Keep safety in mind when packing lunches

When my children don’t like what’s offered for school lunch, I pack a sandwich and they carry it in a brown paper bag. My kids say most of their friends use insulated bags when they bring their lunch. Is that necessary?

It depends on the sandwich. If it contains anything perishable — lunchmeat, for example — then you’re taking a risk.

It may be hard to believe, but about 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning every year. While most cases aren’t severe enough to be reported, about 128,000 people end up hospitalized.

The most frequent cause of foodborne illness, Salmonella, is responsible for about 42,000 reported cases annually, and almost half are infants and school-age children. Young children are generally more at risk than adults, so keep that in mind as you determine what to pack for lunch, and how to pack it. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees F, so perishable foods shouldn’t be kept at room temperature for more than two hours before being eaten.

Besides lunchmeat, perishable foods include eggs, yogurt, tofu, hummus, cut fruit and vegetables, and tuna, chicken or ham salad.

Perishable foods may be unsafe to eat by lunchtime, so using an insulated lunch box is recommended. Include a frozen gel pack or other cold source to ensure the food will remain below 40 degrees F until your child’s lunchtime. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends using at least two cold sources in insulated packs, such as a freezer pack and a frozen bottle of water or frozen juice box. By lunchtime, the beverages should be thawed and ready to drink.

If you want to avoid concern about keeping the lunch cold enough, pack only nonperishables. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a good example: Bread isn’t perishable, and neither is peanut butter or jelly. Unopened canned tuna or chicken (or other canned meat and fish) are other options. Just pack a pouch or a can with a pop-top lid along with a fork or spoon, and your kids have their main course all set. Single-serving containers of fruit and pudding that you find on grocery store shelves (not the refrigerated section) are also safe at room temperature. Other items that are shelf-stable include whole fruits with a peel (think apples, oranges, bananas, plums and grapes), hard cheese, dried fruit, nuts, chips (look for healthier options), crackers, cereal bars and pickles.

It’s also important to be sure to keep things clean. Before preparing pack lunches, wash counters, cutting boards and utensils with a clean dishrag and hot, soapy water, and wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Clean the insulated box or bag with hot soapy water after each use, and don’t re-use paper bags. If you pack lunch the night before, keep it in the fridge with the lid open for proper cooling.

Talk with your children about leftovers. They should be discarded, and perishable items should never be eaten at a later time.

For more details on safe packed lunches, see

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

School lunch may be healthier than packed

chow_082915-455188015Generally, which is healthier for kids, a packed lunch or a school lunch?

Obviously, this could go either way, depending on the content of the actual meal. But according to at least one study, school meals might have a significant edge.

The research, published in 2014 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, compared 1,314 lunches of preschool and kindergarten students in three schools in Virginia. About 43 percent of the lunches were packed lunches, and 57 percent were school lunches. Like most schools, the schools in this study participated in the National School Lunch Program, and the research was conducted after that program upgraded its nutrition standards in 2012-13.

The researchers found that packed lunches had more vitamin C and iron and less sodium than the school lunches, but the packed lunches were also higher in calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar and were lower in protein, fiber, vitamin A and calcium. Packed lunches were less likely to contain fruits, vegetables, unsweetened juice and milk and were more likely to include chips, crackers or other savory snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Although many kids balked when schools started serving healthier meals, a 2014 study in the journal Childhood Obesity found that 70 percent of elementary school leaders reported that students had warmed up to them.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the trick to making sure your children’s lunch is a healthy one is to make sure it provides a good balance: some lean protein, a whole grain, a fruit, a vegetable and a dairy product. Take a look at the school menu and talk with your children about what they like and don’t like in the school lunches, or if they’d prefer to bring a lunch from home. If the school lunch doesn’t appeal to your kids, talk with them once a week about what they’d like to carry with them. It’s important to get kids’ buy-in: No matter how nutritious a lunch is, it won’t do any good if a child won’t eat it.

The nutrition academy offers these ideas:

  • Pack easy-to-eat foods: strawberries or an easy-to-peel tangerine instead of an orange, for example, or carrots, cherry tomatoes or bell pepper strips instead of a salad.
  • For sandwiches or wraps, choose whole grain options and lean meat or cheese.
  • Make it fun. Cut sandwiches into stars or other unusual shapes. Celebrate special days by packing an all-orange lunch for Halloween, for example, or an all-red lunch for Valentine’s Day.
  • Ask if your children trade food with friends at lunchtime. That will help you determine what foods they prefer.

