Packing a Safe Lunch

A new study finds many kids' packed lunches aren't being stored at safe temperatures.

Aug 08, 2011 | By Kelli Plasket
BRIAN HAGIWARA—GETTY IMAGES

Next time you bring lunch to school, you might want to add some extra ice packs to your lunch bag or make sure it gets refrigerated. A new study found that most of the lunches kids bring to school and day care are being stored at unsafe temperatures. This can lead to the growth of harmful bacteria that causes food poisoning.

According to a new study, kids' lunches stored in room-temperature locations, such as a cubby or closet, often don't maintain a safe temperature.
JIM FRANCO—GETTY IMAGES
According to a new study, kids' lunches stored in room-temperature locations, such as a cubby or closet, often don't maintain a safe temperature.

The study is in the science journal Pediatrics. Researchers in Texas tested lunches with perishable items at nine preschool child-care centers. They used a heat-sensing gun to measure the temperatures of sandwiches, yogurts and other items. The results were surprising: more than 90% of perishable items tested were measured at unsafe temperatures before lunchtime. While only about half of the lunches tested had ice packs, many lunches with multiple ice packs were not cool enough, either.

The average temperature of the tested foods was around 62 degrees Fahrenheit. That temperature falls in the range considered to be the "danger zone"—between 40 degrees and 140 degrees—when harmful bacteria that causes food poisoning is more likely to grow. "This study should be an eye-opener for the public," Fawaz Almansour, the study's lead author, told Health.com.

Keeping Kids Healthy

It's especially important for kids' lunches to be stored properly because young children are more likely to be affected by harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli. "Kid's immune systems have not adapted to these diseases," Almansour says.

Schools and day-care centers can help keep lunches safe by storing perishable foods in a refrigerator kept at under 40 degrees. Lunch items that should be refrigerated include meats, milk, and sliced fruits and vegetables; hot items, like soup, should be kept above 140 degrees.

When a refrigerator isn't available, there are other tips kids, parents and teachers can follow to make sure packed lunches are good enough to eat:

• Choose insulated lunch bags to help maintain temperature.

• Use extra ice packs in the lunch bag to keep temperatures down. It also helps to freeze waters, juices and even yogurts overnight before packing. The frozen liquids can double as an extra ice pack.

• The United States Department of Agriculture provides a list of foods that don't need refrigeration. These include whole or dried fruits and vegetables, nuts, peanut butter, jelly, pickles, bread, crackers and canned meat and fish.

• Throw out perishable food that has been kept in the "danger zone" for over two hours.