Packing safe school lunches

 By Sylvanus Thompson

Back to school preparation is always an exciting and fun activity for parents and children. In addition to packing school supplies such as books and pencils, parents may also pack school lunches for their children. However, it is important for parents to keep some simple food safety tips in mind when preparing these meals.

Foodborne illnesses result from eating or drinking food or beverages contaminated with bacteria, chemicals or unwanted items that make food unsafe to eat. The contamination of food can occur at any stage in the food preparation process. Common symptoms of foodborne illnesses include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Symptoms can sometimes be severe and some rare cases, foodborne illnesses can potentially be life-threatening. Although anyone can get a foodborne illness, some people are more vulnerable. These include elderly people and young children, due to weaker immune systems.

Since children are among the most vulnerable to severe consequences of foodborne illness, or food poisoning, it makes sense to take special precautions with the lunches they take to school. There are food safety tips that parents can follow to prevent food poisoning.

Bacteria that cause foodborne illness grow rapidly at temperatures between 4 and 60 degrees Celsius. In just two hours, these microorganisms can multiply to dangerous levels, which can cause food poisoning. To make sure the lunches and snacks you pack are safe, you can follow some simple food safety tips.

Start with safe food:

Perishable food, or food that is likely to spoil or decay including meat, poultry and eggs, must be kept cold at all times. Eggs should be purchased cold at the store and kept cold at home. In between the store and your home, transport perishable food as fast as possible if there is no source to keep the food cold is available. At home, refrigerate perishables promptly. Food should not be left out at room temperature more than two hours.

Prepackaged combos are sometimes packed for lunch. These combos often contain perishable foods such as luncheon meats, cheese, and cut fruit that must be kept refrigerated, even though they may be cured or contain preservatives. Remember to wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly under fresh, cool, running water, even if they will be peeled.

Keep everything clean:

Washing hands with hot, soapy water is very important and will help eliminate bacteria and reduce the risk of food poisoning. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item. A solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water may be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters. Always wash lunch bags with hot, soapy water after each use. Never reuse sandwich bags, foil and plastic wrap. Remind children to wash their hands before they eat their lunches and snacks.

Insulated lunch boxes keep lunches hot or cold:

It is extremely important to keep cold food cold and hot food hot so that they never reach the temperature danger zone, which is between four and 60 degrees. This can occur in packed lunches that sit in warm classrooms for many hours, creating ideal conditions for bacterial growth. Soft, insulated lunch bags or boxes are the best choice for keeping lunches safe.

If food should be eaten hot, heat it before the child leaves for school and store it in a heat-preserving container or thermos. To keep food cold, place an ice pack in the lunch bag. You can also freeze a juice box, small bottled water or yogurt snack and pack it in the lunch bag or box. Not only will this help keep the lunch cold but by lunchtime the frozen treat will have melted, giving your child a cold, refreshing juice, water or a snack to enjoy with their lunch.

Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunchtime. This helps address the issues of storage or safety of leftovers. After lunch, discard all leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

Safety tips for food allergies:

It is also important to be aware of allergies when packing lunches. As many as 1.2 million Canadians may be affected by food allergies and this number is likely increasing, especially among children. Currently, it is estimated that six per cent of children are affected by food allergies. Although many foods can cause allergic reactions, the majority of allergic reactions in Canada are caused by peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, soy, seafood (such as fish, crustaceans and shellfish), wheat, eggs, milk, sulphites and mustard.

The symptoms of allergic reactions vary in type and severity, from mild skin irritations and hives to breathing difficulties and loss of consciousness. Symptoms can also develop at different rates, sometimes getting worse very quickly. The most severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, can be fatal. As a result, packing school lunches for your children must take food allergies into consideration.

Because of the potential seriousness of allergic reactions to food, many schools have policies in place to stop students from bringing certain items in their lunches. It is very important to follow the school’s food allergen policy closely, even if your child does not have allergies. The health and safety of other students depend on all parents and students following the school’s policies.

Finally, some advice “in a nutshell”:

  • If your child is allergic to a certain food, make sure the school knows about the allergy. Work with them to come up with a strategy to keep your child safe.
  • Remind your child that it is not safe to trade or share food.
  • If peanuts are a restricted food at your child’s school, consider alternative sandwich ingredients.
  • Keep an eye out for warning statements on labels such as “May contain….” Remember, even trace amounts can cause a severe allergic reaction

While there are no specific statistics that show how often schoolchildren become sick when eating lunches brought from home, it is best to follow the proper precautions to reduce the risks of and protect your children from foodborne illness.