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Packing safe school lunches for your child

Posted 8/12/2008

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has information on how to reduce the risk of foodborne illness when packing your child’s lunch.

  • Try to use insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags. These are best for keeping food cold, though metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. To keep food cold, freeze something to be included with the lunch such as a juice box or a small plastic container of water, which will keep the food cool until lunchtime. A small refreezable ice pack, like those used in coolers, is also useful. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food.
  • Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold. However, for best quality, don’t freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce or tomatoes. Set these ingredients aside to be added later.
  • Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili and stew hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot-140 degrees or above.
  • Prepackaged combo lunches that contain luncheon meats along with crackers, cheese and condiments must also be kept refrigerated or refrigerator cold.
  • Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunch. That way there won’t be a problem about the storage or safety of leftovers.
  • After lunch, discard all used food packaging and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

There are foods in which bacteria does not grow because they are high in acid or low in moisture. The following foods can be safely left at room temperature for 4-6 hours: nuts and peanut butter; bread, cookies, crackers, and cake; jam, honey, syrup, and candy; butter, margarine, and cooking oil; dry cereals; powdered milk (until reconstituted); raw, cooked, or dry fruit; raw vegetables; pickles, relishes, mustard, and ketchup; dry or hard cheeses; yogurt; dried sausages, such as salami, pepperoni, and jerky; canned foods (until opened); and fruit pies.

For more information or to request a fact sheet on this topic, contact Mary Wilson, dietitian and nutrition specialist with Cooperative Extension at (702) 257-5507 or email

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension is an outreach arm of the University that extends unbiased, research-based knowledge from the University-and other land-grant universities-to local communities. Educational programs are developed based on local needs, sometimes in partnership with other agencies and volunteers. For more information about University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, please visit the website at or call (702) 222-3130.

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