How to Keep Your Food Safe If You Pack Brown Bag Lunches

Brown bagging lunch is a fabulous way to make sure you're armed with a healthy meal at work or anytime you're on the go. However, there are food safety issues that can potentially make you sick. According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Services, approximately one in six Americans are hit with food poisoning each year, with an estimated 128,000 landing in the hospital due to illness. But why are brown bag lunches specifically concerning?

It has to do with time and temperature: Pathogenic bacteria can multiply at a rapid rate in the "danger zone", which is the temperature between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, if you transport your food in a brown bag without a means to keep its contents cold, it probably won't stay safe for very long. Before you resign yourself to delivery and fast food meals, though, know that there are ways to protect yourself against foodborne disease. A little education is all that stands between you and delicious, healthy and homemade lunches.

Point of Purchase

Any perishable food—chicken, eggs, milk and dairy products, fish, meat—must be kept cold at all times. After you take them off the shelf and put them in your shopping cart, it is your responsibility to keep them cold. After purchasing your food, head directly home to put the food in the refrigerator or freezer. Food should never be left out at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live a far distance from the closest market, use ice to keep your food cold when transporting it home.

Clean Up, Clean Up

Make sure that you begin with clean counters, cutting boards, dishes and utensils, and wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds (the equivalent of singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice). Family pets should stay off kitchen counters where you are preparing lunch. After using your cutting board, dishes and utensils, use clean ones for your next task or clean the ones just used with hot, soapy water. For a thorough countertop cleaning, you can mix a solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. 

Don't Cross-Contaminate

Harmful bacteria can spread from one surface to the other if you're not careful. For example, if you slice raw chicken and then fresh melon on the same cutting board, you could be unintentionally ingesting germs from the raw chicken in your fruit salad. Always use a clean cutting board for different foods, especially when you use the cutting board for foods that will not be cooked, like bread, vegetables and fruit. Either use separate cutting boards or wash the cutting board between the ready-to-eat foods and raw foods.

Pack It Like a Pro

Pack only the amount of food that you will eat at lunch and nothing more. Extra food will need to be stored in a refrigerator or kept cold some other way or tossed, so it's best to pack just the right amount to minimize potential food waste if you don't have access to a refrigerator or cooler. You also want to discard any packaging or paper bags and not reuse them, as there is a potential for bacteria left behind to contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.

While you can prepare your lunch the night before, it's important to refrigerate all perishable items and pack them in the morning in an insulated, soft-sided lunch box or bag to keep the food cold. Pack at least two ice packs (or any other source of ice, such as frozen gel packs or a frozen bottle of water) when you have perishable food, no matter what type of lunch box you have.

You can also opt to freeze your sandwiches to help them stay cold, but don't freeze sandwiches with mayo, lettuce or tomatoes, as it will ruin the quality of the sandwich. You can pack these items on the side and add them later to your sandwich. Foods that are safe without refrigeration during the workday include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheeses, canned tuna or salmon, chicken or meat in a can, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.

If you have a refrigerator at work, store any perishable foods immediately once you arrive. If you opt to store the insulated bag in the fridge, leave the bag open so that the cold air can keep your food cold.

What About Hot Food?

Soup, stew and chili make for an easy, warming lunch, especially when the weather starts to get cold. To make sure your insulated container is safe, fill it with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Next, empty the container and fill it with your steaming hot lunch. The insulated container should be kept closed until you're ready to eat lunch. The temperature of hot food should be 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above.

The most popular way to reheat lunch at work is a microwave. When using the microwave, cover food in order to maintain the moisture and keep the heat evenly distributed. Leftovers should be reheated to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a food thermometer to make sure the temperature is safe before eating. If you brought a frozen meal to the office, cook it according to the package directions.

You can save money and have control over your food when you brown bag your lunch, but food safety should be your number one concern. By taking precautions and learning about your food's refrigeration or temperature needs, you can eat healthy without risking a nasty case of food poisoning.