Now I'm a parent myself and, until now, my toddler's meals have gone in a fridge. But his latest classroom shift parents were advised to get lunch boxes with ice packs and leave them in cubbies. My husband, a food science major and chef, immediately balked. He insisted on putting our kid's lunch, snack and milk in the fridge, even though it has meant a bit of a trek to retrieve items at lunchtime. To prove his point, he printed out a graphic, showing how fast bacteria multiple in a few hours' time. I was a little agnostic: those Texas toasted lunches of my youth never killed me. Didn't our little guy have to move to unrefrigerated lunches at some point?
Chalk one up for Dear Husband. The journal Pediatrics just did a story on children's lunches. A group of Texas researchers examined 235 lunches of kids in daycare. Sixty percent of them had been packed with an ice pack. The scientists went to work about an hour and a half before the children would normally eat, coming up to surprising and stomach-turning results: Less than two percent of the food, even food sent with multiple packs or put in the fridge, was at a safely cool temp. Hello, stomach bugs!
So what's a parent to do? Experts recommend insulated lunch packs rather than the plastic or metal boxes of old. Use ice packs or gels. And consider foods that don't perish as temps rise, like PB & J, fruits and veggies, and crackers and canned meats, like tuna fish or potted ham. I would imagine you can also work with your child's school to make sure lunches are stored in fridges at the right temp and rarely opened till lunchtime.
And then there was the fix one TV reporter offered from her own childhood: Her mother would make sandwiches in batches of a 100 and freeze them. Another said she made her kid's lunch the night before and stored it in the freezer, sending her kid to school with an icy meal to thaw by lunchtime. That may be excessive to some. But it's certainly worth finding milks, yogurts and cheeses meant to be frozen and thaw in the lunch box, effectively serving as another ice pack.
For our part, our little guy's food is still in the back of the fridge, out there by his now vindicated dad.