How To Safely Pack A Hot Or Cold School Lunch

Ever wonder how to safely pack a hot or cold school lunch? This is how I keep my son’s school lunches safe to eat.

If you have kids in school, the morning routine is usually the same. Get up, pack lunch, get them dressed and get them to school. But packing that lunch so that it keeps safely from about 7 am when it gets packed until around noon when it gets eaten, is a whole other matter.

If you are concerned about how to safely pack a hot or cold school lunch with food safety in mind, these are the things you want to implement every single day. After all, nobody wants their kid to come home with food poisoning.

I have had the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) opportunity to take a lot of safety and sanitation classes in my life. It’s made me a bit of a germaphobe because I have a good understanding of how germs get passed around and how food can quickly go from safe to unsafe. So I tend to be hypersensitive to this particular topic. While I can’t possibly cover all aspects of food safety in one blog post, I can certainly give you some pointers on making sure your kiddo(s) comes home without an upset tummy, thanks to their lunch.

Healthy School Lunch Ideas

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How To Safely Pack A Hot Or Cold School Lunch

The Basics

Whether you are packing a hot or cold lunch, these are the basics that apply to both.

  • The danger zone for all foods is between 41 and 140 F. That’s the range bacteria thrive in. Bacteria can grow in as little as 1 hour in the danger zone, particularly in hotter weather. So the key is to keep cold lunches under 41 F. and hot lunches over 140 F.
  • Make sure your hands and work surfaces have been washed and well-cleaned. Bacteria are transferred by our hands the majority of the time.
  • Make sure the containers you are packing food in are cleaned. Don’t reuse containers without cleaning them first. Even for something like crackers or pretzels.
  • Use an insulated lunch bag. (affiliate link) Paper bags and metal boxes do not stay warm or cold as well as something that is insulated.
  • Dispose of any leftover foods. For some folks, this can be an issue if your child has trouble eating everything. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Do not touch a cell phone,  your hair, your face, or other items in the middle of preparing food. They all have high volumes of bacteria. Simply wash your hands, prep, and pack the lunch, and then you’re good to go.

How To Pack A Cold Lunch

  • Pack the lunch the night before so it has the entire night to sit in the fridge. This will give it a good start once it’s out of the fridge.
  • Use at least two ice packs or more. They make ice packs specifically for lunch boxes these days (affiliate link), so don’t skimp. Pack them around the food the best you can. Use rubber bands to hold them in place if necessary.
  • If you use juice boxes or freezer-safe water bottles, freeze them overnight. They will be thawed by lunch, but they will help keep things cool.

How To Pack A Hot Lunch

  • All hot foods should be packed in a thermos. Thermos’s come in all different shapes and sizes. You can even find them big enough to fit hot sandwiches into (affiliate link).!
  • Preheat your thermos with boiling water for a few minutes. Then dump it out and add the HOT food. (don’t let it cool before you put it in the Thermos.) Doing this will allow the food to stay hot instead of dropping in temperature as it tries to heat up the Thermos.

How To Prep Produce For School Lunches

  • Wash all produce in running water and dry it well with a paper towel or clean cloth before packing it in a lunch box. Even something as simple as an apple should be well-washed and dried before it’s packed.
  • If packing any sort of dip or dressing, pack it separately from any veggies or leafy greens and pack it with a cold pack. Particularly dairy-based dips or dressings.
  • If packing any leafy greens, such as a salad, make sure to soak the leaves in a clean container in cold water for about 5-10 minutes to allow any dirt to be removed, then dry with a salad spinner. Do this with fresh herbs as well. I use a large, white tub for soaking my greens. I got it at the dollar store. Works great!

I hope this has been helpful. I know at my son’s school, their lunches hang outside the door of the classroom making it supercritical to pack his lunch well. These are the things I’ve learned and put into practice about how to safely pack a hot or cold school lunch. It’s worked well so far! 🙂


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This post from the Gracious Pantry® archives, originally posted 8/2/18.

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  1. Hello;
    Thanks a lot for your article about packing cold and hot food it is very helpfull. I have a question. I do usually prepare rice, or past Bolognesia and meat to my kids , in the morning and pack it in S’well food container. I place the food when is just done so very hot in the container and they will eat 3 or 4 hours later, is that ok?

    Thanks for your answer

    1. Claudia – I had to look it up because I’ve never heard of that brand. I’m not sure how good they are because I’ve never tried one. Your best bet is to pack an extra one that you keep at home and open it when they would normally have lunch and see how hot it is. If it’s still above 140 F., it should be pretty safe to eat. But the limit is typically 3 hours. 4 is too long, according to the FDA. Also, you’ll want to do 2 things:

      1. Make sure the food is too hot to touch. It should truly be piping hot. At least 212 F. before putting it into the container.
      2. Pour boiling water into the container before filling it to be sure you bring the container up to the correct temperature.

      Hope that helps!

      1. I appreciate it so much, thanks for the advice I will do that for sure. The brand is S’NACK BY S’WELL™, I will have to check the double insulation for container because I got the regular one and usually cook in the morning, pack the food hot after putting hot water in the container and they will eat 4 hours and a half later
        Thanks for your kind answer