For a beverage, consider packing a small bottle of water with lunch. Earlier this year, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that about half of children and teens aren’t getting enough hydration, and nearly one-quarter don’t drink any plain water at all. Children tend to think cold water tastes better than water at room temperature. Adding a frozen water bottle to your child’s lunch pack will help keep the lunch cold and will thaw by lunchtime, providing a nice cool drink.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Community Nutrition Education.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Chow Line: School fundraisers, snacks getting healthier

chow_022015_178586482I saw a news report that seemed to indicate that schools can no longer hold bake sales or sell chocolate bars as fundraisers. Can that be right?

The new nutrition standards have indeed gone a step further this school year as rules for snacks and other foods sold during the school day have taken effect. With healthier school breakfasts and lunches already being offered, the new standards for snacks and fundraisers are meant to send a clear message about healthy eating and provide a way for students to actually form healthful eating habits not only at meals, but throughout the school day as well.

The school snack standards say foods and drinks sold during school hours, including items in vending machines, school stores, and a la carte cafeteria menus, cannot exceed limits on fat, salt and calories. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and other nutrient-dense foods are encouraged. Foods sold in school fundraisers must meet the same guidelines.

The standards are for foods sold in schools. So, bake sales held during the school day would be covered, but snacks brought to the classroom by a student or parent would still be permitted under the federal rules. However, before sending Junior to school with a container of cookies for his classmates, you should check with your teacher or school to see if there are any local guidelines in place.

While some people are criticizing the new standards as overreach, the reasons behind them are crystal clear: The latest figures, from 2012, show that more than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, leading to concerns about long- and short-term health issues.

Obviously, not everything a student eats or drinks is purchased at school. Still, public health authorities believe schools can play a particularly critical role in supporting the development of healthy behaviors from an early age.

In a study published in 2009 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers found that 40 percent of students in 2005-06 consumed at least one food or beverage as a snack during the school day, and most of the time those snacks were very low in nutrients and high in calories. In other words, junk food. By the time students were in high school, 55 percent snacked during the school day, averaging an extra 220 calories a day.

Now, when students grab a snack at school, it will more likely be a 90-calorie granola bar rather than a 240-calorie doughnut, or a 160-calorie snack bag of light popcorn rather than a 190-calorie pack of chocolate cookies. In addition, fundraisers are starting to move away from chocolate bars and other high-calorie foods and more toward other items, such as those emphasizing school spirit and other gifts.

To learn more about the new standards for healthy school snacks, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s web page at Action for Healthy Kids has some great healthy fundraiser ideas at

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, field specialist in Youth, Nutrition and Wellness for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Farm to School efforts worthwhile

Students accesss healthy foods at school thanks to Farm to School programMy children complain that they do not like the “healthy” lunches at their school this year. I’ve heard some schools are serving fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms, and I think that might help. How can I find out more? 

School cafeterias have never been awarded top-rated Zagat reviews, but the changes your children are seeing in the chow line are likely the result of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” which required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, even snacks and a la carte items, beyond the foods that are part of federally supported school meals programs.

Although the act doesn’t need to be fully implemented in schools yet, students in many schools are already seeing a marked difference: fewer fries and chicken nuggets, more fajita chicken and steamed broccoli. The idea is to increase the fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce the sodium on the school menu.

The act also promotes connections between schools and local farmers who can provide locally grown produce. Both the National Farm to School Network ( and Ohio State University Extension’s Ohio Farm to School program (, can help a community get started. It’s best to form a team involving school food service staff, teachers, administrators, local farmers, students, parents and community organizations, and establish just one or two attainable goals to start with. A Farm to School effort can go beyond the cafeteria serving line to promoting experiential learning by starting a school garden and organizing visits to local farms as well as incorporating more nutrition and agriculture into the school curriculum.

The effort is likely to be worthwhile. Research shows students in schools participating in Farm to School programs tend to:

  • Consume more fruits and vegetables both through Farm to School meals and at home.
  • Consume fewer unhealthy foods and sodas.
  • Reduce “screen time” — that is, time in front of the television, computer and/or video games.
  • Increase physical activity.
  • Increase knowledge and awareness of gardening, agriculture, healthy eating, local foods and seasonality.
  • Demonstrate willingness to try out new foods and healthier options.
  • Show overall improvement in academic achievement and life skills, self-esteem and social skills.