Back to School Food Safety: The Dangers of Brown Bag Lunches

It’s that time of year again – back to school!  As children head back to school, parents are running around and buying school supplies and new clothes – but may be forgetting food safety when sending their child to school with a brown bag lunch.

The 2 Hour Rule

If you pack perishable food in an old-fashioned brown paper bag, it can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime. Perishable lunch foods, such as cold cut sandwiches and yogurt, can be left out at room temperature for only 2 hours before they may become unsafe to eat.

When food is kept at improper temperatures, bacteria can multiply exponentially. Eating tainted food can lead to food poisoning, and children under the age of 5 are particularly at risk.  Likewise, when children are sent home sick or stay home because of illness, it’s difficult for them to succeed in their school work.

Insulated Lunch Boxes

Instead of a paper bag or lunch box, invest in an insulated lunch bag. Insulated lunch boxes help maintain food at a safe temperature until lunchtime. With an insulated lunch box and a chilled freezer gel pack, perishable food can stay cold and safe to eat until lunch.

Purchase reusable ice packs for keeping the contents of the bag chilled. You could also freeze a bottle of water to use as an ice pack — the water doubles as a drink. Use at least two ice packs or one ice pack and one frozen bottle. Doubling up is never a bad idea.

The Food Danger Zone

Why is it important to keep food cold? The U.S. Department of Agriculture reminds us that harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the danger zone range of temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. This range of temperatures is often called the “Danger Zone.” Never leave food out of refrigeration over 2 hours.

Food Safe Steps

To make sure lunches and snacks are safe for those you pack for, follow the USDA’s four steps to food safety: Clean – Separate – Cook – and Chill.


Always make sure your hands are clean before preparing lunches. And, make sure your children understand that they need to wash their hands thoroughly before eating lunch or snacks.

“Washing hands thoroughly” means using soap and warm water, and rubbing hands for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). If water is not available, provide moist towelettes or hand sanitizing gels in the lunch box.


Pathogens can be transferred from one surface or food to another. This is called
cross-contamination. Fortunately there are steps you can take to prevent it. Be sure to keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood securely wrapped. This keeps their juices from contaminating prepared/cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables.

Prepare, Cook and Pack Properly

  • Hot Foods: If packing a hot lunch, like soup, chili or stew, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot – 140 °F or above.
  • Perishable Foods: If the lunch/snack contains perishable food items like luncheon meats, eggs, cheese, or yogurt, make sure to pack it with at least two cold sources. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly so perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long.
  • Non-Perishable Food: Some food is safe without a cold source. Lunch items that don’t need to be refrigerated include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.


If possible, a child’s lunch should be stored in a refrigerator or cooler with ice upon arrival. Leave the lid of the lunchbox or bag open in the fridge so that cold air can better circulate and keep the food cold.

Frozen juice boxes or water can also be used as freezer packs. Freeze these items overnight and use with at least one other freezer pack. By lunchtime, the liquids should be thawed and ready to drink.

Discard Leftovers

After lunch, instruct your child to discard all leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

If the lunch box comes home with food in it, make sure to throw away any perishable food items, because they have been unrefrigerated too long!

Back to School Food Safety Infographic