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No matter your age, the end of summer is also a time of beginnings. This means a new school year, new episodes of your favorite TV show and the start of football season.

Students, sports fans and outdoor enthusiasts all have one thing in common: packed lunches. However, some people still pack perishable food in an old-fashioned brown paper bag instead of an insulated lunch box. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food is unsafe to be eaten if it’s kept in an old-fashioned brown paper bag longer than 2 hours. Insulated lunch boxes help maintain food at a safe temperature until lunchtime.

Why keep food cold? Foodborne illness can multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. This means that if you are tailgating or leaving in the morning for school or work, you’ll need a plan to keep your food cold. You’ll want to use at least two cold sources in an insulated bag to keep perishable foods in your lunch safe; ice or gel packs in your insulated bag or box work best.

Perishable foods, such as cold cut sandwiches and yogurt, can be left out at room temperature for no more than 2 hours before they become unsafe to eat. With an insulated lunch box and a chilled freezer gel pack, perishable food can stay cold and safe to eat until lunch. You can find re-usable cold sources at the store (right next to the lunch boxes) or make your own by filling a water bottle or plastic container with water and freezing it. Depending on how much food you are packing you may need several cold sources. Above all, choose a lunch box or tote that is easy to clean.

Packing a hot lunch? Use an insulated container to keep your food hot until lunchtime. Before you warm up your food, fill the container with boiling water and let it stand while you heat your food. Heat your food to at least 165°F, then empty the water out of the insulated container, pack your food and seal it tight. Keep the container closed until lunchtime so the food stays hot. If you are heating a cold entrée in your office kitchen be sure to heat it until it is 165°F, or hot and steaming.

When packing your insulated lunch bag, remember to add some hand wipes, so you can clean your hands before eating if there are no facilities nearby. When you return home and empty your bag or box, wipe the insides with hot soapy water and let it air dry so that it is ready for your next adventure.

Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (1-888-674-6854) Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, or email or chat at

That was great information. I use an insulated bag for lunch but I don't follow your recommendations. After reading this article I certainly will. Thank you!

Thank you for this post. I truly enjoyed reading and learning some new and safe points for my lunch packing experiences.

I didn't know insulated lunchbags were important for safety. I just figured they were good for keeping things at the correct temperature

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