As children across the country return to school, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reminds parents to follow some simple safety guidelines as they pack those healthy choices in their lunches.
"Providing your child with the proper nutrition is important, but it's just as important that those healthy choices are kept safe," said Kevin Besey, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's Food and Dairy Division director. "Following simple guidelines can ensure the lunch you pack your child is safe from bacteria that may cause foodborne illnesses."
The following guidelines are recommended by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development:
Before packing lunches, wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before the next item.
Use at least two ice sources (two ice packs or one ice pack and one frozen water bottle or juice box) to keep perishable food items cold. Use insulated containers to best keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Avoid having leftovers by not over packing perishable food items. Discard used paper bags and used food packaging. When reheating leftovers cover food for safe, even heating and to hold in moisture.
Food items that don't require refrigeration include: whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.
Keep food safety in mind as you prepare your child's school lunch, adds Terri Miller, University of Wisconsin-Extension Nutrition Coordinator for Vilas, Florence and Forest counties. Miller has some recommendations for packing a safe lunch.
- Make sure your hands, food preparation surfaces and utensils are clean. Use hot, soapy water to help remove bacteria. Keep family pets away from food preparation areas and off kitchen counters. And encourage your children to always wash their hands before they eat or help you in the kitchen.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before packing them in your child's lunch. Rinse them under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Blot dry with a paper towel before packing. Be sure to keep cut or sliced fruits cold. Sliced peaches or bananas, or other light-colored fruit, will benefit from dipping in lemon juice or sprinkling with a commercial anti-browning preparation to keep them looking their best.
- Keep hot foods (soup, chili, stew) hot by using an insulated bottle. Fill the bottle with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Empty the bottle and then fill it with piping hot food. Keep the bottle closed until lunchtime. Discard leftovers that arrive home in the insulated bottle at the end of the school day.
- Cold foods should stay cold. If you pack a cold lunch and store in the refrigerator the night before, it will stay cool longer the next morning. Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes can help keep perishable foods chilled; simply add a cold source, such as a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. Any perishable food (meat, poultry or egg sandwiches, or dairy products) not eaten at lunch should be discarded.
- Sometimes a field trip will require that lunch be packed in a brown paper sack. When that is the case, opt for non-perishable foods such as peanut butter or cheese sandwiches, crackers, or packaged pudding or fruit. A frozen juice box will serve as a disposable cold source and should be thawed and ready to drink by lunchtime.
And speaking of containers, resist the urge to reuse plastic sandwich or bread bags when packing school lunches, Miller says.
Bacteria can spread from one product to another, increasing the chance of spoilage or illness.