Packing school lunches can be a pain for parents, but at least we know what the kids are eating. It’s a great way to help children maintain healthy, balanced diets – and to save money, too.
But if parents don’t take certain precautions, even the most well-meaning moms and dads could make their children sick.
A survey published last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that more than 90 percent of sack lunches were kept at unsafe temperatures, exposing children to foodborne illnesses. Even lunches that included ice packs reached unsafe temperatures if too few were included or if too much time passed before lunchtime.
In the study, sack lunches of more than 700 Texas preschoolers were temperature-tested 1.5 hours before the food was served. About 45 percent of the 700 lunches tested had at least one ice pack. But despite parents’ best efforts, more than 90 percent of the lunches were at dangerously warm temperatures. Of the 1,631 perishable food items in the lunches, only 22 items were found to be in an acceptable temperature range.
For parents, this study should serve as a wake-up call. Are we ensuring that our children are safe? Children are at particular risk for foodborne illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says children younger than 4 have quadruple the incidents of bacterial infections transmitted through food compared with adults.
Symptoms of foodborne illness are unpleasant and debilitating. Severe cases, especially in young children whose immune systems are not fully developed, can lead to serious medical issues such as kidney problems, malnutrition, and even death, the CDC noted.
Controlling of the temperature of food is an important way to prevent bacteria from growing and making kids sick. Here are some easy ways to keep your child safe at lunchtime:
- Start with an insulated lunch bag or box. Soft, insulated lunch bags or boxes are the best choice. Avoid paper lunch bags.
- Include small, frozen gel packs. Have extras in the freezer in case you forgot to put yesterday’s in the icebox to refreeze.
- Freeze a juice box or water bottle to include in the lunch. In the morning, it will serve as an extra ice pack; by lunchtime it will melt, providing a cool, refreshing drink.
- Be aware that leftovers, cold cuts, tuna salads, chicken salads and egg salads all must be kept cold to avoid the growth of bacteria that can make kids sick. Even store-bought, packaged lunch combos containing lunchmeats, crackers and cheese need to be kept cold.
- Don’t reuse foil, plastic wrap or sandwich bags even if it seems environmentally friendly to recycle. After one day in a lunch bag, they have become incubators for bacteria. The safest thing to do is to discard them.
- If you have reusable containers, be sure to wash them out thoroughly with soap and hot water.