A lunchbox can carry a lot more than what you like to eat for lunch and snacks.

With what and how your lunchbox is packed and where it is kept until you are ready to eat can be the difference in having a meal brought from home that is tasty and nutritious and one that makes you ill.

What’s in your lunchbox?

If cold cuts, last night’s leftovers or certain puddings and pastries are in your lunchbox, keep in mind that these perishable foods can look, smell and taste just fine, even when they are not. Left sitting out on a jobsite, in a vehicle or in a locker for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees), they are breeding grounds for Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter. These bacteria cause gastrointestinal illnesses that can range from mild discomfort to life-threatening conditions.

What Makes a Healthy Lunchbox Lunch?

Like any meal, lunchbox lunches should be balanced. Combinations of protein and fiber from lean meats, whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruit make for nutritious meals that will keep you satisfied until dinner.

Love Sandwiches? Use whole grain breads, pitas and wraps filled with foods like sliced eggs, tuna fish, cheese and lean meats enhanced with assorted greens, sprouts, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Packing leftovers? Add some fresh vegetables like carrots, celery or pepper strips.

Got a sweet tooth? Include a piece of fruit or some low-fat Graham crackers or vanilla wafers.

Any foods refrigerated at home must be kept chilled when brought to work. Always store your lunchbox or bag in a refrigerator, or if that is not an option, cooled by packing with ice, a gel pack or a frozen juice box.

Packing your lunchbox

  • Start with a clean lunchbox or cooler. Food spills or crumbs from the day before invite the bacteria that can make you sick. Before packing, wash your container with hot, soapy water and dry it thoroughly. Never reuse foil, plastic wrap or paper and plastic bags from yesterday’s lunch.
  • Insulated, soft-side lunchboxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunchboxes and paper or plastic bags can also be used. To help insulate food, bags should be doubled.
  • Use chilled food. If you are making something specifically for lunch, try to do it the night before to give it several hours in the refrigerator before it goes into your lunchbox.
  • Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for faster chilling and easier use.
  • Pack exactly the amount that you plan to eat. That way, there will not be a problem about the storage or safety of leftovers.
  • Whether your lunch is in a box or a bag, an ice source should be packed with all perishable food items.

Some foods can be safely eaten even if they have not been chilled. Fresh fruits and vegetables, canned meat and fish – don’t open them until you are ready to eat – chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles are lunch items that do not require refrigeration.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food-borne illnesses sicken 50 million Americans every year, including about 3,000 who die. A properly packed lunchbox saves money and better ensures that you are eating what you like as opposed to what is available and not necessarily your taste either on the food truck or at the restaurant around the corner. Most importantly, it will keep you from becoming a foodborne illness statistic.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]