** Please note! Since this was originally posted in 2016, some of the products I recommended are no longer available. I will update at some point, but in the meantime, I have taken down a couple pages in this section detailing lunchboxes and cold lunch packaging. **
Remember, the objective is to ensure that your food remains hotter than 140 degrees for the longest time possible, until consumed. Per FDA and CDC recommendations, hot foods should not be kept at less than 140 degrees for more than two hours, or more than one hour if your current room temperature is above 90 degrees. So here’s how to do it.
- Start with your choice of 18/8 stainless steel double-walled insulated food jar. This is non-negotiable for hot foods.
- Before you start packing your food, pour boiling water into your food jar and put the lid on, to preheat your container. Also non-negotiable – there are sources that will tell you it “really makes no difference”. Eight (or more) degrees’ difference, people. When it comes to food safety, that’s a difference. Leave the hot water in there until you’re ready to fill the jar with food, then empty out and give it a quick wipe down to dry.
- Heat your food. The trick here is to heat it HOTTER THAN YOU WOULD IF YOU WERE GOING TO EAT IT. For example, 140-150 degrees would likely be pretty-hot-to-way-too-hot for my kids to eat their lunches immediately. But they won’t be eating immediately, so you want things super hot before they go, so that they are still hot enough to be safe when they’re consumed. You want those suckers heated to above 165 degrees – ideally 175-200 degrees (the lunches, not the kids – just sayin’). Toss your food in the microwave, or in the oven (my hubby will wrap in a layer of parchment paper or tin foil sometimes for this, but mostly, it’s the microwave) to get it piping-steaming-Daniel-Craig-in-Casino-Royale hot, and only THEN throw it in your preheated food jar. If you’re wanting to heat previously-frozen foods, you may either want to count in a little extra time to make up for that, or thaw your foods IN THE FRIDGE overnight, and then just heat in the morning.
*Remember that kids are actually really really really okay with eating some “hot foods” chilled instead of hot. Breakfast Burritos, pancakes, Pesto Wraps – these can all go straight into the lunchbox as described below, without needing to heat first, or separate into food jars.
- Proceed to pack your lunchbox, pretty much ignoring the food jar. In other words, if you have cold foods that require ice packs, go ahead and pack your ice packs as you normally would (see below). The double-walled nature of the food jar, plus the preheating (see? Toldja it was important!) should protect the jar’s contents from the rest of your meal.
If using one of the food jars I’m recommending here, you should be good to go at least 4 hours.
Here, the FDA and CDC recommend keeping foods below 40 degrees, so that’s what we’ll be shooting for.
- You’ll need a couple of ice packs. Place one ice pack in your lunchbox, underneath your food container.
- Frozen wraps and pies and such take about five hours to thaw to non-ice-crystal temps, so if you have a longer wait till lunch, you can pack frozen items directly into your container straight from the freezer. If you only have 3-4 hours till lunch, try thawing your foods the night before in the fridge (you can even throw them in the container so they thaw already “packed!”).
Place your refrigerated or frozen food directly into the compartments in your lunchbox, and cover with the lid.
- Place a second ice pack over container.
- If packing Smoothie Push-Up Pops, place Pop between cold food container and second ice pack. If your child is younger, and you’re afraid they may not be careful about popping the lid back on the Pop mold, you can include a plastic baggie to wrap it in (though part of the beauty of this system is that pretty much everything is reusable and you generate far less waste with no need for baggies).
- Proceed to fill your lunchbox as you would otherwise, with hot food jars or water bottles and mini dipper containers if desired.
You should be good to go for about 4 hours (longer if frozen lunch), knowing your foods will not have sat at a “room temperature” value for over two hours, even if they are no longer in target zone by the time lunch is served.
ALSO! How to pack yogurt/sliced juicy fruit/other squishy things in your standard cold-food container without a leak-proof seal:
If you’re using either of the systems I recommend, EasyLunchboxes or PlanetBox, you know by now that the main compartments are not leak resistant because they are made to be easy to open. I use the dipper containers that both systems offer for sauces and such, but when packing slices of peaches, for example, you can always cut a small rectangle of Glad Cling wrap, Saran wrap, or even parchment paper, and lay over the compartment in question, letting the edges of the wrapping material hang off (it doesn’t matter if the lid on your container catches it as you close, the point is there will be no drippage between your main compartments).