Let’s face it, most school lunches aren’t carefully planned, Pinterest-worthy creations that parents spend hours slaving over. They’re usually thrown together in the morning or the night before by busy parents. In this environment, it’s easy to throw food safety considerations out the window. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you pack better lunches, even if you are in a hurry.

1. Keep Lunch Requirements on Your Fridge

Your children’s school will usually circulate a list of requirements for your child’s lunches. These could include avoiding common allergens such as nuts and ensuring that your child gets an adequate serving of fruits and vegetables. Read them carefully, go over them with your kids, and keep them on your fridge as a handy reference guide.

2. Keep lack of refrigeration in mind 

A school lunch will likely sit in a locker or cubby without any refrigeration at room temperature. The two-hour rule applies to most meats, eggs, dairy and even cooked leftovers. This means the traditional brown bag is out, and an insulated lunch bag with a cold pack is the best option to keep your meal choices wide open and your kid safe from foodborne illness.

3. Preventing cross-contamination 

Before packing your kid’s lunch, wash your hands and make sure you’re working with clean cutting boards and utensils. Once the lunch is packed, make sure your child knows to keep the lunch bag sealed and not to add any other items to it or open it until snack and/or lunchtime. If possible, pack non-perishable snacks in a separate bag like your kid’s backpack to keep cross-contamination from happening, and to retain the coldness of the ice pack in the lunch bag.

4. Wash lunch bags after each use

At the end of the day, discard any uneaten food in your child’s lunch bag and rinse it out with hot, soapy water, along with the ice pack before you put it in the freezer. While it is tempting to recycle uneaten apples for the next day, they may have cross-contamination from other foods and can’t be trusted. If your child isn’t eating certain foods, work with them to plan out the meals so they are getting something they’ll eat every day.

5. Teach your kids food safety

Many parents make school lunches a cooperative effort. Make sure you teach your kids to wash their hands before they pack anything in the lunch bag and wash their hands before and after eating. Handwashing is one of the best weapons against the spread of the bacteria that cause foodborne illness.

6. For kids with allergies

If your child has an allergy to a specific food or group of foods, you probably already take pains to not keep the allergens around the house and, if you do, prevent cross-contamination. Make sure you let your child’s school know about the allergy, and follow any procedures they have in place to protect your child. In the end, your child has to self-police what they are eating, even at a young age. Discourage them from trading food - even wrapped food - as it may be cross-contaminated with the food they are allergic to.

For more information on safe food handling at home, see the Be Food Safe program from the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education.