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Keeping the Brown Bag Safe

Pack just the right amount of food, so you won't need to store leftovers.

Whether it's off to school or work, millions of Americans carry brown-bag lunches. But lunchtime food safety begins before the brown bag — when food brought from home is first handled and cooked safely. After that, food must be kept cold while commuting to work or school and until your lunch break.

Why is it important to keep food cold? The U.S. Department of Agriculture reminds us that harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the danger zone — the temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F, so perishable food that's transported without a cold source won't stay safe long.

Here are some safe handling recommendations from USDA that will keep your brown-bag in the safe zone.

Begin with safe food.

  • Keep it on ice. Store lunch in an insulated container with a pre-frozen packet of blue ice or frozen juice box.
  • Be cool. In the summer, a piece of cold fruit in your lunch will help keep your lunch from overheating. Every little bit of coolness helps.
  • Limited warranty. Opened packages of lunch meat should be thrown away after five days.
  • Don't leave food out at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F).

Keep everything clean.

  • Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.
  • Use an antibacterial spray or a solution of 1 teaspoon of bleach in 1 quart of water to sanitize surfaces and utensils.
  • Keep family pets away from kitchen counters.

Don't cross-contaminate.

  • Always use a clean cutting board.
  • Wash your cutting board thoroughly after cutting raw meat and poultry and before using it for bread, tomatoes, or other food items.
  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry.
  • At lunchtime, discard all used food packaging and paper bags.

Pack it up.

  • Pack just the right amount of food that can be eaten at lunch so you won't have to store leftovers.
  • If you prepare your lunch the night before, store it in the refrigerator.
  • You can freeze sandwiches ahead of time, but don't freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes. Add these ingredients later.
  • Insulated, soft-sided fabric, metal, or plastic lunch boxes are best for keeping foods cold.
  • If you use a paper lunch bag, create layers by double-bagging to help insulate the food.
  • Use an ice source for perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.

Keep cold lunches cold.

  • Prepare cooked food ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator.
  • Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for fast chilling.
  • Keep cooked food refrigerated until it’s time to leave home.
  • Use a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box if a refrigerator isn't available at school or work.

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