Parents and caregivers should take extra precautions when preparing and packing a school lunch. Flunking in food safety is not an option, especially when children are most vulnerable to foodborne illness.

The USDA has some tips for parents and caregivers to help them make the food safety honor roll.

Keep Cold Foods Cold and Hot Foods Hot

  • Cold Foods: USDA recommends using insulated lunch boxes to keep food safe. Paper bags are risky because they don’t allow for proper food cooling. Always use at least two cold sources, like frozen gel packs, juice boxes, or water bottles, to keep foods cold. Foods that sit out at room temperature risk entering the “Danger Zone” (temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause illness).
  • Hot Foods: When packing hot foods like chili, soups, or stews, use an insulated container to keep the food hot. Keep the container closed until lunchtime to keep the food at 140 degrees F or above.

If preparing lunch the night before school and refrigerating overnight, take the bag or lunchbox out just before leaving home. Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunchtime. That way, there won’t be a problem with the storage or safety of leftovers.

Remember the Four Steps to the Food Safety Honor Roll

Clean—Wash hands with soapy water for 20 seconds before touching food.

Separate—Keep raw meats separate from ready-to-eat food.

Chill—Refrigerate foods promptly. Discard foods left at room temperature for over 2 hours.

Cook—Use a food thermometer to know your meat and poultry are fully cooked to a safe internal temperature.

For more information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or email to reach a food safety specialist or chat live at from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

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