Safe Bagged Lunches for School or Work

For generations, adults and kids have been heading off to school or work, lunch pail (or bag) in hand.  It is a way to keep your food budget under control and insure that you will like your noontime meal.  It helps people stick to special diets, use up leftovers, and avoid being tempted by expensive or unhealthy take-out food.  But, it is also important to keep food safety in mind as you pack lunch for you or your family.


Think about…

  • How long will the lunch be in the temperature "danger zone" (40°F to 140°F)? Remember that foodborne bacteria grow fast when at room temperature. Do not hold food in the "danger zone" for more than 2 hours, and only 1 hour if the outside or room temperature is 90°F or above.
  • What kind of foods are you going to pack? Some foods are more likely to be a source of foodborne illness if they are not handled safely. These foods are called "potentially hazardous" or "risky." See the chart below.
  • Mayonnaise is often blamed for food poisoning but is seldom the cause. Commercial mayonnaise, made with vinegar, is high in acid. Bacteria do not grow in high acid foods. While mayonnaise will not make unsafe foods safe to eat, foods that are traditionally mixed with mayo (tuna, chicken, eggs, sandwich meat) must be refrigerated to keep them safe.

Safe Work Habits—when packing a lunch

Bacteria can be carried by food, by skin, nose, or throat, by pets, insects and by work surfaces which come in contact with any of these.

  1. Clean and Sanitize Kitchen and Equipment

Wash with hot soapy water.
Use a stiff brush for crevices around handles and blades. Rinse with hot water or sanitize with a bleach solution (1 tsp. bleach per quart of water).

  1. Clean Hands

Wash with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.
Don't handle food if your hands have cuts or sores or if you have a cold.
Always wash your hands after handling raw foods, and after using the restroom.

  1. Clean Food

Wash fruit and vegetables under cold running water to remove soil, bacteria, and possible pesticide residues. Do not use spoiled food.

How can you keep bag lunches safe?

  • Use a vacuum thermos container. Before adding hot food, heat container with scalding water. For cold food, chill with ice cubes. If your vacuum container has a coolant in the top, freeze the top before adding cold food to the thermos.
  • Use clean lunch bags. Recycled shopping bags can be contaminated by insects or food.
  • Use lunch boxes or insulated carriers that can be easily cleaned.
  • Refrigerate food before packing.
  • Add ice or frozen commercial ice packs to your lunch box, or add a can or jar of frozen water or juice.

If you carry frozen meals/dinners, pack the meal to keep it frozen until heating time.

Choose wisely.  Know the risks.

These foods are Risky:  must be kept cold Less risky: safe at room temperatures until lunch
Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts
  • Any meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cooked beans, or sandwiches; salads or other dishes made with these foods
  • Processed meats (bologna, hot dogs, etc.)
  • Tofu, other soy products, hummus, or other meat substitutes
  • Beef jerky, dry salami or pepperoni
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Dry soup  or noodle mixes
Milk, Yogurt and Cheese
  • Milk and milk drinks
  • Custards and pudding (unless shelf-stable)
  • Cottage cheese, soft cheeses such as cream cheese, dips
  • Yogurt
  • Hard cheeses like cheddar,  Swiss, American processed cheese food
  • Unopened shelf-stable milk and unopened shelf-stable puddings
  • All cooked vegetables
  • Sprouts
  • All cut raw vegetables, salads
  • Uncut, unpeeled raw vegetables
  • Unopened vegetable juice
Fruit Group
  • Cut melons-watermelon, cantaloupe, all melon
  • All fruits
  • Fruit juices
Bread, Cereal, Rice and

Pasta Group

  • Cooked pasta, rice and other cooked grains or cereals
  • Any salads, soups or dishes made with cooked grains or pasta
  • Bread and crackers
  • Cookies
  • Dry cereals
Fats, Oils and Sweets
  • Gravy and sauces
  • Mayonnaise
  • Butter
  • Candy
  • Shelf-stable gelatin deserts
  • Ketchup and mustard
  • Margarine, oil
  • Fruit pies

Want to read more?

Keeping “bag” lunches safe