Pack a safe, healthy lunch for school

By now, everyone has returned to school routines, and it is time to review some health and safety precautions for packing school lunches.

While nutritious, low-cost meals are available at school, some parents may choose to pack a lunch for their child due to specific food allergies or aversions, to save their child time during lunch or because it is a great way to teach children about meal planning, food safety and making healthy choices.

When packing your child's lunch, try to include a variety of nutritious choices from each of the five food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, protein and dairy.

Lunch does not have to be limited to a sandwich and chips - get creative by making peanut butter stuffed apples or a turkey and cheese roll up wrapped in lettuce.

Prepackaged lunch kits are convenient but can be high in fat and sodium, so make a more nutritious version by packing whole grain crackers, low-fat cheese, fresh veggies and low-fat pudding in a reusable divided container.

Keep in mind that when children are allowed to pick out, prepare and/or pack their own lunch, they are learning about food safety and making healthy choices - and they are more likely to eat it if they helped.

While nutrition is important, it is not of much value if a packed lunch causes illness. So remember to always wash hands and food preparation areas with soap and warm water before preparing lunches. Also, make sure that cold foods will stay cold and hot foods will stay hot until lunchtime. You can also pack foods that are safe to keep at room temperature until eaten, such as peanut butter, dried meats, canned fruits, crackers, bread, baked chips and whole fruit.

To keep hot foods like soup or chili hot, use a wide mouth, insulated bottle that has been preheated for a few minutes with boiling water.

Use freezer packs or a frozen 100 percent juice box to keep foods cold in insulated lunch bags and keep the bag away from direct heat sources, including sunlight. Foods that must be kept cold until eaten are meats, eggs, cheese, salad dressing, mayonnaise, milk, cut fruit and veggies and cooked pasta or rice. If these foods are not kept cold, they may cause a foodborne illness.

While soft-sided, insulated lunch bags are recommended for keeping foods cold, it is important that any type of re-used lunch container be cleaned on a daily basis. Throw away paper bags and food wrappings and do not reuse plastic bags, foil or plastic wraps.

Do not re-use lunch leftovers - whatever is not eaten at lunch should be thrown out. Do not use leftovers that have been in the refrigerator for more than two days - any longer than that and you risk spoilage and foodborne illness.

Following these basic food safety procedures can help keep your child from getting a foodborne illness from their packed lunch.

Have a healthy and safe school year.

Brenda Anderson is a Victoria County extension assistant.