By Helen Mastro
School mornings are stressful enough as it is: getting the kids ready for school, making sure homework is packed, and catching the bus can feel like an entire day of its own. But before sending them off to school, you should consider what you packed for their lunch, and more importantly, how you packed it.
While children may want to tote their sandwiches in their favorite cartoon-themed lunch box, many lunch boxes are not the safest way to carry food. Perishable items like mayonnaise, milk, leftover meats or cold cuts may not stay sufficiently cold to prevent bacterial growth on the food. Harmful bacteria multiply between 40 and 140 degrees, and might subject your children to food-borne illness.
According to USDA food safety guidelines, insulated bags or boxes plus an ice pack are best for keeping foods cold. As many come in cartoon and themed designs, your children can still bring their favorite lunch bag to school with an ice pack in it, which keeps food at safe temperatures. Older children who have outgrown sporting a lunchbox should use an insulated tote over a brown bag. Unlike a brown bag, the totes have an insulated lining that accompanies a freezer pack to help keep food cold.
In addition to ensuring your children’s food is kept at a safe temperature, you should also carefully consider what to pack in their lunch box. For starters, pack some protein. Food packed with protein tends to keep people fuller longer. A turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread or baked chicken breasts (and remember: leftovers should be prepared safely and chilled well!) are good choices. Raw vegetables, fruit, yogurt, and trail mix or granola bars also are wise choices since they are packed with nutrition. Make sure snacks are low in fat and sugar (less than 2 grams of fat, less than 10 grams of sugar). When it comes to beverages, skip the juice box and give your children water or a milk box. As an added bonus, you can put these drinks in the freezer overnight. The drink can serve as extra insulation to keep the lunchbox cold.
Before your children dig into their healthy lunch, have them wash their hands first. Soap and water does the job fine, but if not available, pack an antibacterial wipe or a small bottle of hand sanitizer (depending on child’s age) in their backpack which they can use to clean their hands and their area of the lunch table before unpacking their food. You should also clean their lunchbox occasionally to reduce the spread of germs. A disinfecting spray or washing it in the sink with warm, soapy water will do the trick.
By using these tips, you can help ensure that your children have a great and healthy day at school!
Helen Mastro is a nutritionist in Harvard Vanguard’s Somerville and Wellesley offices.