Suggestions For Safer School Lunches To Prevent Foodborne Illness

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NEWARK—As children look forward to using new lunchboxes for school, parents should be aware of the dangers of foodborne illness that can lurk in a packed lunch. A new report has found that despite parents’ best intentions, many school lunches packed at home may reach unsafe temperatures by the time a child eats, even when lunches are packed in an insulated container with ice packs.

A new study of preschoolers’ lunches found that more than 90 percent of the food sent from home was at an unsafe temperature long before children started eating. The study, by the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, is published in Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.


When kept at improper temperatures, bacteria can multiply rapidly, which makes foodborne illness more likely. Foodborne illness causes an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States.

“Young children are at particular greater risk, especially those under the age of 5 years,” reports Joshua Rosenblatt, MD, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey (CHoNJ) at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all reported foodborne illnesses occur in children.”

The researchers tested the temperature of individual perishable items from 705 lunches. They tested the foods 1.5 hours before the kids’ scheduled lunch time because children are often allowed to start snacking on their food prior to lunch. Just 1.6 percent of perishable items were kept in the safe temperature zone recommended by the USDA.

The USDA recommends that cold food be kept at less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and that no food should be at room temperature for more than two hours.

Ideas for Safer School Lunches

Following are some suggestions from says Barbara Mintz, MS, RD, Assistant Vice President of Wellness at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and Director of Clinical Nutrition:

  • Insulated lunch bags are a good way to keep foods cold. Use a frozen ice pack or a frozen bottle of water to keep the insulated lunch bag and its contents cold.
  • Keep cold foods in the refrigerator or freezer until it is time to leave for school.
  • Hot foods, like chili or stew must be kept at a temperature of at least 60°C (140°F) until eaten. Preheat the insulated container by filling it with boiling water before putting in the hot food. After a few minutes, pour out the water, fill the container with the hot food and close the lid immediately.
  • Some food is safe without a cold source. Items that don’t require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned or packaged tuna, chips, breads, crackers, muffins, sealed fruit such as applesauce, pudding cups, dried fruits like raisins, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, pickles, olives. Make sure you consider healthy choices like pretzel and baked chips. Other good choices are trail mix, veggie sticks with prepackaged salad dressing and peanut butter cups.
  • If a reusable lunch bag or box is used, wash it with hot, soapy water, sanitize and let it dry before reuse.
  • A study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health found that almost 65 percent of water samples taken from children’s water bottles did not meet acceptable drinking water standards. Many of these students refilled the same water bottle without washing it. So remember to give your child bottled water.
  • See if your daycare or nursery school offers a refrigerator.
  • Consider having your child buy the offered school lunch.

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