Back-to-school season is upon us and there are simple tips and tricks that can help parents and kids alike pack pathogen-free lunches.

Number one on the list? Handwashing
It’s the first step in avoiding foodborne illnesses. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, a recent study by the USDA found that 97 percent of the times study participants should have washed their hands, they did not do so correctly — or at all. Poor hand hygiene by those participants led to cross-contamination of refrigerator handles, spice containers, other foods, and areas of their kitchens.

Additionally, STOP Foodborne Illness reminds parents that “seeing you in the habit of washing your hands before and after preparing or eating food is an invaluable safety lesson for your child.” It also provides an opportunity to explain the importance of proper handwashing to prevent food poisoning. Sometimes the phrase “foodborne illness” is not fully understood by children, so using the term food poisoning can make a stronger impression.

Other food safety measures related to washing include:

  • Packing wet wipes in lunch bags and boxes for use before and after eating;
  • Washing and separating fresh fruits and veggies in plastic containers to keep them away from other foods;
  • Making sure lunch boxes are regularly cleaned and sanitized by washing them each day before packing the next day’s lunch;
  • Encouraging your child to avoid putting food directly on tables by packing a paper towel or some wax paper they can use instead;
  • Explaining the “5-second” myth by teaching your child that when any food touches the floor it needs to be thrown away;
  • Keep all surfaces you’re working on clean, too, because bacteria can live on surfaces for up to 32 hours, making it easy to contaminate sandwich bread or lunch meat.

Temperature does matter
At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. The infamous “Danger Zone” is the temperature range from 40 degrees F to 140 degrees F where bacteria grows rapidly. This can be prevented by using an insulated lunch bag or cooler with freezer packs for lunches that contain perishable food items like lunch meat, eggs, cheese or yogurt.

Here are some simple tips to help keep cold food safe at 40 degrees F or below until lunch time:

  • Use at least two cold sources: ice packs are inexpensive items vital for keeping cold foods cold. You can pick them up for about $1 each;
  • Use an insulated lunch box: Hard-sided or soft, this helps keep cold foods cold until it’s time to eat them. Food safety experts agree that this is a must-have item, and the best option is one with an insulated lining and a pocket for a thin freezer pack;
  • Freeze drinks before packing — frozen milk, juice boxes and water bottles will help keep the drinks cold, along with other cold foods you’ve packed. Frozen beverages will melt during morning classes and be ready to drink by lunch; and
  • Toss leftovers — If not eaten at lunchtime, let your child know to throw away perishables like meat, poultry, or sandwiches. Unopened, room-temperature-safe foods and uneaten fruit can be kept to eat later.

Here are tips to keep hot food safe at 140 degrees F or above:

  • Use insulated containers — If packing a hot lunch, like soup, chili, stew or even mac and cheese, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime;
  • Pack hot foods while hot — Don’t wait for hot foods to cool down before packing because it will put them in the Danger Zone. Instead, pour piping hot foods like soups immediately into an insulated thermos. Preheat your thermos by filling it with boiling water, letting it sit for a few minutes, pouring out the water, and then adding hot food;
  • Use an insulated lunch box — Just like keeping cold foods cold, an insulated lunch box will also help keep hot foods hot until it’s time to eat them.
  • Toss perishable food — Tell children to discard all leftover heated food when lunchtime is over.

In addition to packing food that needs to be kept cold or hot, pack some room-temperature-safe foods. Not all foods need temperature control to be safe. Peanut butter, jelly, cookies, crackers, chips, dried fruit, and certain whole fruits (bananas, apples, and oranges) can be eaten safely at room temperature. When packing fruits like apples with skins that’ll be eaten, be sure you’ve washed them first.

STOP Foodborne Illness has also compiled some food safety tips for kids who eat lunch served by their school cafeterias, rather than taking lunch to school. The non-profit group, founded by parents of children who were victims of food poisoning, urges people to discuss good food safety habits with their kids regardless whether they eat home-packed lunches or those served by school cafeterias. Those habits include:

  • Washing their hands. Your child should wash his/her hands before and after they eat.
  • Avoid putting food on tables. Keep it on the plate, or put a napkin or paper towel on the table.
  • Check for undercooked food. For instance, if hamburger meat looks raw or pink, tell your child to not eat it.
  • Check for food that looks spoiled. For instance, if vegetables or fruits are wilting, have mold, or look discolored, your child shouldn’t eat them.
  • Report unsanitary conditions. Cafeteria workers not wearing gloves and hairnets, dirty surfaces or equipment, off-color water flowing from drinking fountains, and cockroaches or rodents are some examples. If children spot these or any other dangerous conditions, they should report it to a teacher or school administrator, as well as telling their parents or guardians.
  • Inspect the cafeteria yourself. Make a personal visit to your child’s school and take a good look around the cafeteria. Again, report anything unsanitary or a food safety hazard.

Not eating lunch at school? Keep lunch at home safe on the weekend by following the USDA’s “Food Safety Basics”

  • Clean: Wash hands with soap and warm water, and surfaces with soap and hot water before and after handling food. Rinse raw produce in water before eating, cutting or cooking.
  • Separate: Avoid spreading bacteria from one food product to another. Use two separate cutting boards — one for raw meat and poultry, and one for produce or ready to eat foods.
  • Cook: The only way to make sure meat and poultry is safe to eat is to ensure it reaches the safe minimum internal temperature needed to destroy harmful bacteria. If sending soups, stews or chili to school, be sure to heat the food to 165 degrees F, as measured by a food thermometer, before pouring it into an insulated container.
  • Chill: To avoid the growth of dangerous bacteria, make sure to chill all perishable foods within two hours — one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees F. Discard any perishable foods that were left at room temperature longer than that.

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