CORVALLIS - Packing a brown bag lunch isn't rocket science, but a little extra attention to detail can go a long way toward ensuring that your mid-day meal is nutritious and safe.
"For example if you're watching your waistline select lower calorie choices for your brown bag lunch instead of eating a higher fat restaurant meal," said Carolyn Raab, Oregon State University Extension foods and nutrition educator.
It's important to keep food safety in mind as you assemble your bag lunch, Raab added. National Food Safety Education Month [observed in September] reminds us of the importance of good sanitation and safe storage temperatures to prevent growth of bacteria in food, she said.
"Keeping food safe is especially important for people with weaker immune systems, including pregnant women, older adults, and people with illnesses such as cancer and HIV/AIDS," Raab stressed.
The availability of a refrigerator will influence the type of foods that you can safely take in a bag lunch. Raab offers the following safety tips for packing perishable foods in brown bag lunches:
- Dinner leftovers as well as luncheon meats, tuna sandwich fillings, and other moist, protein-rich foods need to be kept cold to prevent bacterial growth. Don't leave them at room temperature longer than two to three hours.
- Cut melons, peeled fruits and vegetables, cooked pasta, boiled eggs, and beans and rice are other foods that require cold storage temperatures. Transfer them into the refrigerator when you arrive at work.
- Invest in an insulated lunch bag to keep perishable foods cold during your commute to work. Add a small frozen gel pack or a small can or box of juice that you've frozen.
- Cheddar cheese and yogurt can be safely kept in an insulated bag until lunch time.
- Take just the amount of food that you'll eat so that you won't have to deal with perishable leftovers.
- If a refrigerator isn't available, choose lunch foods that can be safely stored at room temperature such as crackers, peanut butter, whole fruits, or single serving containers of meat, fish, fruit, or pudding.
- If you use a microwave oven to re-heat leftovers for lunch, keep in mind that there is one type of bacterial toxin that won't be destroyed by this mild heating. To avoid flu-like symptoms, keep cold foods cold.
"Washing your hands before you prepare your lunch will keep away unwelcome bacteria," Raab noted. "To save time, you can pack your lunch the night before and refrigerate it. You can freeze sandwiches that don't contain mayonnaise, tomatoes or lettuce."
If you have questions about the safety of your food, contact the Oregon State University Extension Service's Food Safety/Preservation Hotline at 1-800-354-7319. Certified volunteers and Extension Service staff will answer your questions Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Oct. 15.