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Sherrie Norris Lovin’ Spoonful Cooking Column: September Is National Food Safety Education Month – Keep Those Bag Lunches Healthy

By Sherrie Norris

Millions of Americans carry “bag” lunches to school and work every day, although we’re not too sure just how healthy those goodies are by noon, if they are not properly packaged and stored. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. So, perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long. Here are safe handling recommendations to prevent foodborne illness from “bag” lunches. 

  • Keep everything clean: Wash hands and work stations before you prepare or eat food. 
  • Begin with safe food: Prepackaged combos that contain luncheon meats along with crackers, cheese, and condiments should be kept refrigerated. This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham which are cured or contain preservatives.
  • At lunchtime, discard all used food packaging and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.
  • Packing lunches: Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunch. That way, there won’t be a problem about the storage or safety of leftovers. It’s fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator.
  • Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food. An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.
  • To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. Of course, if there’s a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival.
  • Keeping hot lunches hot: Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot – 140 °F or above.
  • Microwave cooking/reheating: When using the microwave oven to reheat lunches, cover food to hold in moisture and promote safe, even heating. Reheat leftovers to at least 165 °F. Food should be steaming hot. Cook frozen convenience meals according to package instructions.

Following are a few quick and easy ideas to pack, especially for the kids. Don’t forget the fruit juice or milk:

  • Whole wheat bread filled with ham and cheese and cut into triangles
Fruit yogurt ,melon cubes,
small packet of raisins.
  • Pita filled with turkey and cream cheese, carrot sticks, pineapple chunks, mini muffin.
  • Bagel spread with cream cheese and filled with tomato slices, 
Apple, raisins and yogurt.
  • Crackers with various pieces of cheese, ham, turkey on the side,  
berries, yogurt and granola or fruit bar.
  • Roll filled with tuna and pickles, cucumber slices, cheese cubes, seedless grapes, yogurt- covered raisins.
  • Wraps filled with ham, cheese and avocado (cut into small pieces to make mini wraps)
Home-made snack mix (crackers, dried fruit, cereal, etc.), banana, fruit yogurt. 
  • Variety of ham and cheese in small slices, veggies cut into small pieces and mixed together, multigrain crackers and cheese cubes, kiwi slices, banana muffin.
  • Dinner roll filled with lettuce, cheese and a little mayonnaise or ranch dressing.
Cut up pieces of fruit for mini fruit salad, cheese cubes and pretzels 
Granola or cereal bar.

Cooked pasta with chopped tomato, ham and grated cheese, melon cubes or other fruit,yogurt covered raisins.