You likely bring a lunch to work or school every day, so it’s important that all the food inside your lunch bag stays nice and cold. After all, who wants to take a bite of lukewarm yogurt or find a rotten ham sandwich waiting inside? Gross.
If you have a long commute or a kid who always forgets to take their lunch out of their backpack, take note! This is what you need to know about keeping your food safe.
Your lunch bag or box will stay cold for about two hours, but you don’t want to push it. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the bacteria danger zone is between 40°F and 140°F. Your lunch bag can easily climb into that zone if it’s left sitting too long without refrigeration.
If you don’t have access to a refrigerator, splurge on a bag that’s put in the freezer overnight or a high-end Yeti cooler. You want to do whatever it takes to ensure your bag is as cold as possible.
Do Insulated Lunch Bags Need to Be Refrigerated?
An insulated lunch bag needs be refrigerated, especially if you don’t plan on eating for over two hours. This will keep your food nice and safe until it’s officially lunchtime!
It makes sense to put your lunch bag in the chilliest place you can find. Your typical refrigerator sits at a cool 35°F, which is well outside of the bacteria danger zone. A lunch full of meat, dairy, or any other perishable foods should go in that chilly box as soon as possible!
Where Does the Ice Pack Go in Your Lunch Bag?
Some lunch bags or boxes have a dedicated space specifically for your ice pack. The ice pack should go in this area, in a zippered pocket inside the bag, or at the very least, somewhere inside of the bag.
There are articles that say you should put the ice pack on the top of the food. Others swear the bottom of the bag is better. Either way, your best bet is to make sure you have an ice pack somewhere in your lunch bag or box as you travel. And then as soon as you can, be sure to put that bag in the refrigerator!
According to Julie A. Albrecht, a food specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the full list of perishable foods includes:
- Raw Fruits & Vegetables
- Dairy Products
Be sure to pack your lunch the night before if you are planning on having any of these foods for lunch. It gives your food a head start in staying cold.
#1: Peanut Butter & Jelly
This lunchtime classic is great if you don’t have refrigeration available. If it gets boring, try using almond butter, different flavored jams, or adding sliced bananas into the sandwich.
#2: Dried Meat
Pepperoni, salami, and jerky are all fair game for lunch time. You can add these dried meats to breads or pitas and spread on condiments like spicy mayo or ranch for a truly tasty meal.
#3: Hummus & Veggie Wrap
Pitas are a delicious substitute for bread and are perfect for hummus and veggies. There are a ton of different hummus flavors out there, so explore your options and pick the one you are most excited to try.
#4: Pasta Salad
Cold noodles that are covered with vegetable oil and seasonings are a great non-refrigerated lunch. Mix in black olives, cherry tomatoes, and parmesan cheese.
#5: Ham and Cheddar Muffin
Bake these savory lunch muffins ahead of time and store them in the freezer. Add the muffin to your bag in the morning, and it will be thawed and ready to eat by lunchtime.
Shish kabobs are really easy to make and can be super tasty for lunch. Stick with foods that don’t have to be refrigerated like hard salami, cherry tomatoes, and tiny pieces of bread.
#7: Grain Bowls
Grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and couscous, are great for lunch time. They don’t require refrigeration and can be mixed with other safe foods like lentils and chickpeas.
*Disclaimer: Always check the labels and make sure you’re using foods that do not require refrigeration. Use your own discretion when making these meals. It’s always better to make sure you’re eating safe foods.
Tips & Tricks for Keeping Your Lunch Cold
You want your lunch bag to be as cold as possible. Give any of these hacks a try!
Freeze a juice box or grapes
Even if your commute is pretty short, it’s still a good idea to use an ice pack of some kind in your bag. A frozen juice box or frozen grapes work just as well.
Beware of summer
During the summer, your food will only be safe for about an hour in the hot sun. Pack a frozen water bottle with your ice pack as an extra precaution.
Don’t cut fruit
Fruit lasts significantly longer if it’s whole. If you need to slice up apples or oranges, wait until you’re ready to eat them.
Try a Bento Box
Bento Boxes are the most organized lunch boxes on the planet. They make it easy for you to store mini carrots, dipping sauce, and your sandwich in separate, insulated areas.
Say “no” to paper
The days of brown bag lunches should be long gone! It’s better for your health, and the environment, to store your lunch in an insulated bag.
Be wise with your food choices
Now’s not the time to have a lobster meal. You want to travel with foods that will keep the longest. There’s a reason peanut butter and jelly is a classic!
Store food in insulated containers
Try to keep any perishable foods inside insulated containers or thermoses inside of your lunch bag. Think of it as an extra barrier against rising temperatures.
Throw away leftovers
If you don’t finish your lunch, it’s better to just throw it away or send it to compost. This is especially true if it’s sitting longer than two hours.
The Bottom Line
Your health should always come first. Be smart about how you travel with your lunch bag, and take extra care to keep all the food inside nice and cold. Bon appétit!
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