Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Cooking

How to keep kids' school lunches safe throughout the day

When kids go back to school, parents go back to the kitchen, making sure their little ones have fuel from breakfast through dinner. We've got dinner covered, with 10 ideas for casseroles on busy nights.

But lunch is a different story.

Lunch boxes must be packed and then sent off with little control over what happens next. In addition to figuring out what exactly to put in them (see our suggestions here), it's important to make sure the contents are safe to eat by lunchtime.

Museum of Science and Industry communications director Grayson Kamm says parents may be surprised by how quickly a lunch whipped up in the morning could end up teeming with bacteria.

He works on a team at MOSI that get hands-on with the science behind things in our everyday lives. In his own words, here is a look at what he calls the "cold, hard facts about the warm, mushy food that may be in your child's lunch box."

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

That snack you packed this morning? It could be poison by lunchtime.

At room temperature, bacteria can start to grow on food in just four hours. When it's above 90 degrees (like here in Tampa Bay in August), it can happen much faster, in about an hour. That information comes from the Institute of Food Technologists.

What happens if too much of the wrong kind of bacteria grows in your lunch? Once it's in your body, it can cause food poisoning. You may suddenly see way too many examples of the science of nature at work: nausea, stomach pains, feeling weak, fever, chills, headache and other unsavory symptoms.

So what can you do? Again, the trusty Institute of Food Technologists has the knowledge we need:

Keep it clean

• Wash your hands with soap and water before you make lunch.

• Don't reuse packaging materials like plastic bags or aluminum foil.

• Rinse out soft lunch boxes with water, give them a quick cleaning with a kitchen sanitizer spray or soap, rinse that out and let them dry. And if the liner is cracked, throw it out — that's a haven for bacteria.

Keep it cool

• If you can't refrigerate lunch, use freezer gel packs or a frozen juice box to keep food cool. You can also put food in the fridge the night before to help it stay cooler longer.

• Your best bets for cool food are insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags. Metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can work. If you're using paper, double-bag to help insulate the food.

• On the flip side, hot foods like chili and soup really need to be kept warm and sealed until lunchtime. Fill an insulated container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it and then add hot food.

Keep it fresh

• Leftovers from lunch that come home with your kids are a potential breeding ground for bacteria. Don't bother bringing home leftover perishable food that can't be kept cold all day. For safety's sake, that uneaten yogurt cup should just go in the trash.

• If you do want to cool down some hot food from dinner to send it as a leftover for lunch the next day, pour it into multiple smaller containers so it cools down quickly and can't breed bacteria.

Grayson Kamm, Museum of Science and Industry communications director

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