Food Safety Smart Lunches to Go


If you could send your refrigerator to school with your child, there would not be a problem with packed lunches. That’s because the best way to fight foodborne illness is to keep perishable foods- especially meat and poultry -cold during preparation, storing and serving.

What is the Temperature Danger Zone?

The Temperature Danger Zone is the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F. At warm temperatures, 60°F and above, bacteria that cause foodborne illness can begin to multiply. At temperatures of 80°F and above, they multiply rapidly.

While foodborne illness usually means uncomfortable intestinal flu-like symptoms, it can be serious for young children, the elderly and persons with chronic illnesses.

For a safe packed lunch, prevention is the watch word.

By following the suggestions below, you can pack a Food Safety Smart Lunch.

Food Safety Smart, Nutritious Take-Along Foods

It’s risky to leave that baloney and cheese sandwich in a warm locker until lunch time. If you know food can’t be kept cold, choose the following foods which are safe to eat even if they haven’t been refrigerated.

  • Protein Foods: Canned meat and poultry, shelf-stable processed cheese, peanut butter, peanuts, other nuts and seeds, snack pack type puddings. Check canned meats and poultry to make sure that the can is properly sealed and not rusted, bulging or dented.
  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Bananas, apples, oranges, peaches, plums, grapes, grapefruit, carrot sticks, green pepper strips, green salad with cucumber and tomato.
    Whole fruits and vegetables are good “travelers” -just be sure to wash thoroughly
    before packing to remove the soil you can see as well as some of the bacteria and
    residues that you can’t see.
  • Dried Fruit: Raisins, apricots, bananas, pineapple, etc.
  • Juices: 100% vegetable or fruit juice in shelf-stable boxes.
  • Bread Group: Breadsticks, soft pretzels, bagel, whole grain crackers, rice cakes,
    muffins, Trail Mix, cereal.

Consider rounding out the foods listed above with items available at the cafeteria: milk, yogurt, frozen yogurt, fruit and vegetable salads. Don’t forget safe, simple sandwiches like peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and banana, other nut and seed spreads (tahini, sunflower, peanut butter) on crackers or bread, and pita bread stuffed with vegetables.

Packing Safe

  • Keep everything that touches food clean. Wash utensils, bowls and countertops -everything that touches food . Cross-contamination usually occurs when cookware or utensils used in preparing raw foods is not thoroughly washed before using with cooked foods.
  • Pack and store lunches in an insulated tote. Store lunches in a cool place-never leave lunches in the direct sun or on a near a radiator.
  • Freeze sandwiches. This works best with coarse-textured breads that don’t get soggy as the sandwich thaws. Pack lettuce and tomato separately to be added at lunchtime as they do not freeze well.
  • Although commercial mayonnaise is not the foodborne illness villain it has been portrayed to be (its high acid content actually slows bacterial growth), all mayonnaise-based salads with ingredients such as tuna, chicken and eggs should be kept cold. The use of homemade mayonnaise containing raw eggs is never recommended as eggs must be cooked thoroughly to guard against Salmonella.
  • Make sandwiches with cold ingredients – chill both the bread and sandwich filling before assembling. Room temperature bread can act as an insulator, warming up cold fillings and preventing room temperature fillings from cooling down even in an insulated tote equipped with a gel-pack.
  • Prepare and refrigerate the whole lunch the night before. Pack the lunch container with sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, etc. and refrigerate. Add cookies, granola and other items that go limp in the refrigerator in the morning.
    • Use a thermos to keep juice cold. Buy milk at school.
    • Use a frozen shelf-stable juice box to keep the lunch cool.



Revised 5/00
University of Rhode Island
Cooperative Extension Food Safety Education