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Expert Q&A

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How can I safely pack foods like yogurt for lunch?

Asked by Anupama Kapilavai, Cary, North Carolina

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How can I safely pack foods like yogurt for lunch?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Packing your own lunch for work or school is a great idea because you can control exactly what and how much food goes into it. Not only can wisely packed homemade lunches be a healthy option, they may also cost less than eating out or buying food from the school cafeteria.

If a refrigerator is not available for storage during the hours before lunch, choose shelf-stable foods (such as whole fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, jelly, bread, crackers, packaged applesauce, mustard, pickles and pretzels) or make sure the lunch container stays cold during that time.

Perishable foods such as dairy products, meat and eggs should be kept cold (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit) or eaten within two hours of removal from the refrigerator (within one hour if exposed to an environment hotter than 90F). Perishables that reach temperatures between 40F and 140F may invite the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, so it's important to follow these tips:

• Use an insulated lunch box or bag, or double up on paper sacks to keep heat out.

• Consider packing the lunch the night before and putting it in the refrigerator so it will be as cold as possible before leaving the house. Some foods (such as yogurt tubes and sandwiches that don't have soggy ingredients) may also be frozen and allowed to thaw by lunchtime.

• Add a frozen gel pack or beverage container (freeze a bottle of water or juice box the night before) and keep cold foods (such as sandwiches, yogurt, cheese or a carton of milk) together with the frozen items.

• Pack hot foods such as soups or pasta in insulated containers to avoid warming up the perishables.

• Keep the lunch away from heat sources such as direct sunlight, hot car trunks or radiators.

• If you're not sure whether your lunch box or bag is staying cool enough, try an experiment by putting a thermometer in the container and checking it around the time the lunch will be eaten. The ideal temperature is below 40F. If necessary, add another gel pack the next time around.

• After school or work, toss any leftovers in the lunchbox if your ice source has melted. Even though the food may look and smell OK, there may be enough bacteria to make you sick.

A great resource is http://www.foodsafety.gov/, which provides links to food safety information from federal, state and local government agencies.

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