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Foodborne Illness and Safe Food Handling

Keeping school lunches safe

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Below are some ways to keep your child's school lunches safe to eat and reduce their risk of becoming sick from eating contaminated food (food-borne illness).

Keep it clean

  • Wash your hands before making lunches. Teach your children to wash their hands before helping in the kitchen and before eating.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well, rubbing or rinsing them in clean running water. Scrub hard fruits and vegetables (like carrots, oranges, avocados, and melons) with a clean vegetable brush. Wash fruits and vegetables even if you or your child aren't going to eat the rind or skin.
  • After using reusable lunch bags or containers, wash them with warm soapy water. Dry them well.
  • Wash kitchen utensils like knives, forks, and spoons with warm soapy water or put them in the dishwasher.
  • After making your child's lunch, wash sinks, countertops, and kitchen utensils that can’t go in the dishwasher (like wooden cutting boards) with warm soapy water and sanitize them​ with a mild bleach solution. To make a mild bleach solution, mix ¼ tsp of bleach in 2 cups of water. For a bigger solution, mix ½ tsp of bleach in 1 litre of water.
  • Change dishcloths, tea towels, and hand towels when they are dirty. Always change them after preparing raw meat, poultry, and fish.

Keep it hot

  • Put hot food such as chili, soup, stew, and pasta in an insulated container. If using a thermos, preheat the thermos with boiling water for a few minutes, drain the water, and then add the hot lunch food to the thermos.
  • If you are using leftovers for school lunches, refrigerate them right after the original meal. Use leftovers within a day or two. If the lunch is meant to be served hot, reheat food to at least 74 °C (165 °F) before putting it in an insulated container. If your child's school has a microwave, you can also keep the leftovers cool and teach your child how to reheat them safely at school.

Keep it cold

  • Pack lunches in insulated lunch containers and add frozen freezer packs. You can also freeze a single-size juice box and put that in your child's lunch bag to help keep the rest of the food cold.
  • Pack a chilled sandwich. Make the sandwich the night before and refrigerate it. You can also freeze simple sandwiches, like cheese or sliced meat, to keep lunches cold.
  • Put lunch items in an insulated lunch bag and chill the whole bag overnight in the refrigerator. In the morning, add any frozen items so your child’s lunch will stay cold longer.
  • Chill food such as whole fruits and vegetables, crackers, nuts, packaged puddings, and unopened canned food. This helps keep the lunch cold.
  • Remind your child to keep their cold lunch in a cool spot (not in the sun or near a heater).

Other tips

  • Separate hot and cold foods as best you can.
  • Buy small amounts of cold cuts or deli foods to make sandwiches. Make sure to use them by their “best before” date.
  • Throw away any perishable food items like milk, meat, fruits, and vegetables that your child did not eat at lunch time.

Current as of: September 15, 2022

Author: Environmental Public Health, Alberta Health Services