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.

How Long Do Insulated Lunch Bags Keep Food Cold?

With an ice pack, insulated lunch bags will stay cold for roughly 2 to 2.5 hours, but even that’s not foolproof. You should always try to get your food into the refrigerator as soon as possible or it becomes risky to eat.

The chart below helps you get an idea of how long your lunch will stay cold in an insulated bag.

*Data is based on The Big Chill Cooler available at Quality Logo Products®. This lunch bag was at room temperature. Results may vary based on the type of lunch bag, the amount of food inside, the ice pack being used, and the temperature outside.

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!

Which Foods Are Perishable?

Are any of these foods part of your lunch? Get your bag into the fridge! They’re all perishable and should be kept at a cold temperature.

  • Meat

  • Poultry

  • Seafood

  • Eggs

  • Fruits and Vegetables

  • Dairy

According to Julie A. Albrecht, a food specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the full list of perishable foods includes:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • 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.

Which Foods Are Safe to Eat for Lunch Without Being Refrigerated?

It’s easy for an adult to bring cold lunches to work since most of the time they have access to a refrigerator. Kids, on the other hand, might have to keep their packed lunch in a locker or in their backpack.

These foods are the safest and easiest to pack for lunch if you don’t have access to a refrigerator:

  • Peanut butter & jelly
  • Dried meat like pepperoni or salami
  • Hummus & veggie wrap
  • Pasta salad
  • Ham & cheddar muffin
  • Skewers
  • Grain bowls

#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.

#6: Skewers

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.

Stats for Success

83% of Americans bring their lunch to work more often than they buy one.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses every year.

53% of kids bring their lunch to school every day.

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!

References

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https://www.thekitchn.com/5-lunch-boxes-that-will-keep-your-food-the-coldest-247001

United States Department of Agriculture. Keeping “Bag” Lunches Safe. Retrieved from,
https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/keeping-bag-lunches-safe/CT_Index

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U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019, May 23). How to Cut Food Waste and Maintain Food Safety. Retrieved from,
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Business Wire. Lunch Box Report Card: Majority of Kids in Grades 3-12 Give Their Lunch on a Typical School Day a ‘C’ Grade or Lower. Retrieved from,
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Foster, K. (2018, August 22). 10 Easy Lunches that Don’t Need to Be Refrigerated. Retrieved from,
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Hawes, J. (2011, October 21). Lunches You Don’t Have to Refrigerate. Retrieved from,
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About the author

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a promo expert with over three years of experience in the industry. Her passion for writing has led to a BA in English & Communications from Aurora University and work published for the Advertising Specialty Institute and The Bolingbrook Sun Times.