Fall is fast approaching which means the back-to-school buzz is underway for school supplies lists, and grocery lists. Many parents will resume packing lunches for their kids during the week.

When food is left at room temperature in a lunch box or bag all morning, bacteria can grow to dangerous levels putting children and their immature immune systems at risk. Temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow fastest. This “Danger Zone” allows bacteria to double in number in just 20 minutes.

The USDA offers these tips to help avoid the Danger Zone:

  • To view a larger version of the USDA’s Back-to-School lunch food safety graphic, please click on the image.

    Two cold packs should be included in packed lunch or snacks if perishable items like lunch meats, eggs, cheese, or yogurt are included.

  • Frozen water or juice can be used as a freezer pack. The liquids should thaw by lunchtime and be ready to drink.
  • Insulated lunchboxes or bags should be used with cold packs when lunches contain perishable food.
  • Disposable wipes can be packed for cleaning hands before eating, but schools should be making sure children wash their hands before meals.
  • Insulated containers should be used to keep hot lunches like soup, chili or stew, at a warm temperature. Filling the container with boiling water, letting stand for a few minutes, emptying, and then putting in the piping hot food helps keep temperatures high.
  • Parents should leave packed lunches in the refrigerator overnight if they are packing them the night before.
  • For optimal cold air circulation inside the refrigerator or cooler, a child’s lunch should be stored with the lid of the lunchbox or bag left open to keep the food cold.
  • All leftover food should be discarded after lunch, along with all used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)