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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Tips for packing safe school lunches

Back to School 900.jpgIt seems like the last bell rang just a few short weeks ago, signaling the end of the school year for children across Oklahoma. In the blink of an eye, school supplies are back on the shelves and families are making plans for children to return to the classroom for the fall 2017 semester.

While the temperatures are still very summery, it is time once again to get serious about reading, writing and arithmetic.

In addition to learning, the school lunch also is an important aspect of every child’s school day, said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist.

“The food your children eat at lunch provides them with the fuel they need to complete the school day. School nutrition professionals, the people who prepare food served from the school kitchens, are doing a very good job of this,” Brown said. “If your child hasn’t eaten a school meal yet, or it’s been a while, it’s time to check it out. Not only is the food safe but the quality and nutrition are improving too.”

Brown also pointed out if you or your child pack lunch at home, it is important to make sure the food stays safe until lunchtime. Be sure to follow food safety rules to help ensure your children are not at risk for foodborne illnesses.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 48 million people in the United States become ill from foodborne illnesses every year. This means about one of every six Americans is affected.

Brown said foodborne illnesses are of special concern when it comes to children.

“Children are more than four times more likely to become infected with a food-related bacterial infection than adults ages 20 to 49. An improperly refrigerated sack lunch can be the cause of this, along with inadequate hand washing and contaminated countertops,” she said. “All safety aspects must come into play when preparing foods, especially those foods going into a sack lunch for your child.”

The first step is to start with food that has been handled properly. Perishable food must be kept cold or frozen at the grocery store as well as at home. Foods should never be left at room temperature for more than two hours, or not more than an hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.

Brown stressed the importance of keeping everything clean while preparing foods, including your hands, utensils and kitchen surfaces. Also, use different cutting boards for foods that will be consumed raw and foods that will be cooked. Cross contamination can be a big concern in the kitchen.

“As you pack your child’s lunch, pack only enough perishable foods that can be eaten at lunchtime. In addition, teach your child to throw away uneaten perishable foods,” she said. “This will help ensure there are no worries about storage or safety of the leftovers. Nonperishable foods such as crackers or fresh fruits can be used as an after-school snack without any worries.”

Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes are the best options for keeping cold foods cold. For extra assurance, include a frozen ice pack or even a frozen juice box.

Hot foods such as soup, chili or stew should be packed in an insulated container. To help maintain heat, fill the container with boiling water and let it stand five minutes. Empty the container and then put in the thoroughly heated food. Be sure to tell your child to keep the lid tightly closed until lunchtime.

“Following just a few easy steps will increase the safety of the nutritious lunch your child will enjoy at school,” Brown said.


Trisha Gedon
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
Oklahoma State University
159 Agriculture North
Stillwater, OK  74078
405-744-3625 (phone)
405-744-5739 (fax)


Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078