Healthy growth and development are among parents’ top priorities as they consider meals to prepare for their children’s school day. For many parents, aiding proper development involves taking necessary precautions to ensure that while their kids are away, they are mindful of food safety habits to prevent foodborne illness.
Foodborne illness, or “food poisoning,” is an infection caused by consuming foods and beverages contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, mold, parasites or toxins. Consuming some bacteria, such as those found in yogurt, may be beneficial for gut health; however, intake of harmful microorganisms can result in symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Foodborne illness is estimated to affect one in six Americans each year, and while most individuals recover with fluid replacement and antibiotics, populations with weaker immune systems like children are at risk for more severe symptoms such as nerve damage and death.
In 2015, Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools campaign reported that acute illness accounted for almost 50 percent of student absentees. These health problems, which include foodborne illness, can cause developmental barriers and educational achievement gaps.
Luckily, foodborne illness is preventable. As students head back to school with lunches in hand, parents can use and encourage the safe food-handling practices listed below to protect their little ones.
Hand washing should be the first step of mealtime and preparing your child’s school lunch or snack. Proper hand washing requires using soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. This helps to ensure that harmful microorganisms are not being introduced to kids through food items. Be sure to also clean utensils and kitchen surfaces with soap and hot water before preparing food.
To prevent bacterial transfer, it is important to handle raw meat products separate from produce. For parents, this means washing their hands after handling raw meat and using separate cutting boards during meal preparation. Unless they are washed, utensils used to chop raw meat for tonight’s dinner should not be used to prepare fruits and vegetables for tomorrow’s school day snack and vice versa.
While children may not prepare food, it can be helpful to highlight and explain these recommendations as you put them into practice. Children are observant, and there’s no better time to introduce safe food-handling practices.
Between the temperatures of 40 to 140° F, referred to as the “Danger Zone,” bacteria grow most rapidly. Parents who send kids to school with cooked lunches should cook meats to a minimal internal temperature to kill most harmful microorganisms. Temperature cannot be determined by touch alone. It is important to use a food thermometer to ensure that meats are thoroughly cooked.
While children may not cook at school, maintaining food temperatures is an important part of preventing illness. Pack hot foods in a thermos or insulated container for transport to school. Soup and chili should be heated to 165°F before packaging in an insulated container. Doing so helps ensure that dishes remain at or above 140°F. Encourage children not to open their food containers until mealtime to maintain proper storage temperatures.
Cold foods should not reach temperatures above 40°F until mealtime. Children should transport cold items in an insulated lunch bag with two cold sources, such as ice packs, to keep food items cold for up to four hours. Beyond that time, food should be refrigerated.
Saving leftovers can cause illness if foods are not properly stored. Children should promptly refrigerate uneaten food. If they cannot access a refrigerator, it’s best to toss the leftovers. As temperatures fluctuate, microbes can rapidly multiply and cause illness upon consumption.
Although some recommendations differ, maintaining safe food-handling practices is similar at home and at school. Children may not have access to all of the comforts of home during the school day, but they can implement habits that help prevent foodborne illnesses. Parents are their children’s first line of defense again the serious health problems and school absence associated with foodborne illness. They can provide children with safe meals and teach them to properly handle food, ensuring wellness with every bite.
This blog post was written by Casey Evans, 2018 Silvia Rowe Fellow.