Food safety expert shares tips on protecting school lunches from foodborne illnesses

Published: Aug. 19, 2022 at 11:42 AM EDT
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(CNN) - Everyone knows healthy meals are important, but as students return to school and lunches are being packed, parents need to protect against foodborne illnesses.

Many times, lunchboxes sit around for hours at school before kids eat.

A healthy meal is well balanced with members of all the food groups, but even a good lunch can go bad if it’s not properly packed.

“These children’s lunches aren’t going to be in a refrigerator,” said Karen Hunter, a U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety expert. “They won’t be able to pull them out right before they eat.”

Hunter said two of the most important back-to-school items you can buy are an insulated lunchbox and something to keep your child’s lunch cold.

She also recommended having two cold sources packed.

“One of those can be a re-freezable gel pack that you can use every day. And a second option would be to freeze their juice box or water bottle and put that in in the morning,” she said. “And that way, by the time lunchtime comes around that beverage is ready to drink, but it’s also served the purpose of keeping those lunch contents below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

As you prepare lunches, keep hands and surfaces clean to avoid cross-contamination.

If you pack lunches the night before, it’s recommended to leave the tops open when you put them in the refrigerator to allow the cold air to circulate and then add gel packs in the morning.

Make sure your child doesn’t open the insulated bag before lunch when items need to stay cold, or after lunch to eat things they didn’t finish.

“For example, if you have a meat sandwich that was cold at lunchtime, it probably won’t still be cold and in that safe temperature range by the time after school comes around,” Hunter said.

The USDA said if parents aren’t sure whether their child’s food is cold enough, they should do a trial run on the weekend. They can pack the bag as if it’s for a school day, place an appliance thermometer into the lunchbox and check it at lunchtime

For more information on temperatures to keep different foods safe, you can also check out foodsafety.gov.