As the new school year gets underway, Arkansas parents are making decisions about their children’s eating routine while at school, said Marilyn Burch, Extension associate-foods and nutrition for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Regardless of whether their children will take a lunch to school or eat at the cafeteria, parents can play an active part in ensuring they eat healthy and safe foods.

“If your private or public school is among the 94 percent of schools participating in either the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program, your children will be served foods at the cafeteria aligned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for school meals,” she said.

In addition to providing healthy foods, the school cafeteria should also be clean to protect children from food-borne illness, Burch said. If parents notice unsanitary conditions during a visit to the school cafeteria, they should inform the school administration.

“While cafeterias are a convenient source of meals, preparing and packing lunches and snacks is also a good way to ensure your child has the healthy fuel necessary for the school day,” Burch said. “Getting into the practice of packing a lunchbox is easy and not as burdensome as some may assume. It is important, however, to always keep food safety in mind as individuals start to regularly prepare food for their children.”

When packing school lunches, parents should keep the following food safety tips in mind:

• Make sure counters are clean and wash hands before making lunch.

• When cooking or handling cooked food, remember the bacteria “danger zone” of 40 degrees to 140 degrees F. In this range, bacteria spread very quickly. Food should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.

• Pack hot foods while they are hot. Waiting for hot food to cool down before packing is an invitation for food-borne illness.

• Use an insulated lunch box and thermos to reduce the chances of bacteria growth on food.

• Separate and wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Don’t forget to wash fruits with edible skins such as apples, pears, plums and peaches. Pack them in plastic containers or zip-close bags to help prevent the spread of germs.

• Immediately divide snacks from larger bags (pretzels, chips and cookies) into smaller portions upon opening. This cuts down on the many bacteria that are spread when family members frequently reach into the original packaging.

• When packing lunch, add room-temperature-safe foods such as peanut butter, jelly, dried fruit, bananas, apples and oranges.

Burch said it’s also important to keep lunchboxes clean. Lunchboxes are most easily washed by submerging them in a sink filled with warm, soapy water and scrubbing with a sponge or cloth. If a lunchbox cannot be completely submerged, individuals can moisten the sponge or cloth in soapy water and wipe the inside and outside of the box.

“Rinse the lunchbox by wiping it with a cloth that has been moistened with clean water,” she said. “It can be dried with a towel and, if possible, should be left to completely air-dry.”

In addition to packing nutritious, balanced lunches, parents should take the opportunity to teach their children good food safety practices. They should remind their children to:

• Wash hands before and after eating.

• Never place food directly on a cafeteria table. Food can be placed on paper towels or wax paper in order to reduce the chances of it being contaminated.

• Forget about the “5-second rule.” Contrary to the popular myth, food is not safe to eat after it falls to the ground – even if it was on the floor for less than 5 seconds.

• Throw away all perishable, uneaten lunch items.

“Parents who plan on packing their children’s lunch can add the USDA Mixing Bowl recipe for turkey rolls to their lunch menus,” Burch said.

Shake It Off with a Turkey Roll recipe


Fresh blueberries,

Fresh strawberries, sliced;

Fresh spinach, torn into bite-sized pieces;

Fresh romaine lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces;

Carrot slivers,

1 tablespoon ranch dressing,

1 soft tortilla,

1/4 teaspoon mayonnaise,

2 slices turkey breast,

1 slice Colby Jack cheese.


Place the blueberries and strawberries in a small container.

Place the spinach, romaine and carrots in a small container. Place the lid on the container and shake.

Place the ranch dressing in a small container so the salad won’t be soggy.

Place the tortilla on the cutting board and spread it with mayonnaise. Add the turkey, veggies and cheese. Roll the tortilla up and cut it into 1-inch sections.

Source: USDA Mixing Bowl.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.