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Get an A+ in Food Safety This School Year

A packed lunch with a sandwich, granola bar, and apple.

As the school year kicks off, it's time for a crash course in lunchbox food safety. Here's a study guide to help you keep food safe when packing lunches.

Clean—In a USDA study, 97 percent of participants in a test kitchen did not wash their hands properly. Use this hand washing cheat sheet before, during, and after preparing food and before eating to get to get an A+:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water, turn off the faucet, and apply soap
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Rinse your hands under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel.

Cutting boards—Avoid cross contamination when preparing foods. Use one cutting board for raw meats and another for vegetables, fruits, and ready-to-eat foods.

Packing lunch—Keep perishable foods like deli meats in an insulated lunchbox with a cold source, such as a frozen gel pack, water bottle or juice box. After packing lunch for the next day, place it in a refrigerator. Do not reuse packaging like resealable plastic bags as they can contaminate food.

Caution—Perishable foods can only be at room temperature for 2 hours because bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest between 40°F and 140°F. If the foods are exposed to temperatures above 90°F (like a hot car), they can only be out for 1 hour. Never taste food to determine its safety. When in doubt, throw it out. While there may be substitute teachers, there's never a substitute for food safety.

Check out the food safety study guide for more tips — Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.

For more questions about food safety, contact the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert or chat live at from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.