Packing a school lunch in a safer way

by April Lisante
Posted 9/3/21

While masks will be required in Philadelphia and Springfield Township school districts as they reopen, there is one place at school that still must be approached with an abundance of caution – the school cafeteria.

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Packing a school lunch in a safer way


Kids are returning to school this week under a cloud of uncertainty, with Delta virus cases on everyone’s minds.

The viral Covid variant showed a surge in Bucks, Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties in August, with the CDC listing the areas now as “communities of substantial transmission.” While masks will be required in Philadelphia and Springfield Township school districts as they reopen on Aug. 31 and Sept. 8 respectively, there is one place at school that still must be approached with an abundance of caution – the school cafeteria.

Many parents are thrilled school is starting back up, but it’s the unknown lunchtime exposures that prove most worrisome. In the lunchrooms, masks must come off when children eat their lunches, and it is here that students must be the most vigilant each day, whether they are eating inside the cafeteria, outside at designated tables and tents, or in their classrooms. And don’t forget the kids in the lower and elementary schools haven’t been vaccinated yet.

The lunch packing is the most stressful part of the whole day for me, especially during this pandemic, and I know a lot of other parents have mentioned it as well. So how do parents pack safe lunches? How do kids sanitize their spaces?  What habits should kids regularly practice as they eat each day?

I spoke this week with Lauren Dvorak, the lead dietician and clinical nutrition manager at the Chestnut Hill Hospital to see if there were any tips parents and kids should know as they start the year. I also wanted to get a grip on how and what to pack to promote safer meals. Some of the things kids and parents should be doing are common sense measures, while others may come as a surprise. And while some students will go through the cafeteria line with disposable trays at lunchtime, others may be packing their food to bring to school. Either way, there are some basic precautions kids should take.

“It really starts when you prepare food at home,” Dvorak said. “Making sure you are washing hands and [keeping] food surfaces clean, cleaning utensils.”

When packing anything, start with a clean lunchbag. I am super guilty of this one. I sometimes just quickly rinse it with water inside the main compartment. Wrong. If you are using an insulated lunch box, know that it should be cleaned with soap and hot water at least twice a week, Dvorak says.

“If you can wash it every day inside and out, even better,” Dvorak said.

When you are packing foods, go for pre-sealed bagged snacks: granola bars and fruit or pudding cups. Using Ziploc bags is one of the best methods for packing sandwiches and other loose snacks, but that means all baggies should be thrown away at school. After hands have reached in for snacks or sandwiches, don’t bring the bags home.

“Once touched, dispose of what is not used. Their hands have been in the bags,” said Dvorak. That means if half a bag of pretzels comes home, toss it to avoid germ spread from the baggie. Seeing what comes home as excess could help hone how much you pack.  “Maybe parents pack too much and need to pack less next time,” she said.

Ok, so the kids are ready to head to the cafeteria or sit at their desks for lunch. Now what?

“We are assuming schools are sanitizing tables and chairs before they [students] eat,” said Dvorak. But it wouldn’t hurt to “pack sanitizing wipes in student bags” and have kids give tables and chairs a once-over before they sit. One seated, they should have some sort of protective barrier between their food and the table, either a food storage container, a thick napkin sprawled out on the table, or a paper plate. And if something ends up on the floor, don’t use it.

“If a food item or a utensil falls on the floor, don’t follow that five-second rule anymore,” Dvorak said.  “And avoid putting food and utensils directly on the table.”

If you are using food storage containers, a Thermos, or any other non-disposable item, it must be washed after every use. Ditto for silverware from home.

And of course, two of the most important things parents can pass on to their kids: don’t scroll your germ-infested cell phone while you are eating. And please, do not share drinks or foods with friends.

“Don’t let students share drinks or take bites of your food,” Dvorak said. “And if you must share a snack with someone else, pour it out onto a [napkin]. Don’t touch it with your hands.”

For more information on cafeteria lunch safety for this school year, go to


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