Bringing your lunch to work, or preparing lunches for your children to take to school, means food can go unrefrigerated for extended periods of time.
This gives bacteria a chance to grow and multiply, thus increasing the risk of food poisoning. Here are some food safety tips to keep in mind when preparing bag lunches.
Keep Lunches Cold
The very nature of bag lunches makes it nearly impossible to keep food properly refrigerated (storing it at a temperature of 40 F or colder), particularly while driving to work or taking the bus to school.
And even if your school or workplace offers a refrigerator for storing lunches, you're still going to have to do some careful planning to make sure the food you pack for lunch doesn't end up causing a case of foodborne illness.
Insulated Lunch Bags
Soft, insulated lunch bags or boxes are the best choices for keeping lunches cold. Metal or plastic lunch boxes without insulation don't do as good a job, but they're certainly better than paper lunch bags.
If you do use paper lunch bags, double bagging creates an additional layer of insulation to help protect the food inside. And remember that insulated lunch totes and lunch boxes should be washed with hot soapy water after each use.
Frozen Gel Packs
No matter what sort of lunch bag or box you use, you should definitely place some kind of ice pack in it to keep the food inside cold. Small, frozen gel packs are perfect for this task.
You can also freeze a juice box or small bottled water and pack it in your bag or lunch box. Not only will this help keep your lunch cold, but by lunchtime your frozen drink will have melted, giving you a cold, refreshing juice or water to enjoy your lunch.
Protect Perishable Foods
Perishable foods include cooked meats such as cold cuts and other lunch meats, as well as pre-made tuna salads, chicken salads, and egg salads. All of these foods are potential targets for the bacteria that cause food poisoning, and they must be kept refrigerated.
And it's not just homemade sandwiches that need refrigeration. Any store-bought, packaged lunch combos containing lunch meats, crackers and cheese need to be kept cold, too.
Choose Lunch Foods Wisely
Remember peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches? This humble sandwich was an ingenious invention from a time before the widespread availability of home refrigeration (to say nothing of frozen gel packs and insulated lunch bags). Because bread, peanut butter, and jelly are all non-perishable, peanut butter and jelly make the perfect sandwich for brown-bag lunches.
Other examples of foods that don't need to stay cold include whole fruits, chips, crackers, mustard, pickles, and unopened cans of meat and fish.
When in Doubt, Throw It Out
Many people choose to brown-bag it because it's a great way to economize. When we're trying to be frugal, it can be tempting to reuse paper lunch bags, sandwich bags, foil, and plastic wrap. Unfortunately, once these items have been used, they can contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness. The safest thing to do is to discard them.
If that feels wasteful, you can make up for it practicing portion control. Don't pack more for lunch than can be eaten at lunchtime. Leftovers that are stored for the rest of the day and then brought home might not be safe to eat.
If you do have leftovers and no way to refrigerate them, follow one of the mantras of the foodservice industry: "When in doubt, throw it out."