New Publication Guides Parents in Making Safe, Healthy Packed Lunches

AMES, Iowa — School lunch can be a good source of nutrition for children. But the menu may not match their food preferences every day.

A popular alternative for parents is to pack a lunch, but the traditional “brown bag” of years past is not the safest way to send a child's lunch to school.

A new publication from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach aims to guide parents on creating a healthy, balanced meal, while keeping the food safe until lunch time.

Co-authors Ruth Litchfield, associate professor and state nutrition extension specialist, and Catherine Strohbehn, food safety specialist and professor in hotel, restaurant and institution management, created the publication “What’s for Lunch? It’s in the Bag!” as a quick, easy reference tool for parents.

“Preparing a healthy and safe lunch takes just a little bit of time to include the MyPlate food groups and packing it so that it is safe to eat when lunch time rolls around,” Litchfield said. “Also, taking the time to include a bit of variety and creativity is important to make sure the lunch has kid appeal.”

“What’s for Lunch? It’s in the Bag!” is now available as a free download or print piece from the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store. It includes the companion publication “MyPlate Lunch Bag ideas,” also available separately as a free download, which provides nutrition information, food ideas and packing tips in all five categories of MyPlate.

‘What’s for Lunch? It’s in the Bag!’

Packing healthy foods that children like in temperature-controlled containers will provide children the nutrition they need to be good learners without becoming sick from a foodborne illness. The publication breaks the process of packing a lunch into easy-to-follow steps, from choosing the right types of foods for a nutritious meal, through safe handling of food, utensils and preparation surfaces, to packing and maintaining safe temperatures until the lunch period.

One key point is how to properly keep foods cool that normally require refrigeration. Bacterial growth becomes a concern above 41 F (temperatures below 41 F are refrigerated temperatures). An improperly packed lunch can easily reach higher temperatures if stored in a locker or other location without any temperature controls for several hours.

Litchfield and Strohbehn worked with a group of fifth-grade students involved with a LEGO League project to test various methods of keeping lunches cool to find the best solution for parents and students in various situations. These trials are detailed in the publication.

“We tried to replicate typical scenarios during the school day. We recognized that some students store their sack lunches in a locker until meal period; for some that might mean four or more hours with foods at room temperatures or warmer,” Strohbehn said. “The temperature range between 41 F (which is above refrigerated temperatures) and 135 F (which is the temperature for hot food), allows bacteria to grow and reproduce very rapidly, particularly on foods that have high moisture or nutrient sources, such as luncheon meat or dairy products.”

The information in the publication can help parents recognize their own child’s situation and pack the lunches accordingly to ensure the food stays safe to eat.

The publication also features some lunch bag menu ideas and tips to make lunches fun and appealing to kids.

‘MyPlate Lunch Bag Ideas’

For parents looking for additional inspiration to try new food combinations for their kids’ lunch bags, “MyPlate Lunch Bag Ideas” breaks food ideas into the five MyPlate categories: Fruits, Vegetables, Protein, Grains and Milk/Beverage.

Each entry includes multiple ideas for parents to fulfill each category and create a balanced, nutritious lunch, as well as tips on picking food and preparation and packing for a school lunch. This one-page piece is an easy reference tool that parents can use over and over again.

“What’s for Lunch? It’s in the Bag!” and "MyPlate Lunch Bag Ideas" are available for free, either as downloads or as print peices (plus shipping costs). Visit the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store to order a copy.

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