Preventing foodborne illness has been on everyone’s mind lately. With children back in class—and preparing school lunches part of our routine again—let’s take a look at how we can ensure their home-packed meals are safe to eat.
One local expert suggests we consider food safety from start to finish. Registered Dietitian Toby Smithson, community dietitian for the Lake County Health Department, suggests we:
• Wash our hands and our environment. Wash hands, food contact surfaces, fruits and vegetables.
• Consider time and temperature. These are two important control factors for potentially hazardous food. The Food and Drug Administration recommends keeping cold foods at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below and hot foods at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
• Separate raw, cooked and ready-to-eat foods. Separate them from the time of purchase, preparation time and storing time to prevent cross contamination.
Keep cold foods cold
Risky practices are common. In a 2004 survey on lunch box safety, many children kept their lunches at room temperature—in a locker, on a shelf or in backpacks—until it was time to eat. The lunches did not include any type of ice pack to keep the perishable foods at their proper temperature.
Smithson, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, advocates for using the freezer for home-packed or store-bought tray lunches. "Parents can use a freezer pack, frozen water bottle or freeze a 100 percent fruit juice box to keep foods cold. Because the frozen items will sweat, it is best to use an insulated lunch box or bag instead of a paper bag that may tear from the moisture," she recommends.
The lunch box survey also discovered that almost three out of five children do not wash their hands before eating lunch. Yet nine out of 10 say they would clean up if they were offered a hand sanitizer with their lunch. Other research suggests that using a hand sanitizer was effective because both adults and kids will tend to use a hand sanitizer.
Children at one suburban school enjoy recess before their lunch break and cleanse their hands with baby wipes or hand sanitizer on their way in. Although nothing can replace good old-fashioned hand washing—scrubbing hands with warm water for 20 seconds—using a hand sanitizer is better than nothing and offers some protection.
Tips for safe lunches
• Wash your hands before, during and after preparing your child’s lunch.
• Keep meal preparation surfaces and utensils clean.
• Find out if your child can store her lunch in a school refrigerator. If so, instruct her to put the lunch in it immediately after she arrives at school.
• If a refrigerator is not available, invest in a colorful insulated lunch bag or box and small reusable ice packs to keep cold foods cold.
n A frozen water bottle or juice or milk box can help serve as a disposable ice pack.
• Packing lunch the night before and refrigerating it overnight makes it easy to "grab and go" on hectic mornings. Some lunch items can even be frozen for added convenience. Wrap food portions in airtight containers and freeze them in the form in which they will be eaten. For example, freeze cubed cooked meats in prepackaged portion sizes.
• Instruct children to toss perishable leftovers after lunch.
• At home, wash lunch boxes and bags with hot soapy water and dry well.
California Tuna Salad Rolls
• 1 can (6 ounces) light tuna fish packed in water, drained
• 3 Tablespoons mayonnaise
• 1/4 teaspoon wasabi paste or freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• Two (10-inch) whole wheat flour tortillas
• 2 medium leaves Boston lettuce
• 1 Kirby cucumber, seeded, peeled and coarsely shredded lengthwise
• 1/2 of a ripe avocado, sliced
These roll-ups are great for school and burst with tuna and veggies. If your child likes wasabi’s heat, add an extra 1/4 teaspoon to the tuna mixture.
1. Combine the tuna, 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise and wasabi paste in a small bowl and mix until blended.
2. Lay the tortillas on a work surface. Spread 1/2 Tablespoon mayonnaise on each tortilla and arrange the lettuce on top of both; arrange cucumber, carrot and avocado lengthwise in rows near one edge. Spoon the tuna in a line next to the vegetables (away from the edge). Roll each tortilla up snugly into a cylinder. Cut crosswise in half. Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 247 calories, 24g carbohydrate, 15g protein, 10g fat, 2g saturated fat, 3g fiber. Reprinted with permission from Real Food For Healthy Kids by Tracey Seaman and Tanya Wenman Steel (William Morrow, 2008)
Dear Good Sense Eating
I got an e-mail saying freezing plastic water bottles can cause cancer. I normally freeze my kids’ juice boxes and water bottles in order to keep their meal cold and so that the drinks are still cold, too. Can freezing water bottles really cause cancer?
Patrick C, Chicago
According to the public affairs office of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, freezing water does not cause the release of chemicals from plastic bottles (and presumably juice boxes). The Internet is flooded with messages falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins University, frequently titled "Johns Hopkins Cancer News" or "Johns Hopkins Cancer Update." Like most other e-mail messages that urge you to "forward to everyone you know," you can ignore this one.
Christine M. Palumbo, a registered dietitian in Naperville, estimates she packed more than 3,000 lunches for her three children. Contact her with your questions at info@ChristinePalumbo.com.