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For school lunches or meals shared at home, make food safety a priority

By: Jim Erickson


Whether you are preparing a packed lunch for kids going to school, a weeknight dinner for the family or a tailgate feast to enjoy at the big game, be sure to take steps to prevent food-borne illness.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the four steps to food safety are:

Clean – Wash your hands and cooking surfaces before and after handling food. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating, cutting, or cooking. Make sure lunch boxes and coolers are clean before packing.

Separate – Avoid cross contamination. Don’t let raw meat, poultry or egg products come in contact with fruits, vegetables or prepared foods. Never put cooked food on a plate or tray that held raw meat or poultry.

Cook – When cooking, use a food thermometer to make sure food reaches the safe minimum internal temperature needed to destroy harmful bacteria. Cook raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, roasts, and fish to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F and let them rest for three minutes before eating. When cooking raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal, make sure the meat reaches a minimum internal temperature of 160°F. Egg dishes also should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160°F. All poultry should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165°F.

Chill – When packing food, use an insulated lunchbox or cooler and at least two cold sources, such as freezer packs. Discard any perishable foods that were left at room temperature longer than two hours [one hour in temperatures above 90°F].

USDA experts also offer these lunch packing tips:

If the lunch contains perishable food items such as luncheon meats, eggs, cheese or yogurt, make sure to pack it with at least two cold sources, such as freezer packs. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly, so perishable food transported without a cold source won’t stay safe long. Frozen juice boxes or water also can be used as freezer packs. Freeze these items overnight and use with at least one other freezer pack. By lunchtime, the liquids should be thawed and ready to drink.

If packing a hot lunch such as soup, chili or stew, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food at 140°F or above.

If packing a child’s lunch the night before, parents should leave it in the refrigerator overnight. The meal will stay cold longer because everything will be refrigerator temperature when it is placed in the lunchbox.

Also, be sure to remind youngsters to properly wash their hands before eating lunch. If running water isn’t available, pack disposable wipes for cleaning hands before and after eating.

After lunch, children should discard all leftover food and used food packaging.

Clean lunch boxes thoroughly each night with warm soapy water or a disinfectant wipe.

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