(NaturalNews) As parents begin sending their children back to public school, some are choosing to bypass the cafeteria's pre-planned food schedule, opting to pack their own lunch instead. A nonprofit food science organization, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) has put together a list of helpful tips to help parents pack a safer, healthier lunch for their children. IFT spokesperson Don Schaffner said, "When you're packing a school lunch, it's important to think about the perishability of the foods you're making." He warns about improperly packed lunches that can lead to spoiled food or foodborne illnesses.
He said, "Perishable foods can remain at room temperature for no more than two hours -- one in the summer due to the heat. Properly refrigerated foods can last a long time, but most school children won't have access to a refrigerator where they can store their lunchbox."
Clean, sterile lunch bag is important
The group said it's important for children to start each day with a clean lunch box or bag. Vinegar makes a great sterilizer. They mentioned that the best way to carry food is in an insulated vinyl lunch bag instead of paper bags, plastic pails or metal lunch boxes. The insulated vinyl keeps the foods cooler, which is important since kids don't have access to refrigerators. The group demonstrates the importance of deterring the growth of bacteria by washing the lunch bag with warm soapy water as soon as the child comes home. This allows the bag to dry overnight before it's packed again the next day. Furthermore, it's important to choose vinyl bag material that is phthalate- and dioxin-free.
The group also advises parents to use clean packing materials inside the lunch box, preferably sealable single-use sandwich bags that can be disposed of each day. The group said that dishwasher-safe, reusable plastic containers are great, but these are usually loaded with leachable plasticizer chemicals that can get in the child's food and affect their cells in negative ways. It's best to use dishwasher-safe glass containers to carry foods in.
Their fourth piece of advice instructs parents to choose foods that are nonperishable, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or prepackaged applesauce or fruit cocktails. Schaffner said that these are also kid favorites and that you "don't have to worry about refrigerating it, and it will last from the time you prepare it in the morning until kids consume it at lunchtime."
Schaffner and his colleagues also warned about problems like soggy bread, which can disgust a child. To solve this, they advise parents to pack the bread in a separate container from toppings like meat and cheese, which can be placed next to a ice pack.
To keep the food cold throughout the day, Schaffner suggests that parents keep the food in the refrigerator over night. Room-temperature ingredients are hard to make and keep cold with just an ice pack. Additionally, all perishable food should be kept close to an ice pack, which should also be washed each day to prevent bacterial contamination.
Most importantly, Schaffner says to think ahead. For hot food, he advises that the container be filled with boiling water first to kill any bacteria. After letting it sit for a few minutes, then it can be dumped and the hot food added.
"Not planning adequately, not thinking about the amount of time it's going to take, from the time that food is prepared until that food is eaten, is a common mistake," he said. "At night, wash the cold pack and make sure it goes back in the freezer so it's ready for the next day. Give yourself plenty of time in the morning to wash your hands thoroughly before handling food. And keep stressing to kids the importance of washing their own hands before they sit down to lunch each day."
Boosting the nutrition level of the lunch
In addition to food safety and sanitation, nutrition experts at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt advise parents to mix it up when preparing a sack lunch. Children spend a lot of time in public schools just sitting, so extra-sugary drinks, sports drinks and flavored milks are highly discouraged. The experts advise parents to keep the meal fresh, packing fruits and vegetables that should be kept clean in a well sanitized lunch sack or pail. They reiterated the importance of keeping children away from daily sweets; it's better to make it a weekly treat instead. They advise parents to switch to whole grains, since they contain more nutrients than refined grains. Healthy foods like spinach or avocado can be sneaked in on sandwiches to boost the nutrition of the food. The entire lunch can be livened up with sides like hummus or yogurt too.
Children's Hospital nutritionist Martha Upchurch sums it up: "Healthier eating habits have well-documented health benefits such as helping to prevent obesity and other diseases, but healthier eating habits also help to fuel children's brains for academics, their bodies for athletic performance, and also promote healthy skin and body weight."