I intended to write this article some time back, however just now the timing seems good given it’s summer and we are about to start the new school year.
Firstly a disclaimer: This is not advice on what to put in your children’s lunchbox from a nutritional perspective; rather from a food safety viewpoint. Neither am I going to attempt to provide advice for fussy eaters. Children with food allergies or intolerances have even more complexity here too, and although I am passionate about this professionally, I have no domestic experience as my kids do not have allergies. Instead, if this applies to you, I would encourage you to contact Anaphylaxis Australia where there is lots of helpful advice on helping school age children to manage their allergy risk.
It may surprise some new school parents that unlike some preschools, the vast majority of schools do not provide fridges for children’s lunchboxes. In my opinion as a food technologist I think it is crazy – but it’s kind of the way it is…for now at least.
Food safety of packed lunches is actually pretty simple. The single most important piece of advice is “keep it cold”. This can be extremely difficult on a warm Sydney summer day but here are my tips:
- Use a quality lunch bag with a good level of insulation (padding). The go-to brand is probably “Fridge to go”. Personally I don’t use this brand for school as my children prefer their characters over a plain box and there are plenty of cheaper ones with good enough insulation around. Give it a squeeze between your finger and thumb to see how thick it is before you buy. “Pack it” is another brand where the whole bag goes in the freezer. Do not use an unprotected plastic or metal box. Bento-style boxes are fine providing they are put inside an insulated bag.
- Replace the lunch bag when it becomes too dirty to clean effectively, the insulation becomes exposed or too thin or the stitching gets grotty.
- Always use at least one good ice pack, two if you can (depending on the size). I use the large Willow gel ones as they are thinner and more flexible but still stay cold quite well. I use at least one of these year round, but in summer I pop at least one extra smaller one in as well.
- Choose your food items and ingredients carefully. Anything temperature sensitive carries a higher risk, especially if the risk of contamination is higher in the first place. For example there is no way I would put sushi in a lunchbox and expect it to still be ok at lunchtime. In summer, I don’t use high risk items e.g. ham, cooked chicken, seafood, soft cheese, commercial dips, some fresh berries, cut fruit, herbs and leaf salad, fresh dressings, leftovers, cooked rice, dressed salads, egg mayonnaise etc. I am fussy over these kind of foods in unrefrigerated conditions most of the year to be honest anyway. Temperatures above 5°C and below 60°C are a risk…the Food Standards Code requires these types of foods to be kept temperature controlled and calls them “potentially hazardous” for a reason!
- Freeze anything which can be frozen.
- These are some foods I use on warm days:
- Frozen yoghurt (make sure it’s still within best before coding)
- Frozen fruit purees (commercial or home-made)
- Whole ambient fruit – e.g. apples, pears, nectarine (and other stone fruit), banana, avocado (halved), cherry tomatoes.
- Sandwiches with low risk fillings – vegemite, hard cheese (tasty), jam (shock horror), canned tuna and mayo mix, canned salmon.
- Frozen bakery e.g. croissant, banana bread, home made museli bars, muffins (sweet or savoury). These get packed frozen and are fine to eat usually by recess, and certainly by lunch.
- Ambient items such as dried fruit, crackers and rice cakes.
- On super hot days (like 35-40°C), I skip the frozen yoghurt (it just defrosts too quickly) and I sometimes add a frozen juice carton or pouch so its slushy at lunchtime in addition to the water bottle. This acts as an extra ice block and even though my kids are very happy to drink water, it encourages them to consume even more fluid. These are the days when the canteen is great as food is made to order and stored refrigerated if required (hopefully)!
Hydralyte and Gastrolyte blocks or jellies are good for rehydrating hot kids too – you don’t have to be sick to use these 🙂 I use them myself on hot days when I know I’ve been distracted and forgotten to drink enough. I’ve also been known to slip a dollar in to buy an ice block from the canteen 🙂
- You can try part freezing your child’s water bottle. I am not too great at this – I have ended up freezing the straw so it can’t be opened, among other silly mistakes. Instead, I fill as normal with chilled water and pop ice cubes inside. The freezer sticks are also good, but they do reduce the volume of water the bottle will hold…which is where the ice cubes win if your child isn’t too great at refilling the bottle during the day. There are also some water bottles on the market shaped like an ice brick and designed to be used in this way. The ones I have seen hold too small a volume of water to be useful for a school child in my opinion.
- Teach your child not to eat something which feels warm (when it should be cold).
- Teach your child to keep their school bag containing their lunchbox in the shade, or preferably inside an air-conditioned room if allowed e.g. at OOSH.
- Wipe out the interior of the lunch bag as you empty it every night. Use a sanisiting spray or wipe if it’s very grubby. Wash the re-usable plastic boxes in the dishwasher if you have one, or clean them, then fill the sink with very hot water and soap and leave them to soak for 10 mins or so before rinsing and air dry. On a sunny weekend pop the open lunch bag outside in direct sunlight for a couple of hours and give it a blast of UV.
- Wash fruits and vegetables in water or a salad wash. Diluted white vinegar is good for this.
- If you choose to use a reusable pouch for yogurt etc. be meticulous about cleaning it. Personally I don’t use these as every type I have trialled I have not been able to clean to my satisfaction.
- Store the lunch bag in the fridge before it’s filled.
- Once you’ve made the lunchbox up (this can be the night before), pop it back in the fridge and add the frozen items just before leaving the house. I have managed to successfully teach my eldest to add his own ice packs 🙂
- On cold winter days I sometimes include a warm item like pumpkin soup. These foods will stay hot until lunch in an insulated snack container, provided the container is pre-heated: Follow the instructions but essentially fill the clean container with boiling water for a few mins before emptying to refill with food, adding the lid immediately. Unless the food you use is commercially sterile (i.e. from a can) be careful to make sure it is fresh and fully re-heated before filling…contaminated food sitting not quite hot enough for hours before eating isn’t a great idea. Teach your child to give it a stir and carefully test the temperature before eating to make sure it’s not too hot.
- Encourage your child to wash their hands before eating. I have minimal success at this one judging by the colour of the hands at pick up time :/ but always encourage washing after the toilet so they are at least being washed a couple of times a day.
- You can try providing alcohol sanitising gel or a hand wipe – if your child will use it!
Guest Contributor – Hazel Hughes
As a teenager searching for a career, Hazel received the advice “people always need to eat”. She studied food science, and became a food technologist, spending crazy hours in food factories worldwide. Upon becoming a mum three times over, she is more passionate than ever about food safety. She does, however, remain a very average domestic cook; a fact she mostly blames on the small people under her feet.