Make sure bacteria isn’t your lunch companion

Sara Browning

We wash our hands, bundle up and take extra precautions in the classroom and the office to keep ourselves well during flu season.

But how much effort do we make to keep our brown-bag lunches safe from bacteria?

Ensuring a nutritious meal means more than packing fruits and veggies in a brown paper bag. Methods of cooling, heating and storing on-the-go lunches can contribute to the amount of bacteria the body consumes daily. Safe-handling practices are the primer for preventing food-borne diseases and ensuring good health.

Before packing

Food safety begins before deciding on the lunch menu. Hand-washing is an important first step to ensuring food safety. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before making your lunch, and wash them again before eating.

Back to basics

When packing a lunch, Shirley Camp, nutrition and wellness educator with the Macomb Unit of the University of Illinois Extension, recommends getting back to basics.

"Your basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich is always a safe thing to pack," she says. "Cheese that has been processed and dried, such as string cheese, is also good."

Although Camp says basic fruits such as grapes or sliced bananas and apples will keep well at room temperature, packing dry foods, such as trail mix with dried fruits, granola, crackers and breads, is a sure way to eat healthy. These foods will remain fresh the whole day and may be eaten on the bus ride home or as an after work pick-me-up.

In addition to dry grains, prepackaged meats and pastas will also keep during the day.

"Stores are now selling prepackaged tuna that comes right off the shelf and doesn't have to be kept refrigerated," Camp says. "Stores also carry dinners and lunches that just require you to add water, such as macaroni and cheese and different Oriental meals."

Keeping cold foods cold

Some foods are safe to eat as long as they are kept cold.

Camp says the best way to keep cold foods cold until lunchtime is to use an icepack or to freeze a water bottle or juice box and place it next to the food.

"Make sure to use an insulated lunch bag to keep your ice source from melting too quickly," she says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends using insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags for keeping foods cold. Lunches packed in brown paper bags can be double-bagged for better insulation.

What to avoid

Foods made with large portions of eggs and milk are a red carpet for contaminants.

Camp says eggs and dairy products invite bacteria when food is stored in the danger zone between 40 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Yogurt and runny cheeses, such as cream cheese and cottage cheese, contain large amounts of milk.

"You can freeze yogurt, but it likely will not be thawed out by lunch time," she says.

Homemade puddings, custard pies, cream pies and cream-based soups are also susceptible to bacteria in the danger zone.

"Some puddings come refrigerated and need to be kept cold with an ice source," Camp says. "Others are stored on the shelf and may be kept at room temperature. Cream-based soup with meat as an ingredient - unless I know I can keep it hot in a thermos - is prime breeding ground for bacteria to multiply."

Meats, unless they are frozen the night before or are part of prepackaged lunch combinations, should never be taken as a lunch if you can't keep them cool.

"Bacteria in uncooked meat can lead to cross contamination with other foods," Camp says.

Leftover myths

Although frozen food kept cold is safe, cold temperatures cannot guard against bacteria indefinitely. A classic myth is that leftover food kept in a refrigerator will remain edible for a long period of time.

Camp says you should consume leftovers within two or three days.

"You can't see, taste or smell bacteria," she says. "Leftover food sitting in your refrigerator at work or in a locker from a week ago may be crawling with contaminants." 

Discard perishable leftovers unless they can be safely chilled immediately after lunch and upon returning home. When reheating leftovers, food should be covered to lock in moisture and promote safe, even heating.

The USDA recommends reheating leftovers to 165 degrees so food comes out of the microwave steaming hot.

Unwise to reuse

When it comes to making lunches, packaging materials such as aluminum foil, clear plastic wrap and plastic storage bags should never be "recycled."

"Buying plastic containers for sandwiches, crackers, fruits and other food items is much safer than reusing any kind of plastic wrap," Camp says. "Just be sure to wash out the containers thoroughly with soap and hot water between each use to kill harmful bacteria."

Although there has been debate over whether reusing water bottles by filling them with tap water causes chemicals from the plastic to leach into the water over time, Camp says the Macomb Unit of the University of Illinois Extension does not recommend reusing them.

"The best thing to do is to buy a reusable plastic water bottle," Camp says. "Make sure to wash it out every night with a drop of soap and warm water before refilling it."

State Journal-Register

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