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Is It Time to Bag Homemade Lunches?

< Aug. 10, 2011 > -- With the start of the school year coming up fast, a new study on lunch safety may give parents reason to pause.

Researchers found that more than 90 percent of food packed in preschoolers' lunches was at an unsafe temperature well before lunchtime. This was even true when the lunches were placed in the fridge at school.

"This was an eye opener," says study author Fawaz Almansour at the University of Texas at Austin. "As a parent, when my child comes home with a stomachache or vomiting, I usually think it's a virus. I don't think the food I serve is the problem."

Day-care lunches

The researchers tested the temperature of perishable items from 705 lunches at nine Texas day-care centers. They examined the foods about 90 minutes before the school lunchtime because children often are allowed to snack on food ahead of lunch.

About 40 percent of the lunches had no ice pack to keep them cold, and 45 percent had a single ice pack. Yet even multiple ice packs didn't keep foods cold enough, the researchers found.

Most of the lunches were at room temperature, according to the study. Just 1.6 percent of perishable items were kept in the safe temperature zone recommended by the USDA. The USDA recommends that cold food be kept at less than 40 degrees and that no food should be at room temperature for more than two hours.

Bacteria can thrive

When food is kept at improper temperatures, bacteria can multiply rapidly, making foodborne illness more likely. Foodborne illness is a particular risk for kids younger than 5 years.

The study was published online this week and will appear in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics. 

Fridge no help

Why isn't keeping the lunches in the refrigerator a solution? The researchers say that the insulation in the lunch bag may keep the cold from the refrigerator from reaching the food inside. In addition, school refrigerators aren't always kept at the ideal temperature; they are often crowded with items; and school children may leave the fridge door open for long periods.

"The vast majority of lunches were clearly out of a safe range, but it's hard to know what the true biological impact of that is," says Michael Green, M.D., at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "We don't truly know how often this results in a foodborne illness."

Parents can help keep their children's lunches safe by packing only nonperishable items such as peanut butter sandwiches or by packing lunches in paper bags if a refrigerator is available at the school. The other option is to have your child buy lunch at school.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this website.

What's for Lunch?

When packing your child's lunchbox, you don't have to always put in a sandwich. In fact, lunch doesn't have to be a sandwich at all. It can be leftovers or a collection of ingredients that please your child.

Consider these ideas:

  • Try cherry tomatoes, chunks of pineapple, pieces of cheese, and slivers of ham to make kabobs. Include pretzel sticks for skewers, and a juice box or a small water bottle.

  • Skip the usual American cheese in favor of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and tomatoes.

  • Pack fresh fruit and nonfat vanilla yogurt for parfaits that have more appeal than the preserves-on-the-bottom kind.

  • Instead of plain bread, dress up a slice of date-nut bread with a little cream cheese to avoid another humdrum meal.

Add a pretty napkin, a personal note, or other treat and you can make a child's day. A couple of chocolate Kisses tucked into a lunch box can mean more than a whole bag of candy.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

FoodSafety.gov - Keep School Lunches Safe

USDA - Food Safety Tips for College Students

USDA - Keeping ‘Bag' Lunches Safe