Packing food safe lunches and snacks for childcare

Is the food you send to childcare with your kids safe for them to eat?

Working families with children in childcare spend many evenings and mornings before work preparing their children’s lunches and snacks for the day. Many children who attend childcare bring packed lunches from home. Although the exact number is not known, about 50 percent of child-care facilities require parents to pack lunch for their children. What types of food do you send with your children to childcare? Some foods are considered potentially hazardous foods, which means they must be stored and handled safely before being served to the children.

What are potentially hazardous foods? They are foods that must have time and temperature control for safety, for example meat, eggs, yogurt, cheese, cut fruit, sandwiches made with meats and cheeses, etc. Temperature control by refrigeration is one method for keeping potentially hazardous foods, such as meat, dairy, and some cut fruits and vegetables, safe to eat. Refrigerated foods should be kept at a maximum of 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 C) to keep bacteria from reproducing. When lunches brought from home are held at room temperature, the temperature of the food can increase throughout the day possibly reaching temperatures in excess of 62.6 F (17 C). Sometimes lunches are packed with ice packs to keep food cold; however, this may not be enough to ensure the temperature stays below 41 F (5 C).

A study conducted in six child-care centers in Texas found that only 22 of 1631 (1.35 percent) potentially hazardous food items tested were in the acceptable temperature range, including 2.27 percent of lunches with one ice pack, 8.2 percent of lunches with multiple ice packs, and 0.9 percent of lunches kept in the refrigerator. These results may be due to the nature of the lunch sacks, the amount of time at room temperature before refrigeration, or the internal temperature of the refrigerator.

When you send food to childcare, Michigan State University Extension reminds you to follow these recommendations:

  • Label your child’s lunch packs with their name before taking it to childcare
  • Place your child’s lunch bag in the refrigerator at childcare to ensure the food items stay cold inside
  • If no refrigerator is available at the child-care facility and you are packing perishable foods that need to be stored at 41 F (5 C) or colder, include an ice pack, frozen water bottle, frozen juice box or multiple cold sources in the lunch bag.
  • Talk with your childcare provider about which foods children can consume later in the day after lunch when the cold source is no longer ensuring the safety of the perishable food items.
  • If you are sending foods such as bread, crackers, cereal, peanut butter, whole uncut fruit and vegetables, unopened canned fruit, dried fruit, unopened juice boxes, hard cheese, nuts and seeds, and unopened cans of tuna or poultry can be kept safe without refrigeration.
  • Make sure that individual food and drink items brought from home are in sealed containers, such as screw-top drink bottles, plastic containers, plastic bags, or unopened packages.
  • It is best to keep sealed food items in a thermally insulated lunch bag and placed in the refrigerator

We need to nourish the bodies and minds of our kids at childcare but must be sure we are providing the safest food possible or them to consume.

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