LITTLE ROCK — With school back in session, the Arkansas Department of Health is offering tips for safely packing school lunches.
Schools are back in session and for many this means a new morning routine that includes packing lunches. Food brought from home can be kept safe if it is first handled and cooked properly. Perishable food must be kept cold while commuting via bus, bicycle, on foot or in a car. After arriving at school or work, perishable food must be kept cold until lunchtime.
Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the “Danger Zone” — the temperatures between 40 and 140 F (4.4 C and 60 C). So, perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long. Here are safe handling recommendations to prevent foodborne illnesses from “bag” lunches.
Begin with safe food. Perishable food including meat, poultry and eggs, must be kept cold at all times. Eggs should be purchased cold at the store and kept cold at home. In between store and home, transport perishable food as fast as possible when no ice source is available. At home, refrigerate perishables promptly. Food should not be left out at room temperature for more than two hours — one hour if the temperature is above 90 F (32.2 C). Prepackaged combos are sometimes packed for lunch. These combos often contain perishable foods such as luncheon meats, cheese and cut fruit that must be kept refrigerated, even though they may be cured or contain preservatives.
Food and utensils used to prepare it must be clean. Before beginning to pack lunches, make sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before using it on the next item.
Be sure to thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables under running tap water, then blot dry with a paper towel before adding them to the lunch bag. Don’t forget to also wash any produce with an inedible peel or rind such as bananas and avocados. Bacteria from the outer peel can be transferred to your child’s hands and then onto the edible part of the fruit. Remind your kids to throw out all perishable leftovers and disposable food packaging.
Be sure to keep foods that might contaminate others separate. Harmful bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and countertops. Always use a clean cutting board. When using a cutting board for food that will not be cooked (such as bread, lettuce and tomatoes) be sure to wash the board after using it to cut raw meat and poultry. Consider using one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry. To avoid cross-contamination, never reuse disposable food packaging.
It is important to keep hot lunches hot. Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili and stews hot. Carefully pour boiling water into an insulated bottle, then empty the bottle and fill it with hot food. Leave the lid on the bottle until it’s time for lunch.
When making lunches using cooked meats (such as chicken soup), be sure to thoroughly cook all poultry, eggs and meat. Use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat.
It is important to keep 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 at 40 F (4.4 C) or below. Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for fast chilling. Keep cooked food refrigerated until time to leave home.
Choose an insulated lunch bag and use freezable gel packs to keep food cool until lunchtime. These products are usually quite inexpensive, and this small investment can go a long way in helping to prevent foodborne illness.
Encourage your child to store his/her lunch in a refrigerator (if available).
For more information go the USDA’s Food Service and Inspection Service website: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/