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Brown-bagging it is risky: study

With the start of the school year imminent, a team of U.S. researchers are encouraging parents to rethink the way they pack their children’s lunch.

In a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Fawaz Almansour and his colleagues examined a total of 705 lunches at nine day care centres across the state of Texas. Using a non-contact temperature gun, they discovered that over 90% of the children’s lunches were stored at unsafe temperatures, making them potential breeding grounds for a host of bacteria and illness.

“The burden of foodborne illness remains a major public health threat in the United States that results in a significant impact on the well-being of young children,” writes Dr. Almansour.

“Symptoms of foodborne illness are unpleasant and debilitating. Severe cases, especially in young children whose immune systems are not fully developed, can lead to serious medical issues such as kidney problems, malnutrition, and even death.”

To prevent foodborne illness, Dr. Almansour recommends keeping perishable foods, such as meat, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products, below 4.5°C and above 60°C -- anything in between this range, he says, is considered the “danger zone.”

To ensure your child’s lunch remains outside this unsafe temperature zone, Health Canada advises parents to place frozen freezer packs inside an insulated lunch bag or box to keep food cold. To keep food at a higher temperature, use an insulated lunch bag or box, minus the freezer packs. Finally, to keep liquids hot or cold use an insulated container such as a thermos.

More lunch-packing advice for parents

  • Include non-perishable foods such as dried fruit and unsweetened juices.
  • Avoid using mayonnaise on sandwiches.
  • Keep your child’s lunch refrigerated until it’s time to leave for school.
  • While at school, have your child store their lunch away from vents or sunny window sills. If the school has a refrigerator, use it.
  • If you don’t have a frozen freezer pack, use a frozen juice box. By the time your child is ready for lunch, the juice box will have thawed.

For more information of foodborne illnesses, please see Food Poisoning: Protecting Your Family and E. coli: Protecting yourself and your family from a potentially deadly bacterium.

Joel Tiller


Almansour FD, Sweitzer SJ , Magness AA, Calloway EE, McAllaster MR, Roberts-Gray CR, Hoelscher DM, and Briley ME. Temperature of Foods Sent by Parents of Preschool-aged Children. Pediatrics; originally published online August 8, 2011; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-2885

Saab J and Kalnins D. Better Food for Kids Second Edition. Toronto: Robert Rose, 2010.