With my kids headed back to school, I'm steeling myself for the daily lunch-packing routine. Recently, I've become more concerned they could get sick if their lunches get too warm in the classroom. Any tips for keeping them cool?
— Emily S., via email
You're right to be concerned, Emily. It takes just 20 minutes for bacteria to start growing on foods at room temperature.
Of course, food safety starts at home. Raw or cooked meats, dairy products, eggs and cooked beans and grains should be kept cold until packed for school. Make sure everyone handling the ingredients, packaging and containers has washed their hands first. Wash whole pieces of fruit before packing them.
Foods taken in their original, sealed packaging (string cheese, yogurt) are less likely to become cross-contaminated with bacteria between home and school. If serving sliced lunch meats, purchase only what your family will use in a single week. Mix up tuna or egg salads in small quantities and consume them within a couple of days.
Insulated lunch boxes with frozen gel packs are ideal, but you also can freeze juice boxes and slip them into lunch boxes or brown bags. By lunchtime, the juice should be thawed enough to drink, the food still cool.
Keep hot foods hot in a thermos. To make sure they're as hot as possible (also a food-safety concern), fill the thermos with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes, then empty it and put in hot soup, chili, etc.
Depending on your kids' ages, you may be able to enlist their help by encouraging them to keep their lunches somewhere shaded and cool during the day — not in the sun or next to a radiator.
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