Health & wellness

Nutrition and You!

What’s growing in your lunch bag? 6 tips to prevent foodborne illness

Excerpted from the Nutrition and You! blog on

Depending on your packed-lunch food safety habits, you could be setting yourself up for foodborne illness, better known as the dreaded food poisoning. Almost 50 million cases of foodborne illness occur annually in the United States, and sadly, they result in 3,000 deaths.

Using a clean, insulated lunch box along with frozen ice packs are your best bet to help keep your edibles at a safe temperature until lunchtime. Unfortunately, in a study published in Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Texas examined the lunch boxes of over 700 preschoolers and found that over 90 percent of the perishable items inside were at an unsafe temperature by the time the children were chowing down on their lunch.

Since the immune systems of young children are not fully developed, they are not only at a higher risk for foodborne illness but typically have more serious reactions than adults. Pregnant women, older adults, and those with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, all have weakened immune systems and are also at risk.


To lower your risk for food poisoning, these tips will help you pack a safe lunch:

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  Use an insulated, soft-side lunch bag or box, which are best for keeping food cold, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

  Always use ice packs. Perishable foods such as yogurt, meats, and cut-up fruits and vegetables, should remain chilled at 40 degrees F. or below to slow down the rate that pathogens will multiply to dangerous levels. Ideally, at least two ice sources should be used with perishable foods, with one ice pack on the bottom of the items and another one on top.

  Store your lunch in a refrigerator. If available, you should store your packed lunch in the refrigerator with the bag open. This will allow the chilly air to come in contact with the food to keep it cold until you are ready to eat it.

  Forget about bringing home leftovers. Perishables that are left out at room temperature for more than two hours should be tossed as they are unsafe to consume.


  Ditch the sandwich bags. If you use plastic sandwich baggies, they should get tossed after each use to prevent cross contamination with another future food item.

 Plastic containers, as well as the inside and outside of the lunch bag, should be thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water and rinsed clean in between uses, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Joan Salge Blake is a clinical associate professor and registered dietician in Boston University’s Nutrition Program. Read more of her blog at