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Back to School Lunchbox Hygiene: 5 Rules to Keep Kids Well

by Deb Fulghum Bruce, PhD

Back to school means back to germs—and these bugs hide in the least suspecting places. Take a child’s lunchbox, for example. Did you know that bacteria can live for more than two days in a damp lunchbox? The moist surface is easy to cling to and has a steady supply of nutrients-- enough to make this a germ “hot spot”. Problem is, these germs can wreak havoc with the human body if they find their way past the natural defense systems. In other words, lunchbox germs may make your child sick. What to do? Here are my five rules.

1. Clean the Lunchbox Daily

After school, make sure your child empties her lunchbox in the sink and trash. If not, sandwich crumbs, old fruit and spills can host the build-up of bacteria. Wash the lunchbox with soap and warm water; dry with a paper towel. Wipe the inside and outside of the box with a disinfecting wipe, and leave it open overnight to dry thoroughly.

2. Disinfect Kitchen Surfaces

Disinfect all kitchen surfaces, including the countertops, sinks, disposal and refrigerator handles. Also, disinfect cutting boards, knives, dishtowels and sponges. To disinfect, wash the item with warm water and soap and then clean it with a mild bleach solution; wipe dry with a paper towel.

3. Wash Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

It's also important to wash fruits and vegetables with a mild detergent and warm water before packing them in a child's lunch. Be sure to rinse and dry thoroughly. The fruits and vegetables you purchase in supermarkets and at farmer’s markets may look clean, but they contain a variety of pathogens as well as waxy substances that are applied to keep the skins intact or the residues of manure, pesticides and herbicides. Since your child will eat the fruit or vegetable raw, it’s vital that you wash and dry them to avoid food-borne illness.

4. Keep Food Cold

If the school doesn't have a fridge, place an ice pack or frozen water bottle in the lunchbox. Also, to be safe, you can purchase an insulated lunch box or sack to keep foods at the right temperature. You can use a freezable ice pack to keep cold foods cold and a thermos to keep hot items hot.

5. Protect the Lunch from Germs

Pack wax paper, aluminum foil, a strong paper towel or even a cheap placemat in your child’s lunch box for added germ protection. Remember, many kids eat at the school cafeteria, and the germ population is certainly significant. Encourage your child to cover the table before putting his lunch on it.

Remind your child to wash his hands before eating lunch. Fully 80 percent of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, and repeated hand washing is the best protection from illness. You can put a small bottle of antibacterial, sanitizing gel inside a zippered plastic bag (to prevent leaking) in your child’s lunchbox. Ask your child to use the hand sanitizer regularly, if there is no time for hand washing at school.