Pack back to school lunches with food safety in mind

empty-plate-headerSummer’s coming to an end and Virginia students are getting ready to go back to school. Most parents think about packing a delicious and nutritious lunch for their child, but are they also thinking about its safety? The food safety experts at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) want to remind parents that food preparation and storage is just as important to their family’s health as the food itself.

Foodborne illness is a preventable public health challenge that comes from eating contaminated food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, foodborne illness causes an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States.

It takes less than two hours for perishable food to go bad when left unrefrigerated. Here are a few tips from VDACS on packing safe school lunches:

  • Wash hands and surfaces often. Unwashed hands are a prime cause of foodborne illness. Wash hands with warm, soapy water before handling food and after using the bathroom, changing diapers and handling pets. Remind children to wash their own hands before eating. If they don’t have that opportunity at school, alcohol-based sanitizing gels and wipes may be used. However, hand washing is still the preferred and best way to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
  • Start with safe food. Prepare lunches using safe practices in food handling, cooking and storage. Be aware of which lunch items are perishable and which items are shelf-stable. Perishable items must be kept chilled (40°F or below) or hot (140°F or warmer) to reduce risk of foodborne illness.
  • Keep cold foods cold. To keep food cold away from home, use an insulated lunch box or bag and include at least two cold sources. Use two frozen gel packs or combine a large frozen gel pack with a frozen juice box or frozen bottle of water.
  • Keep hot foods hot. Use an insulated bottle for hot foods like soups, stews or spaghetti. Fill it with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Empty the bottle and then fill it with piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot.
  • Clean lunch boxes. Wash lunch boxes after each use to prevent mold or mildew. Make sure children know to throw out all used food packaging and perishable leftovers. Do not reuse disposable, plastic bags as they could contaminate other foods, leading to foodborne illness.

By educating yourself and following these tips on packing a safe school lunch, you can reduce your family’s risk of foodborne illness and enjoy a safe, successful school year. More food safety tips are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at


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