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What's Growing in Your Lunch Bag?

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  September 13, 2012 11:15 AM

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Photo Source:  AND


Depending on your packed lunch food safety habits, you could be setting yourself up for foodborne illness, better known as the dreaded food poisoning.  Foodborne illness causes almost 50 million illnesses, and sadly, 3,000 deaths, annually in the United States. 

Take this quiz to see if your packed lunch is considered safe: 
If you answered, “no” to any of the above, you’re not alone but please read on.

Using a clean, insulated lunch box along with frozen ice packs are your best bet to help keep your edibles at a safe temperature until lunchtime.   Unfortunately, in a study published in Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Texas examined the lunchboxes of over 700 preschoolers and found that over 90 percent of the perishable items in the lunch bag were at an unsafe temperature by the time the children were chowing down on their lunch.  Even more shocking, the researchers uncovered that almost 40 percent of the lunch boxes didn’t have an ice pack. 

Since the immune systems of young children are not full developed, they are not only at a higher risk for foodborne illness but typically also have more serious reactions than adults.  Pregnant women, older adults, and those with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, all have weakened immune systems, which can cause these individuals to be more susceptible to a pathogen that can cause foodborne illness.

To lower your risk for food poisoning, these tips will help you pack a safe lunch:

  • Use an insulated, soft-side lunch bag or box, which are best for keeping food cold, according to the USDA.
  • Always use ice packs.  Perishable foods such as yogurt, meats, and cut up fruits and vegetables, should remain chilled at 40 degrees F or below to slow down the rate that pathogens will multiply to dangerous levels.  Ideally, at least two ice sources should be used with perishable foods, with one ice pack on the bottom of the items and another one on top.  According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), a frozen individual juice box can serve as a cold pack. 
  • Store your lunch in a refrigerator.  If available, you should store your packed lunch in the refrigerator with the bag open.  This will allow the chilly air to come in contact with the food to keep it cold until you are ready to eat it.
  • Forget about bringing home leftovers.  Perishables that are left out at room temperature for more than two hours (likely the time it takes to not only eat the lunch but transport it home), should be tossed as they are unsafe to consume.
  • Ditch the sandwich bags.   If you use plastic sandwich baggies, they should get tossed after each use to prevent cross contamination with another future food item. 
  • Plastic containers, as well as the inside and outside of the lunch bag, should also be thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water and rinsed clean in between uses according to AND.
Follow Joan on Twitter at: joansalgeblake
For more on lunch bag food safety, click here for this TV segment:

Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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