Tips for packing a safe school lunch

Posted 8/23/19

It’s back-to-school time, and public health officials with the Harnett County Health Department are reminding parents that the first important food safety lesson of the school year is packing a …

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Tips for packing a safe school lunch


It’s back-to-school time, and public health officials with the Harnett County Health Department are reminding parents that the first important food safety lesson of the school year is packing a safe lunch.

Foodborne illness remains a major public threat in the U.S. and can significantly impact the health and well-being of children according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Careful planning is needed to make sure the food you pack for lunch does not put your child at risk for a foodborne illness.

Bag lunches should be safe and healthy, but because they have to sit on a desk or in a locker for several hours before eating, steps should be taken to keep food safe and prevent foodborne illness. Most people do not think about food safety until they or someone they know becomes infected with food borne illness. The Harnett County Health Department provides the following food safety tips for bag lunches to help keep you and your child safe.

Make sure you wash your hands before you prepare the food. Keep everything clean when packing the lunch. Use hot, soapy water to clean hands, clean preparation surfaces and clean utensils. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Perishable food must be kept cold while commuting via bus, bicycle or in a car.

After arriving at school or work, perishable food must be kept cold until lunchtime. If there is a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival. To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.

Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food. Bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 40 degree Fahrenheit and 140 degree F. Keep lunches out of direct sunlight and away from radiators or other heat sources.

Some foods that do not require refrigeration and are great to include in a bag lunch are fruits, vegetables, raisins, pretzels, bread, crackers, peanut butter and jelly.

Encourage your child to wash their hands before eating lunch. When hands are washed the right way, it takes only 20 seconds and requires only three ingredients: running water, soap, and something to dry your hands (a clean towel or air). Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of germs on them in most situations. However, if soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Consider including a moist towelette and hand sanitizer in your child’s lunch box as a back up to washing with warm, soapy water.

Do not pack more for lunch than can be eaten at lunchtime. Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunch. Leftovers that are stored for the rest of the day and then brought home are not safe to eat.

Insulated lunch totes and lunch boxes should be washed with hot soapy water after each use. According to public health officials, when trying to be frugal, it can be tempting to reuse sandwich bags, foil and plastic wrap, once these items have been used, they can contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness. The safest thing to do is to discard them.

For additional information, call the Health Department at 910-893-7550 or log onto the Health Department’s website located at

Back to School

The most important tips to remember about packing school lunches:

Always keep everything clean: Hands, surfaces, utensils, fresh fruit and veggies, everything!

Keep hot foods hot: Use an insulated bottle for hot foods.

Keep cold foods cold: Use an insulated lunch box and frozen gel packs – or a frozen juice box – to keep things cool until lunchtime.

When you’re done, throw it away: This includes used paper and plastic bags and any perishable leftovers.


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