UACES Facebook Packing a Safe School Lunch
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How to pack a safe lunch for your child to carry to school.

Hey y’all. I know that school has been back in session for 2-3 weeks and I am sure that you have finally gotten back into the routine of things. Even though all the schools in Van Buren County all kids eat school breakfast and lunch free, there are still a lot of moms out there having to pack your child a school lunch. I do not have kids but I am someone’s kid so I know one of the top priorities for you moms is packing a nutritious lunch that your child will actually eat. However, another major concern should be will your child’s school lunch be food safe by the time they get to lunch.

Depending on what time you or your child packs their lunch and what time it is ate determines how long it needs to stay out of the Temperature Danger Zone (TDZ; 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit). The food might need to keep cool, or hot, for anywhere between 5-6 hours.

This month’s video shows three different ways I tried to keep a cold lunch cold and two ways I tried to keep a hot lunch hot.

Here are the lunch scenarios I tested:

  • Cold Lunch Cold. For what I put in all the cold lunches, I followed these lunch packing tips from Living Well on the Prairie’s Shea Wilson. I put a protein, veggie or fruit, and a dairy in each lunch box. In each lunchbox, I packed a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole grain bread with mustard and carrots. In two of the lunches, I put a cheese stick. In the other lunch, I put a frozen yogurt tube, to act as the cold element to keep the lunch cold.
  • Red Lunchbox. In the first lunchbox, I used a commercial freezer pack to keep it cold. If you purchase a lunchbox at the store, it is likely the lunchbox will come with one of these freezer packs.
  • Blue Lunchbox. In the second lunchbox, I used a frozen yogurt tube to keep the lunch cold. The company that makes these advertises that you can use the frozen yogurt tube to keep your food cold and then at lunch when it is defrosted, you can eat it like normal yogurt and your food would be cold.
  • Orange Lunchbox. In the last cold lunch, I used a baggie of ice. Not everyone has access to a commercial freezer pack but you might have ice at home you can put in a plastic baggie to keep your child’s lunch cold.
  • Hot Lunches Hot. I packed two hot lunches, which contained soup, whole wheat crackers, carrots, and a cheese stick. Again, following Shea Wilson’s guidelines of a protein, veggie or fruit, and a dairy. Most young children won’t have access to a microwave to heat up their lunch so it’s up to the lunch packer to heat up the soup, pasta, or other hot item while packing and keep it hot until.
  • Green Lunchbox. In the first hot lunchbox, I put the soup in a glass bowl with a lid. I didn’t put anything else in with the lunchbox to keep it hot.
  • Purple Lunchbox. In the last lunchbox, I used a thermos to try to keep the soup hot. It was a stainless steel thermos. I made sure to get one that wasn’t too heavy that wouldn’t weigh down a small child.

What were the results?

I set the lunches aside and planned to check the temperature of the lunches every two hours until I reached six hours when the lunch might be ate. I didn’t put the lunches in the refrigerator because not a lot of teachers have a big enough fridge to store every child’s lunch.

After the first two hours, I used my thermometer to check each sandwich, soup, and cheese stick to test the temperature. Here are the results:


None of the methods I used to keep the cold lunches cold kept the cold lunches out of the TDZ and the same is true for the hot lunches.

Why is this an issue?

Bacteria loves to grow in the TDZ and can make your child very sick. While foods can be at the TDZ for around two hours and still be safe, by lunchtime, the food would have been in the TDZ for over three hours.

Tips for packing a SAFE lunch for your kids

So how can you pack a safe lunch? After the complete fail of packing a safe lunch, I researched how to pack a food safe school lunch and here are my top tips for packing a food safe lunch.

  • Use two sources of cold. This tip comes straight from the USDA for keeping lunches cold. My mistake was only using one cold source for each of the cold lunches. By doubling it up, there is a better chance the lunch is going to stay cold enough to be safe.
  • Freeze the drink. You can make sure to keep the lunch cold by freezing a 100% Fruit Juice box or small water to act as another cold source. Not only will it help in keeping the lunch cold it will ensure their drink to be cool and refreshing by the time that lunch comes.
  • Pack Smart. Pack smart by putting the most perishable items right next to the ice pack. Doing this will make sure the items most likely to grow bacteria in the TDZ are kept the coldest.
  • Preheat the thermos. Before putting hot foods in an insulated thermos, preheat it by filling it with boiling water and letting it set for a few minutes. After the thermos is warm, dump the water, immediately add the hot food, and quickly place the lid tightly on the thermos.
  • Keep it clean. Do not reuse plastic baggies intended for single time use. These baggies can harbor bacteria and can cause sickness. For more environmentally friendly lunches, invest in plastic ware that is washable and able to sanitize. If lunch is for a small child, discuss in detail about what in the lunch box to keep and throw away.

I found these tips on the USDA website. Follow the links for more great tips to packing a food safe school lunch!