August 8th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

Secret for a safe kid's lunch: Extra ice

When you're packing your kid's lunchbox in the morning, the ice pack is just as important as the fruit and the sandwich. And new research finds you might need more than one to keep your little one healthy.

Looking at the lunches of preschool age children, Texas researchers found that 98% of the time the food was not as cold or as hot as it should be for safe eating, even if packed in an insulated lunch box or stored in a hot thermos. This means your child may be more likely to come home with a stomach ache.

"This is a red flag. This means that the recommendations for food safety are not being followed," said Dr. Steve Abrams, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.

Food science experts at the University of Texas in Austin tested the temperature of foods in more than 700 packed lunches of 3- to 5-year-olds attending day care.

The scientists were surprised by what they found. The results appear in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.

"I was shocked to discover that almost 40% of the time, parents had not packed an ice pack in their child's lunch," said study author Fawaz Almansour with the Department of Nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin.

But even when several ice packs arrived in the lunch, more than 90% of the perishable foods had entered the temperature danger zone. When foods that should stay chilled, such as milk, meat and sliced fruits, reach temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it's  risky to eat them, especially if they've sat longer than two hours.

For hot items such as a thermos of soup, the temperature needs to stay at 140 degrees or above. When temperatures deviate from the safe zone, this gives bacteria a fertile playground, potentially spoiling food and sickening people who consume it. If your child complains of a stomach ache or is vomiting or has diarrhea, it's not necessarily a bug caught from another child. It may be from the food he ate that day. According to the study, children younger than 3 or younger are four and a half times more likely than adults who are 49 or younger to suffer from a foodborne illness .

The Texas researchers found that the average temperature for perishable foods had climbed to 62 degrees by lunchtime, more than 20 degrees  higher than recommended.

"Parents want to do the right thing for their child ,and I think that sometimes there is not an awareness that some foods need to stay cold," says Diane Van, deputy director of food safety education at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Van says that there are several practical things that parents can do when packing their child's lunch and they don't have to take a lot of time.


– When you can, freeze it

Before you head to bed, take your child's milk, juice or water and put it in the freezer. It can then serve as a second ice pack and help keep other foods cold. You can also do this with other foods as such as yogurt or soft cheeses. When making a chicken sandwich or other perishable mainstay, put it in the freezer as well, leaving the lettuce and tomato in the refrigerator to be added later.

– Keep it cold

If you're sending a whole apple or an orange,  which normally don't need to be refrigerated, put it in anyway to get cold. This will help keep the overall temperature of the lunch box lower.

– Make sure it's insulated

When shopping for a lunch box, choose one that's insulated. Van says that  there are many more of these available than in years past and that they can really make a difference.

– Double up on the ice packs

Always use an ice pack or cold source. If you have room, try to use more than one. Remember that a frozen beverage can help.

– Use the day care refrigerator

If your child's day care has a refrigerator, ask to use it.

If you'd like to test the temperature of your child's lunch, you can use a refrigerator thermometer to get a reading. You can find them at your hardware store or where appliances are sold.


– When cold weather hits, children sometimes like hot soup as part of their lunch. The best way to ensure that it stays at 140 degrees or higher is to pour boiling water into the thermos in the morning, letting it sit for several minutes. Then pour the hot soup into the container.

And the rules for packaging lunches don't just apply to children. When taking leftovers and other items to work, don't forget your own ice packs. You may need to schedule a trip to the store to buy some extras so that everyone in the family can eat safe healthy meals.

Follow @CNNHealth on Twitter

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.