Millions of Americans carry their lunch to work, and many of these are children going to school.  Food brought from home MUST be kept safe and this can be done if it is handled and cooked safely.  

Perishable food MUST be kept cold while commuting, and after arriving at school or work, it MUST be kept cold until lunchtime.

Food that is perishable MUST be kept cold, between the temperatures of 40 to 140 degrees F., so harmful bacteria won’t rapidly multiply in the “danger zone.”  

Consider these recommendations when carrying food to school or work:

Begin with safe food: perishable food, such as raw or cooked meat and poultry, must be kept cold or frozen at the store and at home. Transport perishable foods as fast as possible when no ice source is available.  When arriving, it must be kept cold. Food should NOT be left out at room temperature more than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F.).

Prepackaged combos that contain luncheon meats with crackers, cheese, and condiments must also be refrigerated.  This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham, which are cured or contain preservatives.

Keep everything clean: wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.  Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with warm, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you prepare the next item.  A solution of 1 teaspoon of bleach in 1 quart of water may be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters.

Do not cross-contaminate. Harmful bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and countertops. ALWAYS use a clean cutting board.  Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry.

At lunchtime, discard all used food packaging and paper bags.  Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

Packing lunches: pack just the amount of food that will be eaten at lunch. It is safe to prepare the lunch the night before and store it in the refrigerator. Freezing sandwiches helps them to stay cold. However, for best quality, do not freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes. Add these prior to eating lunch.

Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used.  If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food.  An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.

Keeping cold lunches cold: prepare cooked food, such as turkey, ham, chicken, and vegetable or pasta salads, ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator.  Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for fast chilling and easier use.  Keep cooked food refrigerated until time to leave home.

To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. If there is a refrigerator available at work or school, store perishable items there upon arrival.  

Some food is safe without a cold source.  Items that do not require refrigeration include: uncut fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.

Keeping hot lunches hot: use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot.  Fill the container with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food.  Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot—140 degrees F. or above.

Microwave Cooking/Reheating: when using the microwave oven to reheat lunches, cover the food to hold in moisture and promote safe, even heating.  Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees F.  Food should be steaming hot.  Cook frozen convenience meals according to package instructions.

You and your family can carry their lunches safely!

Rita M. Hodges is the Ellis County Extension Agent-Family & Consumer Sciences Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Contact Rita at 972-937-5175 or rmhodges@ag.tamu.edu.