As the end of summer nears, it means only one thing — it's back to school time. Even if you've purposely avoided the overflowing aisles of school supplies at Target (like me), the impending start of the season is hard to miss. As you gear up your kids for the new school year, you might learn a few new things yourself. Like if your kid has been begging for a home-packed lunch like the rest of his friends (No? Just my guilt-inducing kid?), you probably need to know — what is the best way to keep packed lunch fresh?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the reason you should consider food safety when packing lunches is because harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly when perishable food is not kept cold. Meaning perishable foods in a packed lunch, like a yogurt or a turkey sandwich, won't stay safe for long without an ice source.
As The New York Times mentioned, the standard rule of food safety is to keep cold food cold, and hot food hot until it's going to be consumed. Something that can help greatly with this is an insulated lunchbox. Look for one with that's constructed well, with an insulated lining and a pocket that can fit a thin ice pack (to keep cold foods cooler). This Cat & Jack lunch bag ($10) from Target, or this Mackenzie lunch bag ($18) from Pottery Barn Kids are both popular options with necessary features. Insulated food containers meant for hot foods, like a Thermos Food Jar ($16) from Target, can help to keep hot foods (like macaroni and cheese or meatballs) hot until lunchtime. Heating the container in boiling water before you fill it will keep the food even warmer.
Another way to keep things fresh is to make sure foods stay as hot or cold as possible before heading out the door in the morning, noted Reader's Digest. This means getting soups or pasta as warm as possible before pouring them into a Thermos container, or freezing sandwiches the night before (freeze without lettuce or tomatoes, and though sandwiches will probably thaw out before lunchtime, a test run is always a good call).
One thing to be sure of is to keep everything as clean as you can, as mentioned by the FSIS. Wash your hands thoroughly before packing lunches, wash and sanitize all lunch containers after each use, and wash all fruits and vegetables before cutting and packing (yes, even the ones that will be peeled).
And, for those of you who will overpack lunches in anticipation of your starving school kid — I feel you. But make sure any uneaten perishable leftovers are tossed, and not kept to be re-used. As you and your kid get into a routine, you'll have a better idea of how much they'll eat, and you can pack accordingly.