Is Your Child's Lunch Box Safe?

July 2, 2013

Keep your child safe from food-borne illnesses by making lunch box safety a priority with these 9 tips.

If you're like most parents, you do everything you can to ensure your child's safety, never letting them ride a bike without a helmet and teaching them to cross the street only at a crosswalk. But, have you ever stopped to consider the dangers that could be lurking in their lunchboxes?

A 2011 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that less than two percent of all food items packed by parents for their children to eat are kept at safe temperatures.

To prevent your child's lunchbox from becoming a hazard zone, heed these tips for lunchbox safety from Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who weighs in with her tips for lunchbox safety.

  1. Use an Actual Lunch Bag
    Don't use a bag not meant to be a lunch pack, as these may not be insulated and will not keep temperatures low. While most parents and kids gravitate towards the prettiest bags, find one that actually works the best.

    "I see young girls on the beach with lunch packs from all the major stores in adorable colors, stripes and polka dots," Frechman says. "They may look sweet, but they won't pack much of a punch when it comes to keeping food safe from bacteria."

  2. Find an Insulated Bag
    Pack your child's lunch in an insulated lunch box, as this will keep the ice from melting too quickly. Frechman is not a fan of tin lunch boxes because they provide cooling only for a short time.

    And grab an insulated container that can keep food hot until it's time for lunch.

  3. Toss in a Cold Pack
    Include at least one cold pack in your bag, even if you're packing a frozen liquid or snack. And toss old ones. Cold packs, both hard and soft, can leak hazardous chemical solvents, according to Alex Filip, spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He recommends throwing away any ice pack that has a leak or tear immediately.

  4. Throw Out Old Lunch Boxes
    Ripped or torn lunch boxes should also be discarded immediately, as these may no longer shield food from bacteria or keep items sufficiently cold. "Bacteria can sneak in through leaks and tears and cold air can sneak out," Frechman says.

  5. Test the Temperature
    Foods should remain at a temperature of 40 degrees or below. Frechman suggests using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of your lunch box to be on the safe side.

  6. Be Wary of High Protein Foods
    High protein foods are bacteria magnets. These include meat, chicken, eggs, fish and yogurt. If you include these in your child's lunch box, make sure they are eaten within two hours if the temperature outside is below 90 degrees and one hour if the temperature outside is above that mark.

  7. Befriend Mayo
    Mayonnaise is not the culprit you think it is. The acid in mayonnaise actually helps to protect food from bacteria, but Frechman warns this is not a substitute for an ice pack.

  8. Pack a Small Bag
    Opt for a smaller lunch box as these will keep colder longer. If your lunch box is large, fill it with more than one ice pack.

  9. Keep it Clean
    Wash your lunch box after every use with hot, soapy water and let it dry thoroughly. Frechman also recommends airing out lunch boxes in the open air if they take on a slight smell. If the smell doesn't fade, toss the lunch box immediately.

While it's impossible to protect children from every dangerous situation they encounter, at least keeping their lunch boxes clean, bacteria-free and safe is within the control of every caregiver.

Corey Whelan is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work can be found here.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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