While schools and offices have re-opened and are slowly gaining our everyday lives, we cannot ignore the hard fact of navigating amid a global health pandemic. People still need to be careful about the way they shop, prepare and pack food to minimize transmission of the novel coronavirus and foodborne illnesses.
Brown bagging lunch is an excellent way to have a healthy meal on the go. Picky eaters or those on a restrictive diet can fare better with brown bag lunches, and a carefully packed lunch can provide many of the recommended daily nutritional benefits.
But there are food safety issues that can cause sickness, leading to food poisoning. According to the CDC, 1 in 6 people every year get sick with food, with an estimated 128,000 getting hospitalized and 3000 deaths from eating contaminated food. Like the elderly, young children, etc., some people are more likely to get infected and have severe illnesses. (CDC, 2020)
One of the significant reasons for food contamination is its temperature. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notifies that the harmful bacteria on food items multiply fast in the danger zone — the temperature range between 40-140 degrees F.
September is National Food Safety Education Month. We will discuss the safe practices to pack brown bag lunches and help prevent food contamination and foodborne illnesses.
Purchase and Storage
Make a separate shopping list of perishable food items like meat, milk, eggs, fish, and other dairy products. It’s best to buy them at the end of your grocery shopping so that they remain cold until you reach home. These food items must be kept cold at all times and not left out at room temperature for more than one or two hours. If you live at a certain distance from the market, use ice packs to keep these products cold while carrying them home.
Wash Everything Properly
A thorough cleaning at the time of preparing, packing, and eating can prevent any food contamination. Clean the kitchen counters, cutting boards, utensils, and dishes, and wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before preparing lunch. It’s advised to keep your pets away while preparing food. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables under running water and clean them properly.
The next step is to keep your hands clean while eating too. People usually get preoccupied at work and sometimes skip washing their hands. Do not avoid it as it can contaminate the food you will be eating. Parents should remind kids to wash their hands before eating while they hand over their brown bag lunch.
Pack it Correctly
First, don’t overpack. Pack a proportionate measure of food to avoid any leftovers or waste. In case there is any food left in the bag, discard it. If you are preparing lunch ahead of time, always refrigerate it. You can also freeze sandwiches except for the ones that have lettuce, tomatoes, or mayonnaise. Add them at the time of packing the lunch. Create layers by double-bagging to help insulate the food.
Always use gel or ice packs in case you are packing a perishable item in the lunch bag. And if it’s eaten during lunch, discard the food in the bin. Frozen water bottles, milk, juice boxes will help keep the drinks cold, along with other cold foods you have packed.
Keep your lunch bags refrigerated or in the shade at your workplace or school. Never reuse brown bags because bacteria can grow and contaminate the next day’s lunch.
Keep Hot and Cold Foods Separate
It’s easy to prepare cooked food ahead of time. It allows you to chill the meal in the refrigerator and also save time during rushed morning hours. Especially for perishable meals, keep them refrigerated until you or your family leaves for work and school. Use an ice pack for a juice box if a refrigerator isn’t available at your workplace or school.
If hot food preparations such as soup, stews, chili are part of your lunch bag, use a thermos to store them.
Sharing each other’s lunch was always a good idea but not anymore. We live in an unprecedented time, and there is no way of knowing if the other person’s food is safe to eat. The best way out is to avoid exchanging or eating each other’s meals.
Keep Nutrition and Variety in Meals
We remember those tin vintage lunch boxes with Superman or Wonder Woman emblazoned on the exterior. Our Mom’s would humor us by buying Cheetos and Snack Pack pudding cups (with those dangerous metal lids!) and PB&J or Fluffernutter sandwiches were the cuisine du jour. We’re a bit more awake these days when it comes to nutrition in our lunches.
For a balanced diet, include two servings of grains, a portion of vegetables, at least one fruit, and a dairy product. Avoid packing high-fat foods like fried potato chips. Instead, salsa, hummus, bean, or fruit dips with baked chips is a great alternative. It contains more vitamins and fiber and less fat.
You can add individual sandwich ingredients for kids to make on their own, an occasional dessert, and healthy snack mixes like dried fruits, fresh fruit, cereal bars, nuts, baked crackers, pretzels, and other healthy choices.
Sharing Isn’t Caring with Food
Remind children and family that sharing food items from others isn’t a safe option anymore. Take the opportunity to educate your family and constantly remind them that food can make us sick and staying vigilant pays in big ways. If a child suspects a spoiled lunch item, let them know that they can always purchase a school lunch in an emergency. Be sure food allergies are communicated to the school nurse and your child’s teacher. Put a fun note on the brown bag or inside to remind them that they matter to us!
Let us know how you make brown bag lunches safe and special for your family by sharing on our Facebook or Instagram pages.
CDC, C. for D. C. and P. (2020, August 25). Food Safety Education Month. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/education-month.html.