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FOR RELEASE: August 28, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications

Keeping “Bag” Lunches Safe

Millions of Americans carry bag lunches to school or work every day, but they may not know how to prevent getting a foodborne illness from a bag lunch, according to health officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Food brought from home can be kept safe if it is handled and cooked safely.

Perishable food must be kept cold while commuting via bus, bicycle, on foot, or in a car. After arriving at school or work, it must be kept cold until lunchtime to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying rapidly in the “danger zone” temperatures between 40 and 140° F.

Perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long. Here are safe handling recommendations to prevent acquiring foodborne illness from “bag” lunches.

Begin with Safe Food

  • Perishable food, such as raw or cooked meat and poultry, must be kept cold or frozen at the store and at home.
  • Eggs should be purchased cold at the store and kept cold at home.
  • Food should not be left out at room temperature more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90° F).
  • Prepackaged combos that contain luncheon meats along with crackers, cheese, and condiments must also be kept refrigerated. This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham, which are cured or contain preservatives.

Keep Everything Clean

  • Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item
  • A solution of one teaspoon of bleach in one quart of water may be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils.
  • Keep family pets away from kitchen counters.

Don’t Cross-Contaminate

  • Harmful bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and countertops, so always use a clean cutting board.
  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry. (Consider using separate cutting boards for raw and cooked meat and poultry.)
  • Do not reuse food packaging and paper bags because they can contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

Packing Lunches

  • It’s fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator.
  • Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used.
  • If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food. An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.

Keeping Cold Lunches Cold

  • Prepare cooked food, such as turkey, ham, chicken, and vegetable or pasta salads, ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator.
  • Keep cooked food refrigerated until time to leave home.
  • To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. If there’s a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival.
  • Items that don’t require refrigeration include uncut fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles. Fruits that have been cut should be kept refrigerated.

Keeping Hot Lunches Hot

  • Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot.
    Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food.
  • Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot - 140° F or above.

Microwave Cooking/Reheating

  • When using the microwave oven to reheat lunches, cover food to hold in moisture and promote safe, even heating.
  • Reheat leftovers to at least 165° F. Let stand covered for at least two minutes before consuming.
  • Food should be steaming hot.
  • Cook frozen convenience meals according to package instructions. For more information about preparing and storing lunches safely, contact your county health department in your area.


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