Keep it safe when brown bagging

Deon S. Legette Contributing Columnist

September 21, 2013

Whether it’s students taking lunch to school or adults packing lunch for work, millions of people across the country pack a bag lunch each day. Bag lunches should be handled with care to make sure the meal inside remains tasty and safe to eat.

Follow these safety tips to avoid food-borne illness when preparing the bag lunches in your household:

Keep foods clean: That goes not only for the food, but also for the preparation surfaces, hands, and utensils. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters. Cats are notorious for getting on countertops, and the last thing you want is kitty litter feet walking on the same surface where you make your sandwich.

Keep foods out of the danger zone: The danger zone for moist, high protein food is considered to be temperatures between 40 F and 140 F. In this range, bacteria flourish and can grow to amounts great enough to cause illness. Therefore, it is best to store a packed lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators or other heat sources.

An even better option is to pack foods that don’t require refrigeration such as fruits, raw vegetables, crackers, peanut butter, hard cheese, and pickles. These foods will stay safe at room temperature.

Keep cold foods cold: The best way to keep cold foods cold is to use an insulated lunch box. When packing lunches, include either freezer gel packs or frozen food items such as small juice packs. Put perishable meat, poultry or egg sandwiches between these cold items. Sandwiches can also be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated or frozen before placing in the lunch box.

Keep hot foods hot: Foods like soup, chili and stew need to stay hot. Use an insulated bottle stored in an insulated lunch box. Fill the thermos with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then fill with the piping hot food. Do not open the thermos until you are ready to eat your lunch.

Overcome temptation: If a bag lunch is packed with little or no attention given to the nutritional content, calories can add up while protein, complex carbs and vitamins are lacking. Try to avoid overloading on chips, snack cakes and soft drinks. These foods offer lots of calories but very little in the way of good nutrition.

When packing a lunch for kids, remember to keep it simple. Kids typically prefer plain sliced meat or sliced cheese or peanut butter on a sandwich, rather than combination foods such as chicken salad.

Kids also go for items such as juice boxes and milk boxes, which can be frozen ahead and placed in the lunchbox to keep any perishable foods cool. Low-fat pudding cups are also a good option for kids. Chopped fruit and applesauce are also available in individual cups; just remember to drop a disposable spoon into the box or bag.

If you have questions about nutrition and food safety, call Deon S. Legette, Food Safety/Nutrition Agent, at 803-635-4722 or visit the Home & Garden Information Center website at http://hgic.clemson.edu.