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Will tuna salad spoil in my child's lunch?
Danielle Dallas
Danielle, it’s good to think about food safety for your children’s lunches. Bacteria that cause food poisoning—which you can’t see, smell or taste—can be on any food. When food sits out at room temperature, especially in warm weather, the bacteria on it will multiply. The longer the food sits out, the more bacteria are generated. The greatest risk for food poisoning is from “perishable” foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products and egg products, including mayonnaise. They are most likely to carry bacteria and spoil when left unrefrigerated. When someone eats the contaminated food, it can cause illness, usually a brief bout of diarrhea and/or vomiting. But young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with immune problems are at risk for more serious illness.

The basic rule is that perishable food should not be left unrefrigerated for more than two hours, or more than one hour in hot weather, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless children’s lunches are refrigerated at school, they are typically left at room temperature for four hours until lunchtime, which could pose the danger of food poisoning.

Here are some tips for food safety in your children’s school lunches:
  • Pack less perishable food. Although your children may enjoy tuna and chicken salad sandwiches, these are highly perishable and would be better for at-home lunches. For school lunches, consider less perishable food such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers and hard cheese, pasta or noodles and a variety of fruits and raw vegetables.
  • If you pack perishables in the lunch:
    • Freeze them the night before. You can put a frozen sandwich in the lunch bag in the morning and it will stay cool and be defrosted by lunchtime.
    • Add a freezer pack or a frozen box of juice to the lunch bag.
    • Use an insulated lunch bag to keep cold foods cold, and a thermos to keep hot foods hot.
    • Consider having your children buy the hot lunch at school. The school food service should have food safety standards regulated by the local department of health.
    • Remind your children to wash their hands before eating and after using the bathroom, playing outdoors and handling pets.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician