With back-to-school season right around the corner, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to make sure that parents keep their kids’ lunches safe. Children are at high risk of contracting foodborne illness because their immune systems are still developing. Children younger than five have the highest incidence of Campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella infection in the United States. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) thinks a food safety “experiment” would help both parents and children understand the need to clean, separate, cook and chill to keep their school lunches safe. Before school starts, parents should pack their child’s lunch and have the child store it like they would while at school. When lunch time rolls around, families should take the temperatures of the packed foods. Cold items should still be below 40 degrees F, and hot items should be above 140 degrees F. To keep food from hitting the “Danger Zone” in the middle, at which harmful bacteria rapidly multiply, FSIS offers the following tips for future lunch preparations:

  • If the lunch contains perishable food items such as luncheon meats, eggs, or yogurt, make sure to pack it with at least two freezer packs.
  • Frozen juice boxes or water can also be used as freezer packs. Freeze these items overnight and use with at least one other freezer pack. By lunchtime, the liquids should be thawed and ready to drink.
  • Pack perishable food in an insulated lunchbox or soft-sided lunch bag rather than a paper bag.
  • If possible, a child’s lunch should be stored in a refrigerator during school, but the lid should be left open so that cold air can better circulate and keep the food cold.
  • If packing a hot lunch such as soup, chili or stew, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot (140 degrees F or above).
  • 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.
  • If packing a child’s lunch the night before, parents should leave it in the refrigerator overnight. The meal will stay cooler longer because everything will be at refrigerator temperature when it is placed in the lunchbox.

Parents with more food safety questions can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov, available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish. For more tips to keep your family foodborne illness-free this season, visit FoodSafety.gov and follow @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter.