Back-to-School Food: Healthy Lunches & Snacks
Brown Bag Safety
By Paul Krantz
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Advice and tips for safe brown bag lunches
To prevent food-related illness, following the guidelines below when preparing and packing brown bag lunches.
Watch the temperature. Harmful bacteria grow best between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, so it's important to keep perishable foods outside this danger zone as much as possible. Foods susceptible to bacterial growth—especially high protein foods like meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs—should never be in the danger zone for more than two hours (one hour in warm weather conditions). Foods destined for the lunch box should be kept in the refrigerator until just before your child leaves for school.
To maintain lunch food at a cool temperature, pack a frozen juice box or water bottle in an insulated lunch bag; you can also use a freezable gel pack. Try to position the coldest item at the top of the bag since cool air settles.
Hot foods are a real challenge in a lunch box. In many cases, it is difficult to maintain a high enough temperature. If you want to try sending soup or similar foods, do a "dry run" a home some morning. Pre-warm an insulated Thermos container (following the manufacturer's instructions), then fill with the hot food. Seal the container and let it sit until about an hour before your child's lunch time, then open it and measure the temperature of the food. If the food is below 140 degrees F, food may not be safe to eat by lunch time.
Keep it clean. Always wash your hands (and your child's) before preparing food. Wash them again after handling eggs or raw meat so you don't cross contaminate other foods or surfaces. Be sure that utensils, counters, and cutting boards are also clean when you begin. If raw meat or eggs touches a surface, clean it with warm soapy water before allowing another food to come in contact with it.
Be aware of food hazards. Some common lunch foods pose health hazards than you might not expect. Some of the most common include:
- Raw eggs. Uncooked eggs may be contaminated with salmonella. Young children are especially susceptible to this harmful organism, so avoid giving them foods like homemade mayonnaise or uncooked eggnog.
- Peanuts. Children who are allergic to peanuts can have a life-threatening reaction to even microscopic amounts. This is why some schools have banned foods that contain peanuts. Unfortunately, many processed foods contain trace amounts of peanuts, even if they aren't listed on the ingredient label. If you're child attends school with a youngster who has a peanut allergy, be sure to pay attention to any guidelines given to you by the school. (To learn more about peanut and other food allergies, check out Medline.)
- Tuna. Albacore tuna—so-called "white" tuna—has relatively high levels of mercury. Though not considered dangerous for most adults, young children and pregnant women should avoid eating more than one meal (about six ounces) of albacore per week. Shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish have less mercury, and are safe for up to two meals per week.