Health and Well-Being-Keep bacteria out of lunchboxes!

Parents who do their food safety homework can protect their children's brown-bag lunches from hungry bacteria.

"Bacteria love school-room temperatures, which allow them to multiply quickly when there's also a source of food and moisture," says Debbie Demory-Luce, PhD, a registered dietitian with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

To keep harmful bacteria at bay, she offers the following suggestions:

Before school begins:

• Add well-insulated lunchboxes or bags, insulated bottles for hot and cold foods, and several days' supply of freezer gel pack to your school shopping list.

• Stock up on shelf-stable foods, such as canned fruit or puddings with pop-top lids, peanut butter, crackers, fresh fruit, bottled water, single-serve packets of mayonnaise, and boxes of 100% fruit juice. Disposable silverware and individual hand wipes are also a good idea.

• Wash hands, food preparation surfaces, and utensils with hot soapy water before making lunchbox fare. Wash raw fruit and vegetables thoroughly.

• Avoid using mayonnaise or mayonnaise-type dressings as a spread or salad base if the lunch can't be refrigerated. Handle all perishable foods with care.

• Prepare the meals the evening before and store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

• Tightly wrap cold foods in waterproof plastic and pack around a frozen ice pack or juice box.

• Preheat or prechill insulated bottles to maximize the protection they provide.

At school:

• Store lunchboxes and bags out of direct sunlight and away from radiators.

• Discard leftovers. Gel packs and insulated containers won't keep foods safe all day.

After school:

• Wash lunchboxes, gel packs, and insulated bags with hot, soapy water and air-dry. Using a little baking soda helps control food odors. Return gel packs to the freezer.