A home-cooked school lunch is always better than cafeteria fare — that is, unless you accidentally pack food-borne illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six Americans contracts food poisoning each year by eating foods contaminated with disease-causing pathogens. That's 48 million people, 128,000 of whom are hospitalized and 3,000 die. Young children are particularly at risk for severe symptoms, which means you should be extra careful when you pack your child's school lunch this year.
Feeling alarmed? While it's good to practice caution, there's no need to live in fear. Food-borne illness is preventable. Follow basic rules for food preparation and packing, and you will stop disease from invading your kid's lunchbox in the first place.
Rule #1: Avoid cross contamination. Always use different cutting boards, bowls and knives while prepping your child's foods. Even if you rinse a cutting board after slicing raw meat, you risk contaminating your kid's other snacks if you use the same cutting board to chop veggies.
Rule #2: Wash raw fruits and veggies. Did you know that fresh produce is a major carrier for food-borne illness? Prevent these healthful foods from harming your child by washing them thoroughly before packing.
Rule #3: Cook foods thoroughly. If you're packing cooked foods (you have a lucky kid!), make sure you heat everything to at least 160 degrees. Bacteria cannot live at 160 degrees for more than a few seconds, so you'll nuke all the bad germs from your child's lunch just by heating. Make sure you pack the cooked food in a heavy-duty insulated container so it won't lose heat during the day.
Rule #4: Keep perishable items chilly. Milk, yogurt, cheese, lunchmeat, tuna and chicken need refrigeration in order to remain safe. Never leave these items at room temperature for more than two hours. That means you'll need to pack these items with an ice pack and an insulated lunch box.
Rule #5: Washed hands are healthy hands. Surprisingly, human hands are often responsible for spreading food-borne illness. Pack wet wipes to remind your child to wash his or her hands — and make sure to practice what you preach when you're preparing school lunches.
Helpful products for healthful lunches
Sadly, these rules aren't easy to follow with sandwich baggies and a brown paper sack. Stock up on these items to make sure your child's lunch is as safe as possible.
Hello Kitty Soft Lunch Kit
This Thermos lunch box comes in a variety of styles, but the premise is always the same. Insulation means that this lunch box will hold cold air inside for safe eating. (Thermos, $8)
Dinosaur ice packs
No more boring blue ice packs for school lunches. We vote for this dinosaur, instead. (Personalization Mall, $8)
LunchBots Insulated Thermal
Keep foods piping hot with this insulated container — your child can enjoy warm soup an entire five hours after you pack it. (Lucky Vitamin, $27)