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How to Pack a Safe Lunch

How to Pack a Safe Lunch

There are lots of benefits to packing your own lunch. You save time, money and eat a healthy meal from food you enjoy. But none of that matters if you get sick when you eat it. Follow these rules and stay healthy.

Before you handle any food, always wash your hands. Scrub them with soap long enough to sing the "Happy Birthday" song, twice. It seems like a rather silly or obvious thing to mention, but if you don't do it, you risk transferring to your food any of the millions of germs you pickup every day from all the things you touch.

Clean any surfaces you're going to work on. Then wash your utensils and preparation surfaces between each food item to avoid cross-contamination.

I like to use the soft-sided lunch boxes and bags because they insulate so well. But if the food you're packing doesn't need refrigeration, plastic or metal boxes can work too. No matter which one you choose, make sure to wash it with warm soapy water each time before you fill it. I avoid paper or plastic bags because they have no insulating capability.

Remember the temperature range. Bacteria thrive in the danger zone, temperatures from 40 - 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Go below the low number or above the high number to be safer.

That means dealing with leftovers or meals you cook in advance, right away. No food should be left out for longer than 1 hour before it's either refrigerated (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) or frozen (below 0 degrees Fahrenheit). Anytime food is left at room temperature for a cumulative time of two hours, it should be considered spoiled. If the room temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above, after one hour the food should be considered spoiled.

When you cook food in large batches, don't just put the entire pot in the refrigerator. It may take hours for a large volume of food to cool down, and by then much of it will have been in the danger zone for too long. Split it up into individual containers, cool it down in ice baths if necessary and then make sure it's properly stored in the fridge or freezer.

After you've packed your lunch, store it in the refrigerator. If there are frozen items, keep them in the freezer until the morning when you leave. I put a note on top of my lunch box that says FREEZER to remind me there's something else to grab.

Some people don't have access to a microwave for lunch, but they still want hot food. If you're one of those people, do this just before you leave. Fill a thermos with boiling water. Then let it stand for a couple minutes as it absorbs the heat. Empty it out and immediately pour in the hot (over 160 degrees Fahrenheit if possible) food. Close it up tight and keep it sealed until lunchtime. When you open it up, the food should still be hot and safe.

Before you walk out the door, drop a frozen gel pack or frozen brick on top of the food that should stay chilled. Bags of ice can work, but they tend to thaw quicker and are prone to leaks. I like lunch boxes that have special insulated compartments for a frozen brick or gel packs. Remember, ice packs need to be used even on cold days. While it may be cold outside, your lunch box may be stored in a toasty warm office.

Some foods don't need refrigeration, including unpeeled fruits, uncut vegetables, breads, some peanut butters, some jellies, nuts, seeds and canned items. It won't hurt to store them in the refrigerator overnight. I do it because it's more convenient and there's less for me to do in the morning.

When you prepare your own lunch, you're the one responsible to be sure it doesn't make you ill. Follow these simple rules and you'll have little reason to worry.

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7/31/2011