By Luz Ana Osbun

Packing a lunch for yourself and your family (like cooking at home rather than eating out) is cheaper than going out and allows you to control the nutrition content of the foods, as well as the spice level, the condiment level, etc.  But since most kids’ lunches sit in their lockers for hours before they’re eaten, how do you know if you’re preparing is safe?

A Good Housekeeping (August 10, 2011) article explained that a The University of Texas study found 90 percent of home-packed school lunches are stored at room temperature. Food temperatures that are between 40°F and 140°F are commonly referred to as “the danger zone,” as these temperatures provide the perfect environment for bacteria to flourish.

So how do we keep foods not only nutritious, but safe as well? Here are five basic things:

First, properly prepare the foods before packing them. Make sure that your cutting surfaces are clean before your begin preparing your child’s lunch. To keep cutting boards sanitized soak them in a solution of a capful of bleach (a tablespoon) per gallon of water.  Use paper towels to clean surfaces rather than re-using cloth kitchen towels. If you do not want to waste paper towels, clean and sanitize cloth towels, by throwing them in the wash cycle of your dishwasher, and choose the heat dry setting. Also, make sure that you properly wash the surfaces of all fruits and vegetables, even the fruits that have a rind. Cantaloupe if not properly washed in hot water, may introduce an opportunity for E.coli found on the outside rind to travel to the inner fruit portion in the process of slicing.

Second, separate to avoid cross contamination! Make sure to keep cutting boards used for preparing meats and poultry separate from those used to prepare fruits and vegetables.

Third, make sure that hot foods stay hot, and cold foods stay cold. First tip: Choose lunch containers that are insulated, rather than purchasing a metal or plastic lunch box with a “cool” design kids gravitate towards. Also choose a lunch box with a freezable cold pack, or purchase one separately. Second tip: Don’t pack both hot and cold lunch foods together. Doing this will cause both foods to eventually become warm, which puts the temperature of the entire lunch into the “danger zone.” Third Tip: before packing sandwiches (for a cold lunch) freeze them the night before. Pack them into an insulated lunch container with a freezable cold pack. This will ensure that your child’s lunch stays cold until the afternoon. For hot foods, make sure they’re hot before you add into an insulated container.

Fourth, choose foods that are safe to consume at room temperature. There are now shelf-stable milks packaged in individual containers, and a myriad of individually packed 100 percent juices that can be kept at room temperature. Other ideas are: cheese and crackers, peanut butter and crackers, (check with your child’s school to see if they allow peanut butter), and fruits and vegetables in whole form can be consumed at room temperature. I recommend apples, apricots, smaller mini-sized bananas and tangerines.

Fifth, be sure to enforce that your children wash their hands before eating. After running, or rolling around on the schoolyard— a good hand washing is a great idea. You may also want to include individually packed hand toilettes with a lunch, to make hand washing convenient.

Let’s make sure all our kids are off to a fun, educational, nutritious, and SAFE start this year!