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What to Know About Lunch Boxes and Bags for Kids

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 07, 2022

When you're shopping for a lunch box or bag for your child, their main concern is probably finding one with their favorite character on it. But no matter how cute it is, a lunch box that doesn't properly insulate your child's food is a bad choice. Follow these guidelines to make sure your child's healthy lunch doesn't make them sick. 

Why Should You Keep Your Child's Lunch Cold?

Perishable food shouldn't be left at room temperature for longer than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is above 90°F, because of the danger of foodborne illness. Temperatures between 40°F and 140°F are considered the danger zone. Harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly in the danger zone. If your child's lunch contains perishable food that's normally refrigerated, it's not safe to eat after two hours unless it's been kept cold. Buy safe lunch boxes for your child and keep them cold. 

What Are the Best Types of Lunch Boxes?

An insulated lunch box is the safest option for packing school lunches. Although brown bags may seem like the classic option for school lunch, they aren't the best lunch box for kids since they can't keep lunch cold. You should pack your child's lunch in an insulated container with two cold sources, one on each side of the food. 

Cold sources can include frozen juice boxes, frozen water bottles, or gel freezer packs. For extra cooling power, leave your lunch bag in the freezer overnight so it will be as cold as possible when you start packing it. If your child will keep their lunch in a refrigerator at school, open the top of the insulated container to help keep it cool. 

You can also freeze parts of your child's lunch to use as cold sources. Freezing yogurt or applesauce will help keep their lunch cold, and it will be thawed by the time they're ready to eat. 

How to Pack a Healthy Lunch

Healthy lunch prep doesn't start with keeping your child's lunch cold until noon. There are other food safety guidelines you should be aware of when packing your child's lunch. 

Start with safe food. All refrigerated food should be kept cold, even cured food that contains preservatives. Make sure your food doesn't stay out longer than two hours from the time you shop for it until you put it away at home. Prepare cooked food ahead of time so it has plenty of time to chill before you pack it for lunch. 

Make sure everything is clean. Wash your hands before you start preparing your child's lunch. Hand-washing is one of the most important ways to avoid foodborne illnesses. As basic as it seems, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that people either didn't wash their hands or didn't wash them correctly 97% of the time. 

Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and dry them on a clean towel. But don't stop with your hands. Make sure to clean your countertops, cutting boards, utensils, and dishes before and after you prepare each item and before you start preparing the next item. You can make a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water to sanitize surfaces. 

Avoid cross-contamination. It's a good idea to use one cutting board for meat and poultry and another one for everything else. Harmful bacteria can spread throughout your kitchen through utensils, cutting boards, and countertops. Always wash your cutting board after using it for raw meat or poultry. 

Packing lunch bags. Only pack as much as your child will eat at lunch. If there's any food leftovers after lunch, discard them. Don't reuse packaging material because it could contaminate other foods. Not all foods need to be kept cold. If you're packing any of the following, they don't need to be chilled:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables
  • Canned meat and fish
  • Hard cheese
  • Crackers
  • Chips
  • Bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Jelly
  • Pickles
  • Mustard

Hot lunches. If you're sending your child a hot lunch, you want it to be kept at or above 140°F. Heat up your container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, pour it out, and then fill the container with hot food. 

What to Include in Your Child's Lunch

If you're going to go to all the trouble of packing your child's lunch, make sure what you put in it is healthy. When choosing food for your child's lunch, follow the guidelines from MyPlate. Half of your child's lunch should be fruits and vegetables. One-fourth of their plate should be protein, and the remaining one-fourth should be whole grain products. Add in one serving of dairy for a healthy, complete meal. 

If you pack your child a cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread, grapes, carrot sticks, and yogurt, you'll fulfill all of the guidelines. Adjust the amount of food you pack based on your child's age, but keep the proportions the same. You might pack a half sandwich for your kindergartner and two sandwiches for your teen. 

For your picky eaters, make lunch more appealing by cutting their food into cute shapes and small sizes. You can make pinwheels by wrapping ham and cheese into a roll and cutting it lengthwise. Cut vegetables into thin strips if your child doesn't like thick pieces. 

Time-Saving Tips for Packing Lunch

To cut down on the time you spend preparing lunch, take advantage of these time-saving practices: 

  • Plan ahead so you have the ingredients you need on hand
  • Pack lunches at night, and use dinner leftovers
  • Use healthy prepackaged food like pre-chopped vegetables and fruit
  • Let your kids help pack lunch

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Consumer Reports: "How to prep and pack the perfect school lunch."

FoodSafety.gov: "Back to School Meal Prep as Easy as 1, 2, 3."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Keeping "Bag" Lunches Safe," "Use an Insulated Lunch Bag to Keep Meals Safe."

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