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The Danger of Brown Bag Lunch: Mistakes to Avoid When Packing Your Kid's School Lunch

11/02/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated Aug 31, 2012

It's that time of year again -- back to school! Parents, we know you're all running around buying school supplies and new clothes for your kids. It's a busy time. The last thing you want to worry about is school lunch. But with the recent news about the dangers of packing a brown bag lunch, we were a little worried and wanted to give you the low-down on this contentious subject.

A recent study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin found that more than 90 percent of preschoolers' lunches were kept at unsafe temperatures. When food is kept at improper temperatures, bacteria can multiply exponentially. Eating tainted food can lead to food poisoning, and children under the age of 5 are particularly at risk. Symptoms of food poisoning include a stomach ache and vomiting. But don't be alarmed, there are ways you can improve the safety of your kids' lunches.

What To Avoid When Packing A School Lunch

No More Brown Bags -- Buy a New Lunch Bag
Instead of a paper bag or lunch box, invest in an insulated lunch bag. Purchase reusable ice packs for keeping the contents of the bag chilled. You could also freeze a bottle of water to use as an ice pack -- the water doubles as a drink. Use at least two ice packs or one ice pack and one frozen bottle. Doubling up is never a bad idea.

Keep Food Away from Hot Areas -- Refrigerate
Refrigeration is the safest option. If your kid's preschool or kindergarten has a refrigerator, pack the entire lunch in a paper or plastic bag, and transport it in an insulated bag. Instruct your child or his/her teacher to remove the lunch from the insulated bag and place it in the refrigerator until lunchtime. The problem with placing the entire insulated bag in the fridge, is that the insulation keeps the lunch from getting cooled by the fridge. For proper refrigeration, the temperature should be set to 40 degrees or lower.

If your kid's school does not have a refrigerator, instruct them to leave their lunch in a cool spot in the classroom. Lunches should not be placed near a window or on tables in direct sunlight. According to the USDA, no food should be left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. But if the lunch is safely packed in an insulated bag with ice packs, then there's no worry.

What Not to Pack -- What to Pack
Do not pack anything hot. Everything that's packed for lunch should be thoroughly chilled, including any foods that should be consumed hot. These can be reheated in the microwave at school. The food should be heated to 140 degrees or higher. Also it's a good idea to pack a sandwich with its ingredients in separate resealable bags. Pack the sliced bread separately so that it doesn't pick up moisture, which can lead to bacterial growth. Kids can assemble the sandwich at lunchtime. Provide any condiments, like mayonnaise or ketchup, in packets or skip them entirely.

We hope these tips help make the back-to-season a bit more enjoyable and worry free.

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