Experts in food science at the University of Texas in Austin conducted tests of food temperature in more than 700 packed lunches of children ages three to five who attended day care. In 98 percent of the lunches, the food was not at the desired temperature for safe eating. These results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.
"This is a red flag," said Dr. Steve Abrams, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. "This means that the recommendations for food safety are not being followed."
Even for lunches being packed in insulated lunch boxes or foods stored in hot thermoses, kids are still at risk for coming down with a stomach ache or worse.
"I was shocked to discover that almost 40 percent of the time, parents had not packed an ice pack in their child's lunch," said Fawaz Almansour, a study co-author with the Department of Nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin.
And even for lunches with ice packs, more than 90 percent of perishable foods had entered the danger zone of food temperature. When foods that should stay chilled, such as milk, meat and sliced fruits, reach temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it's risky to eat them, especially if they've sat longer than two hours, which most children's lunches do on a daily basis.
For hot items like a thermos of soup, the temperature needs to stay at 140 degrees or above. When temperatures deviate from the safe zone, bacteria find a fertile playground, potentially spoiling food and sickening people who consume it. If your child complains of a stomach ache, is vomiting or has diarrhea, it's not necessarily a bug caught from another child. It may be from the food he ate that day.
According to the study, children three or younger are 4 1/2 times more likely than adults who are 49 or younger to suffer from a foodborne illness.
The researchers found that the average temperature for perishable foods had climbed to 62 degrees by lunchtime, more than 20 degrees higher than recommended.
"Parents want to do the right thing for their child, and I think that sometimes there is not an awareness that some foods need to stay cold," says Diane Van, deputy director of food safety education at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Van says there are several things parents can do when packing their child's lunch and they don't have to take a lot of time:
- When you can, freeze it
Before you head to bed, take your child's milk, juice or water and put it in the freezer. It can then serve as a second ice pack and help keep other foods cold. You can also do this with other foods as such as yogurt or soft cheeses. When making a chicken sandwich or other perishable mainstay, put it in the freezer as well, leaving the lettuce and tomato in the refrigerator to be added later.
- Keep it cold
If you're sending a whole apple or an orange, which normally don't need refrigeration, put it in any way to get cold. This will help keep the overall temperature of the lunchbox lower.
- Make sure it's insulated
When shopping for a lunchbox, choose one that's insulated. Van says there are many more of these available than in years past, and they can really make a difference.
- Double up on the ice packs
Always use an ice pack or cold source. If you have room, try to use more than one. Remember that a frozen beverage can help.
- Use the day care refrigerator
If your child's day care has a refrigerator, ask to use it.
If you'd like to test the temperature of your child's lunch, you can use a refrigerator thermometer to get a reading. You can find them at your hardware store or where appliances are sold.
- When cold weather hits, children sometimes like hot soup as part of their lunch. The best way to ensure that it stays at 140 degrees or higher is to pour boiling water into the thermos in the morning, letting it sit for several minutes. Then pour the hot soup into the container.
And the rules for packaging lunches don't just apply to children. When taking leftovers and other items to work, don't forget your own ice packs. You may need to schedule a trip to the store to buy some extras so that everyone in the family can eat safe, healthy meals.
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