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Back to School Meal Prep as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Posted by Janice López-Muñoz, BS, MSIH, Public Affairs Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Health and Safety
Aug 28, 2018
Woman and child packing lunch
Woman and child smiling while preparing lunch sandwiches.

Back to school marks new beginnings, mixed emotions and all of a sudden…stress! How can you manage your time, juggle more responsibilities and, of course, pack lunch for your picky eater?

Don’t worry. We have the perfect back to school meal prep to keep you and your family safe… and it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3:

1-Weekly Menu Planning and Grocery Shopping

Depending on what your kids like eating for lunch, it’s easy to search the internet for ideas and menus to help create a shopping list before you leave for the grocery store. When shopping, pick up frozen or refrigerated food last, right before heading to the cashier, so it can stay cold longer. Make sure that perishable items are placed in the fridge or freezer within two hours after you finish your grocery shopping.

2-Safe Food Preparation

The easiest way to keep germs out of your kitchen is to make sure everything that will come in contact with your food is clean, including your hands. Handwashing is the first and easiest step to avoid foodborne illnesses. A recent studied by USDA shows that 97 percent of the times participants should have washed their hands they did not do so correctly or at all. This poor hand hygiene caused participants to cross-contaminate other spice containers, refrigerator handles, even ready-to-eat foods and other areas of their kitchen with a harmless tracer bacteria.

Be sure to wash your hands with soap and warm water for a full 20 seconds and dry them with a clean towel. Also, clean your utensils, countertops and cutting boards with soap and hot water. With the clean step accomplished, begin preparing your lunches for the week. You can prep ahead by cutting ready-to-eat items like fruits, veggies or deli meats and placing them in storage bags or food containers. You also can boil eggs a day ahead, or make sandwiches and refrigerate.

3-Safe Packing

It’s packing time! Before leaving for school, grab your insulated lunch bag — never use a paper lunch bag if packing perishable items — and fill it with the ready-to-go food items and two cold sources like frozen water bottles, frozen juice boxes or freezer packs. Consider storing the insulated bag in the freezer overnight to make sure it’s as cold as possible when you pack it in the morning. With two cold sources, your perishables should be kept safely cold (at 40°F or below) until lunch time. If there is a fridge in the classroom, the lunch bag can be stored there with the lid open so the cold air can circulate faster. When packing hot items (soups or chili) use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty and then put in the piping hot food. Tell your child to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food at 140°F or above.

Done! Back-to-school safe meal prep has never been so easy. By following these guidelines, you can have a healthy and safe school year.

Consumers can learn more about key food safety practices at, by following @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter, and by liking Consumers with questions about food safety can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at, available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

If you have questions about storage times for food or beverages, download USDA’s FoodKeeper application for Android and iOS devices.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety