Appropriate for what is Back to School season in a lot of states and provinces, there are a lot of health education months in September. And, where better to start than it being National Food Safety Education Month? Back to school often means back to packed lunches for kids and parents—and can be a good way for parents who have been using the freedom of summer holidays to skip out on making their own lunches for work a chance to get back into the groove, save a bit of cash not heading to the nearby food truck, cafeteria, or restaurant on such a regular basis!
- Wash your hands before preparing food, and between touching foods in different food groups if possible!
- Keep food at the right temperature. Have an ice pack inside an insulated bag to keep cold foods cold. Keep hot foods in an insulated thermos if you or your kids won’t have access to a microwave.
- A pro tip from when I worked at a daycare: our director always told parents to freeze juice boxes on field trip days—it kept the food cold, we didn’t have to carry it back, and the kids got a healthy slushie! However, do some experimenting on a weekend to see how long it has to freeze in your freezer to be thawed reasonably by lunchtime! Sometimes, the drinks would be solid at lunchtime still, and basically undrinkable!
- Leftover cooked foods should be refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking .
- Wash cutting boards and knives frequently. Use separate, marked cutting boards consistently for meat, fish and poultry, vegetables and fruits, and cheese to prevent transmission of germs (mostly, you don’t want uncooked meat juices to come into contact with raw fruits and veggies! Remember this for grocery shopping, too—bag meat, and any other items that are liquid and may leak, separately!
- Food allergy tip: If you are in contact with someone with food allergies, or your child has restrictions on what they can take to school, be mindful of this during food preparation. Don’t slice sandwich meat on a board that just had fish sliced on it if this could cause an allergic reaction for someone in your office or child’s classroom; use separate knives for peanut butter and jelly so that a plain-jelly sandwich is not contaminated with nuts, and wash your hands well if you’ve prepared one family member a food containing potential allergens before making a lunch that’s being taken somewhere with precautions in place!
By Food Group
Meats and meat-alternatives
- Keep sandwiches containing meat at an optimal temperature using an insulated bag and an ice pack if you don’t have access to a fridge.
- Even if you’re warming up meats the next day at lunch, remember to keep things chilled until the time comes. Bacteria can start to grow between 40 and 140 degrees fahrenheit (or, 4 to 60 degrees fahrenheit.  While most bacteria that may grow in meat can be destroyed by cooking, you must use a food thermometer to determine this—don’t take a chance with microwaving food!
- Eggs are a meat alternative product! Remember this when packing a pre-hard boiled egg or egg salad sandwich. Eggs are also a common allergen, so be cautious of this if necessary!
Dairy/milk and milk-alternatives
- With the exception of ice cream or frozen yogurt, of course, which should be kept frozen (for enjoyment if not safety!), dairy products should be kept cold.
- Transport milk, cheese and yogurt with an ice pack close by to ensure it’s still cold at lunch time. These items ALL lose their appeal at room temperature!
- Flavoured milk in tetra-packs is available in shelf-stable varieties. Be cautious of the actual nutrition of these items, however! Of course, these taste much better cold, so while perhaps a safer choice, weigh the pros-and-cons if you are using these more than occasionally (ie. field trip days).
Fruits and vegetables
- Wash all fruits and vegetables prior to consumption to rid them of chemicals that may be on the skin—and because you don’t know how many people picked up your prized apple at the store! Even if they say pre-washed and are in a sealed bag, it doesn’t hurt to give them a quick rinse: water is usually sufficient, ensuring you’ve washed your hands with soap and water first. Read the previous link for more instructions on how to wash fruits and veggies.
- Some fruits and vegetables are okay at room temperature—however, the majority of people prefer most fruits and veggies chilled. Check out page 3 of this document to refresh yourself on how to best store individual fruits and vegetables.
- Fruit and vegetable juices that are bought at room temperature (ie. tetra-pack boxes) can be stored at room temperature. They’re safe to consume this way, but perhaps not the most enjoyable!
- The exception to the rule! Grains are most often most-appetizing if stored at room temperature. Unless you’re pairing them with shelf-stable nut or soy butters or want to assemble your sandwich at lunchtime, it’s best to keep them with the rest of your food!
- Hot cereals can be prepared at lunchtime, or, prepared, chilled and reheated as you would most leftover items.
While you could absolutely prepare a lunch with shelf-stable foods from all of these categories, it might be like eating as a hiker or an astronaut—dried fruit, aerosolized cheese, beef jerky and crackers, perhaps? While it doesn’t sound too great (or healthy!) these foods could probably put up with some pretty crazy temperature swings. So, there are options that are packable snacks that don’t require refrigeration—but use them sparingly!
If you or your child have food allergies, this adds another element to food safety. Ensure those around you or your child are aware of allergies, and wear a food allergy or anaphylaxis medical alert bracelet or necklace stating your allergy.
Here’s to a healthy and safe Back to School season!