Be the Lunchtime Hero

When packing lunch for youngsters, be sure to make sure food is safe — just keep FAT TOM in minds

By Catherine Miller

Just like that, summer is over. We are back to packing lunches, checking to see what clothes were outgrown, and making it to the school bus on time.

Hectic, yes, but a little pre-planning on the lunch front can get your kids off to the right start this school year.

When it comes to keeping foods fresher longer, it helps to think about FAT TOM. Nope. Not the guy in the lunchroom dishing out goulash.

“FAT TOM is an acronym used in the culinary industry that keeps you mindful of the elements that hasten the growth of pathogens on food,” explained chef John Matwijkow, assistant professor of culinary arts at Niagara County Community College. “Becoming familiar with the basics of FAT TOM will help you keep your food fresh and be worry-free.”

FAT TOM reminds one of the following items that hasten the spoilage of food:

• Food: Pathogens need a source of food. Proteins and carbohydrates are especially susceptible. Keep this in mind as you pack proteins and carbs and seek out ways to inhibit bacterial growth.

• Acidity: Food-borne bacteria prefer foods in the mildly acidity range. The range goes from 0-14 with water at a 7 (neutral) and lemon juice and vinegars between 2-3. Lower ranges can aid in keeping bacteria to a minimum. Adding an acidic-marinated dressing to foods will help stunt the spoilage of the food.

Temperature: Most of us are aware that the “danger zone” for food is 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a thermos for hot items and freezer pack for cold items help keep your foods away from that danger range as long as possible.

Time: A standard of two hours in the danger zone and your food is likely to begin its downward decent, but this time frame could be as much as four hours depending on the type of food and how it was stored.

Oxygen: Bacteria need oxygen to grow. Take away the oxygen and you lessen the ability for pathogens to set in. Wrap your food in plastic or use airtight containers. There are plenty of airtight packaging devices available at stores and online.

• Moisture: Moisture aids in bacterial growth. Just as sailors of yesteryear would cure their meats and dry beans to remove moisture from their foods, sending low-moisture foods to school allow the lunch to last quite a while without worry. Think beef jerky, cereals and dried fruits.

Pack the right stuff

Gone are the days when a peanut butter and jelly sandwich could be thrown into a brown paper bag with a juice box and you could shuffle your child out the door. The increase in peanut allergies make us take a second look at each food item we send to school, and with school days lasting longer due to afterschool activities, the sustenance needs to be substantive.

The trick is pre-prepping and lots of variety.

“I’ll be the first to admit that my kids aren’t always eating as healthy as they could, but I try the best I can,” says Shannon Krug, teacher and busy mother of three young boys. “One thing that I always try to do is have fruits and vegetable cut, washed and ready to go. The kids are always snacking and the better I prep, the better they eat. Finger foods are always what they go to, so strawberries, watermelon, cucumber slices, almonds, cheese sticks, baby carrots and apples are usually staples in our house.”

Other great ideas are pita bread with hummus, chunked pineapple with muffins, tortilla roll ups packed with chopped veggies, turkey and cheese, and dried fruits and trail mixes. Read the ingredients on mixed snacking items as many do contain nuts, which may cause an allergy concern.

When it comes to nut allergies, check with your school to see if there are nut restrictions in the classroom this school year. If there are, adhere to them closely. There are nuts in more items than you may think.

“We need to be careful during lunch and at snack time,” states Krug. “Even the granola bars that kids love may still contain nuts. Depending on the school rules and severity of allergies, we will omit nut items from a full room or just certain tables at lunch. This becomes even more difficult at snack time when the students may roam during their down time.”

Pack enough items for your student to enjoy at lunch as well as a midday snack. With longer days due to busing and post-school events, energy levels need to be kept up.

Get kids in kitchen

Krug makes a habit of getting her sons involved in food choices.

“When packing lunches or bringing a snack for school, I give the boys options and have them choose the night before so there are no surprises or meltdowns in the morning,” she states.

Allowing your student to help with meal prep teaches them the basics of good eating, portion control, and makes it more likely they’ll eat what they bring. Try experimenting with fruit smoothies with your kids and then pack them in airtight bags and put them in the freezer.

They can double as a freezer pack and lunchtime treat. A little pre-planning goes a long way to making lunch the best part of your child’s day. And a smiley face on a napkin is always a nice touch..