Whether it's off to school or work, millions of Americans carry "bag" lunches. Food brought from home can be kept safe if it is first handled and cooked properly. Then, perishable food must be kept cold while commuting via bus, bicycle, on foot, or in a car. After arriving at school or work, perishable food must be kept cold until lunchtime.
Why keep food cold? Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the “Danger Zone,” the temperatures between 40 and 140 °F. So, perishable food transported without an ice source won't stay safe long. Here are safe handling recommendations to prevent foodborne illness from "bag" lunches.
Begin with Safe Food: Perishable food (refrigerated), including meat, poultry and eggs, must be kept cold at all times. In between store and home, transport perishable food as fast as possible when no ice source is available. At home, refrigerate perishables promptly. Food should not be left out at room temperature more than 2 hours — 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F.
Don't Cross-Contaminate: Harmful bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and countertops. Always use a clean cutting board. Consider using one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry.
Packing Lunches: Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunchtime. That way, there won't be a problem about the storage or safety of leftovers. It's fine to prepare the food the night before, but pack lunch bags right before leaving home. Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but pack at least two ice sources with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box you use.
Keeping Cold Lunches Cold: Prepare cooked food, such as turkey, ham, chicken, and vegetable or pasta salads, ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator (40 °F or below). Keep cooked food refrigerated until time to leave home.
To keep lunches cold away from home, include at least two cold sources. You can use two frozen gel packs or combine a frozen gel pack with a frozen juice box or frozen bottle of water. Freeze gel packs overnight. When packing your bag lunch, place them on top and bottom of the perishable food items to keep them cold. Of course, if there's a refrigerator available at work or school, store perishable items there upon arrival.
Some food is safe without a cold source. Items that don't require refrigeration include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, popcorn, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.
Keeping Hot Lunches Hot: Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, and chili hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot (140 °F or above).
Source: USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service
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