University of Florida

Food Safety: "To-Go" Foods

Bag Lunches & Takeout

Following food safety guidelines with brown bag lunches and restaurant takeout can be difficult. Here are some tips to make sure these foods are kept safe.

Keep Items Clean & Separated

Before preparing lunches, wash your hands and any working surfaces, such as counters and cutting boards. Soap and water are the most effective way to remove germs and grime from your hands.

When preparing lunches, make sure to wash all fruits or vegetables and use clean lunch containers. Pack meats in separate containers from fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. Keep perishable foods in separate containers from non-perishable foods.

If you use a reusable lunch box, make sure it is cleaned with hot soapy water after each use.

Include clean utensils with your lunch, and pack an extra napkin to lay over your place at the lunch table if you cannot clean the table beforehand.

Make sure to wash your hands before you eat, using warm water and soap.

When you are on the go, you may not have access to bathroom facilities to wash with soap and water. Moist towelettes or hand sanitizer can do in a pinch, but remember that sanitizers are not effective if your hands are visibly dirty.

Keep "Hot" Hot & "Cold" Cold

Bacteria grow rapidly when temperatures are between 40ºF and 140ºF. If you cannot keep foods out of this temperature zone, you need to eat them within two hours.

If you take a to-go order from a restaurant or pack a lunch for school or work, and will not be able to eat the food within two hours of its preparation, try these tips:

  • Keep the foods in a refrigerator until you are ready to eat. You can use a microwave or toaster oven to warm the food before eating.
  • Pack it in an insulated lunch box with frozen gel packs (or a frozen juice box). Make sure there are enough ice packs to keep food cold until lunchtime.
  • Use an insulated thermos for hot foods, such as pastas or soups.

It is perfectly acceptable to pack lunches the night before--just keep them in the refrigerator until it is time to go.

If keeping foods appropriately hot or cold is a concern, try choosing foods that do not need refrigeration, such as:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables
  • Hard cheese
  • Canned meat or fish
  • Chips, crackers, and bread
  • Peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles

Lunch Leftovers

The best way to prevent leftovers and storage issues is to plan ahead and make sure you bring only the amount of food  you will eat. If you have perishable food leftover, throw it out.

Also throw away any used packaging or bags. If reducing trash is a concern, try reusable containers that can be washed in the sink or dishwasher at home.

Always thoroughly clean any containers, lunch boxes, and thermoses with hot soapy water before reuse.

For questions about food safety and other issues, contact your local Extension agent.

Adapted and excerpted from:

"Keeping 'Bag' Lunches Safe," USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (rev. 06/2013).

"Back To School," U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (Accessed 09/2014).

Packed lunch

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