Don’t look now, but school is starting soon. Heck, for some it’s already started. I spied the first official Back to School photo snapped by a friend in Arizona this morning … which means lots of other friends around the country aren’t far behind.
Here in Connecticut, we still have a few weeks to go. It’s going to fly by in a flash, I am sure.
With the school year starting soon, it’s time to think about all things Back to School — from quick dinners to nutritious lunches to tips to make it all a little easier.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a lot of recipes and tips aimed at those of us with children headed back to school. The recipes? Even if you don’t have children, you will probably enjoy them. Or, at least I hope you do.
Today, it’s time to talk a little about lunch box safety. If you are a lunch-packer like me, then these tips will help ensure that the food you are packing stays safe for your kids until they are ready to dig in.
Use an Insulated Lunch Box
Brown bags, cute cotton totes, old-school lunch boxes … these things are really adorable but for kids taking lunch to school, they aren’t the best choice.
Instead, go for a lunch box that will help keep the food cool while the kids are learning. “Insulated totes are great,” says Shelley Feist, Executive Director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. The insulation (coupled with frozen ice packs) will keep food cold longer.
Always Use an Ice Pack
Do you use ice packs? Honestly, while we own them, I am totally sporadic with how often they get used. But after learning more about food safety, you can bet I will be packing ice packs in the kids’ lunch boxes every day from now on. Feist says that keeping lunches cold — including those that you think are shelf-stable — is very important to lunch box safety. “Using a cold pack or frozen juice boxes should carry your child’s lunches through the morning to lunchtime,” says Feist.
This matters particularly because of the risks of food-borne illness. “Children are more vulnerable to serious food-borne illness,” says Feist.
Teach Them to Wash Up
While you can’t be there every second of their day, you can teach your kids to wash up before eating. Check with the school if kids have the opportunity to wash hands before lunch. “Ideally, children are able to wash hands before eating,” says Feist. However, if they can’t, you can still ensure they are relatively germ-free by packing antibacterial hand gel or wipes in their lunch box, says Feist.
Make Sure the Food is Safe
What you pack matters too. And as a parent, it’s your job to make sure your food is fresh. Feist notes that deli meats, for instance, should be eaten within a few days of purchase — even the prepacked ones with expiration dates. “Once you open that package that [expiration] date is no longer valid. Foods like that need to be consumed in a short amount of time,” says Feist. So make sure that what you pack isn’t past its prime.
Keep it Clean
The cleanliness of the items you are packing in is important too. So make sure everything gets washed well. If you are using reusable water bottles for your kids, then you need to clean them after every use. Feist suggests using only dishwasher-safe bottles..
“I’d say it would be important for anything you are using for child on a regular basis to go through the dishwasher. Hand-washing [items] is generally incomplete. It’s preferable to have a container that can run through the dishwasher,” says Feist.
But if you are using ones that half to be hand-washed, make sure you a diligently washing every crevice. A bottle brush — like the ones used for baby bottles can help. Or you can purchase specially made bottle brushes for cleaning reusable bottles. Whatever you choose, be sure you are using hot water and soap too for maximum effectiveness.
And the cleaning? It’s not just for the containers and water bottles. Feist notes that your child’s lunchbox should be cleaned inside and out too. “In between uses make sure you are cleaning properly,” says Feist.
Do you have a great tip for keeping food cold for school? Share in the comments!
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. She is the author of several cookbooks including The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta, both from Rockridge Press. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.