Photo courtesy Mike Licht, Flickr creative commons

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By Benjamin Chapman

North Carolina State University

My son Jack started kindergarten a couple of weeks ago and our luxurious summer schedule came to an end. No biggie for me, as I’m in the habit of a 5:30 a.m. wake up. (It’s quiet and it gives me an excuse for going to bed at 9 p.m.) But it does mean packing a lunch everyday that will stand up to no refrigeration.

With traditional schools beginning this week and next, packed-lunch food safety is back on the menu for many. Here are the things I try to do to keep Jack’s lunches safe:

School lunch photo courtesy Melissa, flickr creative commons

Refrigerating the lunch components and freezing juice boxes or water

About half the time, I make Jack’s lunch the night before and refrigerate all the components until about 10 minutes before he leaves. I know it’s going to be about four hours until he opens up his lunch, so I want the starting temp to be low enough to curb the growth of any pathogens (especially if he’s taking his lunch on a field trip). The juice/water ice pack helps with this as well.

Using an insulated bag

Living in the South, the summer heat goes well into October. We purchased an insulated bag that’s built to shield the inside from rising temperatures. Conversely, if we were to provide any hot foods (like soup) we’d add an insulated thermos. The hot food packed for lunch makes me nervous; I’d probably test out the thermos before hand by filling it up with hot food (probably above 165F) and using a digital tip-sensitive thermometer after four hours to see whether it has remained at least above 135F.

Cleaning and sanitizing

We use a mix of one-use and reusable containers for Jack’s lunches. We’re in the habit of putting them directly into the dishwasher when he gets home. I rinse his lunchbox out with water (to take care of any leftover food debris) and then spray it down with a sanitizer, rinse and let it dry.

Instilling good hygiene

After the first couple of days of school, Jack came home requesting to go to the store and purchase a small hand sanitizer for his backpack (peer pressure, since a few of his friends had them). I bought the sanitizer but also reinforced the gold standard of good handwashing (including using a paper towel) before squirting the sanitizer.

I’m still a paranoid new parent and a self-proclaimed food-safety nerd. Beyond what I can control with my son’s lunch, I worry about how the school will handle any food that might be used in the classroom and whether handwashing (for kids and teachers) will be valued. I also hope that the teachers and staff recognize risky events (like a norovirus outbreak) and have the tools to manage illness transmission.

Benjamin Chapman is a food-safety specialist and associate professor in the Department of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University. He blogs about food safety at barfblog.

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