Prevent Food Poisoning: How to Keep Your Child’s School Lunches Safer

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“Food can spoil in less than two hours and while symptoms can occur within hours of eating contaminated food, they may also strike one to two days later,” explains says Brooke A. Fenneman, M.S., R.D., pediatric clinical dietitian specialist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.


Let’s face it: packing your child’s lunch can be an overwhelming task, thanks to the plethora of options parents now have to consider. What foods do your youngsters favor, for instance—and which items do you have on hand? The most important question, however, is one you may not be asking: What measures need to be taken at home during packing to prevent food poisoning? That’s right, bad bugs don’t just lurk in restaurants and grocery stores, they can also crop up at home and school.

Every year, about one in six individuals will develop a painful foodborne illness, report experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depending on the type of bacteria, symptoms run the gamut from fever and abdominal cramps to diarrhea and nausea. Foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria like Salmonella, E-coli and Listeria that contaminate food, either because of food being handled incorrectly or being left out at room temperature too long. “Food can spoil in less than two hours and while symptoms can occur within hours of eating contaminated food, they may also strike one to two days later,” explains says Brooke A. Fenneman, M.S., R.D., pediatric clinical dietitian specialist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. What’s more, she says, to start, a child’s homemade school lunch is often perched in a bad position. Most of these meals go unrefrigerated and then are stored in a cubby for more than two hours daily, circumstances which can set the stage for bad bugs to settle in.

Because teachers don’t often have the time or resources to check all student lunches to make sure they’re safe, it’s up to parents to be the food safety police. Sidestep potential problems with these smart tips: 

  1. Use smart food prep strategies: Wash your hands frequently when making lunch, especially when switching from handling meat and seafood to other foods. Then, when cutting or preparing any type of meat, even seafood, use a separate cutting board. You should also never use utensils that you’ve cut or touched meat with on other foods like veggies. Finally, wash all fruits and veggies before slicing, bagging and placing them inside a lunchbox.
  2. Choose foods wisely: Lunch meat poses the highest contamination risk. Other high-risk foods include hard-boiled eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, mayonnaise-based items, and any item with chicken, turkey or tuna. One caveat to note? “You should also consider how long these foods have been in your fridge,” Fenneman says. Always check expiration dates on foods before including them in your child’s lunch. You can also opt for foods that don’t have to stay hot or cold. Fenneman recommends trail mixes, granola bars, fruit, whole-grain crackers and dried cereal.
  3. Invest in insulation: Insulated lunchboxes are a simple way to keep food safe and they won’t cost you more than 10 dollars, says Fenneman. You can also stick a frozen ice pack in the box and freeze juices, which should thaw by lunch and will serve as extra insulation, all of which are important if you’re packing any at-risk items.
  4. Chill the box before school: Pack your child’s lunch the night before and place it in the back of the fridge, as it’s often coldest there. Then, in the morning, pop the lunch in the freezer for about an hour so it becomes as cold as possible, Fenneman says.
  5. Keep it clean:  “Lunchboxes often get neglected when it comes to cleaning,” Fenneman says. Yet just a few days of spills and splashes can be fertile grounds for germs, so wash it daily.

-- By Karen Asp

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