Some families may not know about food safety when it comes to packing foods for their childs lunch or snack to be used during the childcare day. As a caregiver, you may have seen foods that may cause health and safety issues such as luncheon meats that are moldy, milk that has curdled, or foods that present choking hazards.
To keep a packed lunch safe to eat, choose foods which may safely be kept at room temperature, so that food-poisoning bacteria do not grow in them, and keep the bacteria count low by careful handling of foods. By knowing how to pack foods safely, as well as what kinds of foods are good to pack for lunches or snacks, you can help parents learn about food safety and nutrition.
What is Foodborne Illness?
Microorganisms, primarily bacteria, can live and multiply in food. Some bacteria are helpful and healthy, such as those used in making cheese or yogurt. However, many bacteria can cause disease, such as Salmonella, E.coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus, botulinum, and listeria.
Foodborne illnesses generally cause nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Usually, these illnesses only last for a few hours. However, some illness may lead to serious complications and can even result in death.
Contamination by harmful bacteria can result from contamination during food preparation and handling, inadequate cooking, improper storage. Bacteria may be present in the food, such as salmonella bacteria on poultry products.
Bacteria also can be introduced from other sources such as unwashed hands or infected wounds. Salmonella is frequently found on pet turtles and other reptiles, so these are not advisable in the early care and education (ECE) setting.
Keep it Clean
You cannot tell if a food contains harmful bacteria by smell, appearance, or taste, so the key is to prevent contamination. Sanitation is critical in food preparation and packaging.
Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after preparing food. Keep food preparation areas and utensils clean and dry.
Wash your hands, utensils, and kitchen surfaces with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat or poultry. Children should wash hands with soap and water before eating.
Clean lunch boxes and bags after each use, or use disposable lunch bags. Do not reuse bags that previously held food. Avoid plastic bags with ink printing that can rub off onto other surfaces.
The best place to start is with fresh, clean food. If using foods from a can, make certain the can is not dented, broken, or bulging. Avoid using home-canned foods in ECE settings. Check the use by and/or expiration date on all foods. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially those that will not be cooked.
Avoid serving foods from sources which may not be monitored or follow health department requirements.
Maintain Food Temperature
Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria grow rapidly in temperatures between 40° F and 140° F.
Help keep cold foods under 40° F by using an insulated lunch bag or box. Store lunch bags in a cool area and out of direct sunlight. If possible, refrigerate the lunch bags.
If refrigeration is not possible, place a frozen gel pack on top of perishable foods. Or, pack ice in a tightly sealed plastic bag. You may need to use two bags to prevent leaking.
Frozen boxes of juice, applesauce, yogurt, or milk also keep foods cold, and they thaw gradually to become part of the childs lunch. Sandwiches made the night before can be frozen individually in clean, tightly sealed plastic bags. Whole grain breads are best for freezing as white bread gets soggy.
Cold foods are often taken on field trips and picnics. To package bulk foods, fill an ice chest or thermal container with ice or gel packs, or use frozen cartons of juice or milk (placed in clean, sealed plastic bags to prevent leaking) to cover the food.
All foods placed into the chest must be cold before being packed. Prepare and refrigerate or freeze the food before packing. For example, cheese sandwiches can be prepared the evening before and frozen. At lunchtime, the sandwiches will be chilled, but not frozen.
Hot foods such as soup, stew, chili should be kept over 140° F. These foods should be heated thoroughly before packing. Next, fill a wide-mouth thermos bottle with hot water for several minutes. Pour out the water and fill immediately with the hot food. Tighten well.
Properly heated and packaged food should remain higher than 140° F for about four-six hours. To prevent burns, childcare providers and teachers should help young children open the thermos at mealtime.
The most perishable types of foods are meats, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. Throw away perishable foods that have been at room temperature for more than two hours. When in doubt, throw it out.
Shelf-stable foods do not need to be refrigerated or heated. Nutritious and fun, these foods can quickly be tossed into lunch bags.
- Cut and rinsed raw fruits and vegetables such as bananas, apples, oranges, peaches, plums, grapes, grapefruit, carrot sticks, celery, green pepper strips, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
- Dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, bananas, pineapple, cherries, and cranberries.
- Crackers and bread products such as bread sticks, soft pretzels, bagel, whole grain crackers, rice cakes, muffins, trail mix, and cereal.
- Peanut butter sandwiches or crackers or shelf-stable cheese spreads and crackers or bread. Spread tortillas with peanut butter, cheese, or cream cheese and top with raisins.
- Individually packed pudding, gelatin, and fruit cups.
- Commercially prepared and ready-to-eat meats, such as corned beef, salami, and bologna are good lunch box choices which will last well.
- 100 percent juice boxes or shelf-stable milk.
Talking with Parents
If you observe that a child brings food from home of questionable safety, please talk with the parent or guardian privately and sensitively. Parents may be unaware of food safety practices. Other families may not have a refrigerator, freezer, or stove at home to prepare food safely, or may not be able to afford necessary lunch box equipment.
Madeleine Sigman-Grant, PhD, RD
Professor and Area Extension Specialist
Fight BAC!, www.fightbac.org
Smart Lunches to Go, www.uri.edu/ce/ceec/food/factsheets/smartlunch.html
Keeping Bag Lunches Safe, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_sheets/Keeping_Bag_Lunches_Safe/index.asp
Pack a Safe Lunch, Washinton State University, cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/eb1490/eb1490.html
U.S.D.A. Food Safety and Inspection Service, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Rm 3168 South Bldg, Washington, DC 20250; 800-336-3747; www.fsis.usda.gov/Be_FoodSafe/index.asp