Beware the Hidden Dangers in Your Child’s Lunchbox

A lunch box filled with fun, healthy food not only makes kids happy: It also helps them perform better academically. But if you’re not careful, you could be packing food poisoning along with that tuna sandwich, says Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and mother of two. Follow these simple rules to make sure your child’s lunch box makes the grade:

  • Don’t start with a dirty lunch box: “Even a small food spill can be a bacteria magnet,” says Thayer. So give the lunch box a good scrub with hot, soapy water and dry it thoroughly. A little baking soda can get rid of any lingering food odors in lunch boxes or insulated bottles. In addition, stash a small bottle of handhealthy lunchbox sanitizer in the lunch box so kids can clean their hands before eating.
  • Do think before you pack: Whenever possible, pick foods that have little chance of spoiling. Good choices include crackers; uncut fresh, dried or canned fruit in juice; whole veggies; hard cheeses; canned meat and fish; and individual puddings with pop-top lids. Many kids crave prepackaged lunches with individual compartments, but Thayer says these meal choices tend to be high in salt and fat. Instead, she suggests making your own healthier version. “In a reusable container with separate compartments, pack whole-grain crackers, squares of cheese and/or turkey, and a little treat.” Hard-boiled eggs, tuna salad or yogurt are also healthy options, says Thayer — but only if they can be kept cold in the fridge or with an ice pack (see below) until eaten. The best choice of all: PB&J — it’s nonperishable, nutritious and a perennial kid fave.
  • Don’t forget to chill: Place all lunch ingredients and the lunch box itself — a soft-sided, insulated one is best — in the fridge the night before. “The cooler the food starts out, the cooler it will stay,” says Thayer. Pre-chill an insulated bottle with ice water before filling with juice or another beverage. Believe it or not, you can also freeze a sandwich made from peanut butter, cheese or meat the night before. (Don’t try this with fillings made with mayonnaise, eggs, lettuce, tomatoes or other raw veggies.) You can even make a whole week’s worth of sandwiches ahead of time and stick them in the freezer. Your child’s sandwich will keep the rest of the food cool and thaw by lunchtime. Alternatively, throw in a frozen juice box or water bottle, which will act as an ice pack. You might even consider sandwiching the sandwich between a frozen juice box and an ice pack. Keep several in the freezer so they’re always ready.
  • Don’t let hot foods get cool: To avoid food poisoning, soups and other hot foods should still be at 140 degrees when served. Thayer suggests you fill an insulated stainless steel container made for hot foods with extremely hot water, let it sit for a few minutes, spill out and immediately fill with hot food. Then keep the container tightly closed until lunchtime.
  • Do tell kids to toss it: If you’re packing perishables, make sure your child knows that if the food isn’t cold when he opens his lunchbox, he shouldn’t eat it, says Thayer. In addition, direct him to throw out all leftovers when lunch is over: You don’t want your child eating a spoiled sandwich on the bus home. And no matter how tempted you are to economize, never reuse any foil, plastic wrap, or paper and plastic bags, which could be contaminated with dangerous bacteria.


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