How To Safely Pack A Hot Or Cold School Lunch

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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 7am 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 coming 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


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 thrives 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 is 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 then 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. Simple wash your hand, prep and pack the lunch, and then you’re good to go.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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 super critical 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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