Parents who pack lunches and snacks for their kids tend to take to school take great care to make sure they are sending healthy and nutritious meals. Be sure that those lunch boxes are also toxin-free by following these safety guidelines.
Practice Safe Food Handling
Before you begin packing the lunch, wash your hands and make sure all counters, cutting boards and utensils are clean.
Avoid cross-contamination by washing your cutting boards with hot, soapy water when you switch from preparing one food to the next. This is particularly important when you are working with highly perishable foods like meat, fish or mayonnaise based salads.
Choose the Right Equipment
It’s best to pack lunches using equipment that is designed to keep foods at the proper temperatures. Choose insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes and gel-filled ice packs to keep food cold and vacuum flasks (more commonly known by the Thermos brand name) to keep foods warm.
In 2005, the Center for Environmental Health found lead in the vinyl linings of several soft-sided lunch containers so buy lunch boxes from reputable companies or — or even better — look for containers with labels certifying they are lead-free. Many parents also choose to buy food containers and water bottles that are BPA-free due to concerns about the safety of this chemical that is sometimes found in plastics.
Keep Hot Foods Hot
If you are sending foods to school with your child that are meant to be eaten hot, such as soup, pasta, or casseroles, send them in a thermos to ensure they stay warm. Begin by warming the thermos container. I fill my son’s thermos with boiling water from the kettle when I am pouring my morning cup of tea (very hot tap water will also work for this). I then let the container sit with the hot water inside and the lid on while I heat the food that I am sending in his lunch. Be sure to heat the food to at least 140° (hotter is better though), then dump out the hot water and put the food in the thermos. It should easily stay warm enough to be safe until lunch time.
Keep Cold Foods Cold
Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the temperature zone between 40 and 140° F so it’s important to keep the temperature of your chilled foods below 40°. The easiest way to keep the temperature inside a lunch box down is to drop a gel-filled ice pack in your child’s lunch every morning. My son often eats snacks from his lunch box as late at 4:00 pm because he goes to an after-school program, so if I know he will be eating later in the day I’ll include two or three ice packs. You can also lower the temperature in a lunch box by freezing some of the foods you’ll be packing including juice boxes, yogurt tubes and grapes.
Clean Lunch Equipment Thoroughly
When you unpack your child’s lunch box at night be sure to clean everything thoroughly. Wash any containers that held food, of course, but also give the lunch box itself a good scrub down with hot, soapy water. If the lunch box is machine washable, send it through the washing machine at least once per week.
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