sick.
What’s a parent to do? There are a couple of fairly simple steps you can take to try to keep lunch a little safer:
- Consider packing items that won’t go bad at room temperature: Packing fresh fruit or raisins and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is less likely to give your little one a stomach ache than a tuna sandwich slathered in mayo.
- Be smart about insulated lunch bags: Insulated bags are actually working against you if you put them in the refrigerator at school (or work). They’ll keep the refrigerated air out of the bag, resulting in a warmer food temperature. Experts suggest using a cooler to transport your paper-bagged lunch to school or work, and then putting the paper bag in the refrigerator.
- Consider buying a school lunch: School lunches have a bad reputation (and perhaps for good reason, e.g. pizza, tater tots, chicken nuggets, etc.), but these days most school cafeterias offer at least some healthy choices – plus the kitchens are regulated and inspected for food safety.
If your “little one” isn’t so little any more, he or she still might have food safety questions. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (yep, that exists) takes quite a few calls from college students with questions about the handling or storage of food.
College students generally get their meals as quickly and easily as possible. For freshmen on-campus, that means a lot of trips to the dining hall – generally pretty good as far as food safety goes – and relying on the mini-fridge, microwave and toaster oven. Later in the college years when most students move off campus, the wider world of food preparation (and its many potential pitfalls) lies before them.
If you think back to your college days, you probably know exactly the kinds of questions they answer:
- Several slices of pizza have been left out overnight. Is the pizza still safe to eat?
While just about any college student will grab that slice of pizza without a second thought (well, the college students I knew/know), the correct answer is a big, fat no. Perishable food should never be left out for more than two hours.
- How long will food stay safe at a tailgate party?
It’s important to keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Never leave food in this “danger zone” for more than two hours (or one hour if it’s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside). Cook meat and poultry completely and use a meat thermometer to be sure your steaks, chops and roasts to at least 145 degrees, ground meat to 160 degrees and poultry to 165 degrees.
…and this one is special for mom and dad:
- I frequently send care packages to my son at college. What other foods besides cookies, crackers and candy can I mail?
Baked goods like brownies and loaf-type cakes are a safe bet, as are shelf-stable microwavable entrees. You can also safely send canned meats and jerky.
If you want to mail something perishable, pack it with frozen gel packs or dry ice and ship them overnight. The Food Safety and Inspection Service also offers a fact sheet on mail order food safety.