There are precautions and helpful tips to follow in order to make your child's lunch healthy and safe.
Keeping hands clean are crucial to preventing illness. When preparing your child's lunch, make sure you wash with soap and warm water beforehand and try to limit too much handling. Stress to your child how imperative it is that he/she wash their hands before they sit down to eat. If necessary, think about putting a portable hand sanitizer in your child's lunch box (the convenience may make them more likely to wash). Terry Jerominek, a nutritionist at The Miriam Hospital, recommends sticking a note to the sanitizer to remind your child to wash.
It is important to take the time to sanitize your home's food preparation space as well as any utensils you may use. Bacteria may be lurking on countertops or utensils. Keep pets away from any surface where food is prepared or eaten. If your child has a re-usable lunch bag or box, make sure to wash it. If using a paper bag, do not use it again because re-use can lead to contamination. Substituting plastic or grocery bags for paper lunch bags is not the best idea, as they may be tainted from insects or food spills. Also, be smart about expiration dates. Do not use food that has passed its expiration date, looks or smells "off" or has been in the refrigerator for a while. It may be tempting to re-pack food that your child didn't eat in a previous lunch, but it's best to dispose of it.
Temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (F) are prime breeding ground for bacteria. Most often, school lunches sit in a locker or desk for hours before they are eaten. During that time, there is ample opportunity for bacteria to form and multiply, which can make your child sick. The best option is to keep lunches in a refrigerator, which is often not possible.
Nutritionist Terry Jerominek recommends using freezing gel packs or ice inside of an insulated, re-usable lunch box/bag. A cold juice box may also help. When preparing meat sandwiches, which are likely candidates for contamination, think about freezing them the night before. For frozen sandwiches, you may want to add the lettuce, tomato or mayonnaise the next day. She also recommends using temperature neutral, healthy foods such as peanut butter (preferably natural) and jelly, poultry and seafood (like tuna) that can be opened at the time of lunch, fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, crackers, cereals and nuts. If your child does not like fresh fruits, unsweetened, canned fruits are another good option. Place the entire can in the lunch and they can open it at lunchtime. Tell your child to keep their lunch out of the sun and in as cool a place as possible.
Jerominek warns that not keeping hot foods hot can be just as dangerous as not keeping cold foods cold. For hot food, submerge a thermos in boiling water and then add the food. It should remain hot until lunchtime. Keep it away from other foods that are not intended to be hot. A good thermos is a healthy investment.
There are many convenient snacks and pre-prepared meals that parents can put in their child's lunch, but often these are not the healthiest options. Jerominek warns that most of these foods are high in sodium, fat and sugar. It is important to read the labels before buying. Choosing healthy alternatives is crucial to helping your child maintain proper nutrition and a healthy diet.