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Packing a Safe School Lunch

Millions of people bring “bag” lunches to school and work everyday because they are quick, convenient, and inexpensive. Bag lunches should be safe and nutritious, but because they have to sit in a desk or locker for several hours before eating, precautions should be taken to keep food safe and prevent foodborne illness. It is important to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot, and be aware of the “food temperature danger zone.” The “danger zone” is the temperature between 40 and 140°F, the perfect temperature for harmful bacteria to grow rapidly and potentially cause illness. Recent studies have shown that only about 1% of perishable food items in children’s sack lunches were found to be a safe temperature before eaten.

Here are some recommendations to help keep you and your child safe and preventing illness from “bag” lunches:

  • Keep everything clean when packing the lunch. Use hot, soapy water to clean hands, clean preparation surfaces, and clean utensils. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food. Wash insulated lunch bags with warm soapy water after each use.
  • Use an insulated lunch box to help keep foods cold. Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes are best for keeping perishable foods chilled. You can also use a thermos to keep milk or juice cold until lunchtime. Perishable foods should not be out of refrigeration for more than two hours.
  • Use freezer gel packs that are widely available in stores. If you cannot get freezer gel packs, freeze a juice box or plastic water bottle overnight and put that into your lunch box next to your sandwich.
  • Keep your lunch in the coolest place possible! If there is a refrigerator at school, put you lunch in there. If not, keep it out of the sun and away from the heat.
  • Pack shelf-stable foods, especially if you have a brown paper bag lunch. These food items include whole fruits (apples and oranges), vegetables such as carrots, whole grain snack crackers, peanut butter, cashew, or almond butter with 100% fruit spread on whole grain bread, canned meats such as tuna, canned fruits and juices without added sugars or sodium. Dried fruits such as raisins and cranberries are a good alternative to cookies and candies to satisfy a sweet tooth.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Blot dry with a paper towel before packing them in your child’s lunch.
  • Use a thermos to keep soup, chili and stew hot. Use an insulated bottle stored in an insulated lunch box.. Fill the bottle with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated bottle closed until lunch to keep the food hot.
  • Make sure kids wash their hands before eating lunch. Encourage at least 20 seconds—about the time it takes to sing two choruses of the “Happy Birthday” song—of hand washing in warm, soapy water. Include a moist towelette or hand sanitizer in your child’s lunch box.
  • Discard perishable leftovers after lunch. Pack non-perishable food items such as whole wheat pretzels or whole fruits for a healthy afternoon snack. Discard all used food packaging since bacteria can grow on plastic bags, aluminum foil, and paper. Only pack enough food that can be eaten at lunchtime. Leftovers that are stored for the rest of the day and then brought home may not be safe to eat.


Packing a Safe School Lunch Fact Sheet (145k pdf)

External Resources:

Keeping Bag Lunches Safe (USDA)


Creating a State of Health Logo