By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Wilburn: Packing safe 'bag' lunches
Placeholder Image

Are you looking for a way to save money at work? One way to save an average of $5 a day is to bring your lunch from home instead of eating out.

The typical "bag" lunch has changed a lot over the years. Actually, the best type of lunch container isn’t a bag, but a hard-sided, insulated mini-cooler like container that keeps food cold and is washable.

If you choose to use a bag instead of the mini-cooler-like containers, be sure to follow these bag lunch guidelines.

When preparing bag lunches it is important to follow basic food safety rules so that the lunches have a safe start. It is also necessary to keep the lunch at safe temperatures while carrying it to school and storing it until mealtime.

Here are some food safety tips for preparing, transporting and storing bag lunches that, if followed, can prevent a lunch from causing foodborne illness.

Starting out with safe ingredients is the first step to having a safe bag lunch. Any perishable foods that will be used in the lunch need to be handled properly from the time they are purchased at the store to the time they are used in the lunch. Perishable foods should be kept in cold storage at the grocery store and at home. After purchasing a perishable item at the store, get that food home and into the refrigerator or freezer as quickly as possible. Be sure that perishable foods spend no more than two hours at room temperature (one hour if the temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter).

Before you begin preparing a bag lunch it is important to have clean hands, utensils, dishes and surfaces. Wash hands with warm, running water and soap for at least 20 seconds before touching foods and after handling raw meat products. Cutting boards, utensils, dishes and countertops should be washed with hot, soapy water before food comes in contact with them and in between preparing each food item. Prevent cross-contamination by preparing items that won’t be cooked before working with raw meat or poultry. If possible, use separate cutting boards for raw meat products and other foods. Surfaces can be sanitized with a solution of one teaspoon of bleach in one quart of water. Do not allow family pets to walk on the kitchen counters.

The best type of lunch bags for keeping food cold are the insulated, soft-sided bags. Metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags can also be used. If using paper bags, make them more insulating by double bagging. When packing the lunches try to pack only the amount of food that can be eaten (avoid the problem of having to store leftovers) and if the lunch is prepared the night before, be sure to store it overnight in the refrigerator.

Prepare cooked foods far enough in advance that they have time to chill in the refrigerator before being packed in the lunch. Divide large amounts of cooked food into several small containers to allow for quicker cooling. Keep the cooked food refrigerated until it’s time to leave. Put a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box in with the lunch to keep it cold or store it in an available refrigerator. Items that do not require a cold source or refrigeration include whole fruits and vegetables, canned meat and fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.

Soups, chili and stews for lunch need to be kept in an insulated container. Before putting the hot soup, chili or stew in the container, fill the container with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Do not open the container before lunchtime so that heat is not lost.

Following these food safety tips for preparing a safe bag lunch will help ensure that the lunch is safe to eat.


Debbie Wilburn is County Extension Agent in Family and Consumer Science with the Hall County Extension Service. Contact: 770-535-8290 or

Regional events