Back-to-school season is barreling down upon us. And for kids who bring their lunches, shopping for supplies includes stocking up on the gear needed to pack safe and delicious lunches.
Last week, I covered the basics of getting the goods you’ll need. You can find the full details here, but the short version is: lunch box, food containers, thermoses and water bottles.
But stocking up on supplies was the easy part. Now you have to use them.
One of the most common questions I get over on my blog about the lunches I pack for my son — LunchBoxBlues.com — is how to pack lunches so they stay fresh (and safe).
So here’s my quick and easy class: Lunch Packing 101.
We may still sometimes refer to it as “brown bagging,” but the reality is almost nobody uses brown bags to pack lunches anymore. They tear easily, are wasteful and — most importantly — aren’t insulated.
Safe lunch packing starts there — use an insulated lunch box. Even if you never pack items that need to be kept cold, an insulated bag better protects the food during transport (particularly when we’re talking about children, who aren’t known for being careful as they carry their lunches).
And even foods that don’t technically need to be kept cool still benefit from it. Even the humble PB&J. The bread stays fresher, the jam is less likely to ooze, etc.
Plus, being able to pack chilled items opens up way more possibilities when making lunch, particularly when it comes to using up leftovers (something that will only make your morning packing routine easier). My son often takes leftover steak, chicken or pork, none of which would be possible without an insulated bag.
ICE, ICE BABY
A small, reusable ice pack makes everything easier. When combined with an insulated lunch bag, an ice pack allows you to safely pack yogurts, meats, eggs, dips (such a hummus), and anything else that needs a chill.
I prefer rigid ice packs (the ones made from hard plastic) rather than soft (the ones that look like bags). The soft ice packs can freeze in odd, hard-to-pack shapes.
As with most lunch gear, it’s good to have two. This way when your kid forgets his at school or leaves it in the car, you still have one ready to go in the freezer.
Another benefit of the rigid ice packs is that they are easy to wash in the sink. For reasons I don’t quite understand, my 8-year-old seems incapable of eating lunch without getting food all over the ice pack.
Don’t feel like dealing with ice packs? One workaround is to pack a water bottle (it needs to fit inside the lunch box and it cannot be an insulted bottle) filled with equal parts ice and water. It will get the job done.
PRIMED AND READY
Thermoses are wonderful for packing both hot and cold ingredients. Think steaming hot chili or chicken soup, or a frosty fruit smoothie. But there are a few things you need to know about them.
A thermos works best when primed — that is, either heated or chilled before the food is added to it.
When packing hot foods, simply fill the thermos with hot water for about 5 minutes before you add the food. Then just dump out the water and add the lunch items.
When packing cold foods, just pop the empty thermos in the freezer for a few minutes before adding the food.
DO THE MATH
These days, quality thermoses are labeled to include a thermal rating. This indicates how long the thermos can safely keep foods hot or cold. This is important information for food safety.
To be safe, perishable foods need to be stored either below 40 F (for cold foods) or above 140 F (for hot). Once the food falls outside those ranges, it is safe to eat for another two hours.
So let’s say you have a thermos that is rated to keep foods hot or cold for 4 hours. You pack a hot chili in it at 7 a.m. It will be safe to eat until until 2 p.m. (the four hours the thermos is rated for, plus the two-hour grace period).
So when shopping for a thermos, first do the math. Figure out what time the lunch is going to be consumed. Then figure out what time you typically pack it. Now do the math. The difference between those times tells you how long your thermos needs to maintain the proper temperature.
Another common question I get is how to pack hot sandwiches so that the warm (and usually moist) fillings don’t turn the bread to mush by lunch.
Easy! Pack the sandwich fillings separate from the bread and let Junior assemble it himself at lunch.
For example, I often pack barbecue pulled chicken sandwiches for my son (it’s a great way to use up leftover chicken). I heat up the chicken and pop that in a thermos. I pack a bun or other bread on the side and include a fork or spoon. At lunch, he makes the sandwich fresh for himself.
Another trick to keeping bread from getting soggy is to coat it with a bit of fat. So say you were packing a tomato and turkey breast sandwich, but didn’t want the juice of the tomato to moisten the bread. A smear of something fatty (mayonnaise or olive oil are ideal) on both pieces of bread will create a barrier to the moisture.
Got burning lunch packing questions? Post them in the comments here and I’ll answer them next week!
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at LunchBoxBlues.com. His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.