Off to School (or Work) with a Safe Bag Lunch

By Rita Larsen, RD, CD, Elite Sports Clubs Dietitian and Nutrition Counselor

There is nothing more exciting than purchasing a new school lunch bag for the year!

Whether it’s off to school or work we go, millions of Americans carry “bag” lunches. Food brought from home can be kept safe if it is first handled and cooked safely. (Check out tips for safely cooking at BBQ’s & Tailgates too!) Then, perishable food must be kept cold while commuting via bus, bicycle, on foot, in a car, and on to the lunch table. After arriving at school or work, perishable food must be kept cold until lunchtime.

Labeled Lunches Office   Named Lunches

Why keep food cold? Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the “danger zone” — the temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. So, perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long. Here are safe handling recommendations to prevent food-borne illness from “bag” lunches.

Begin with Safe Food

Perishable food, such as raw or cooked meat and poultry, must be kept cold or frozen at the store and at home. Eggs should be purchased cold at the store and kept cold at home. In between, transport perishable food as fast as possible when no ice source is available. At the destination, it must be kept cold. Food should not be left out at room temperature more than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees F).

Prepackaged combos, you know the ones, that are popular with your kids that contain luncheon meats along with crackers, cheese, and condiments must also be kept refrigerated. This includes lunch meats and smoked ham which are cured or contain preservatives.

Keep Everything Clean

Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter-tops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to the next item. A solution of 1 teaspoon of bleach in 1 quart of water may be used to sanitize surfaces and utensils. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters.

Cross-Contamination (Know what that means!)

Harmful bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, and counter-tops. Always use a clean cutting board. When using a cutting board for food that will not be cooked, such as bread, lettuce, and tomatoes, be sure to wash the board after using it to cut raw meat and poultry. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for meat and poultry. That is a must!

Preparing a Bag Lunch

At lunchtime, discard all used food packaging and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause food-borne illness.

Now for the Packing

Pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunch, that way, there won’t be a problem with storage or safety of leftovers.

It’s fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator. Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold. However, for best quality, don’t freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes. Add these later.

Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but metal or plastic lunch boxes and paper bags are fine as well. If using paper lunch bags, create layers by double bagging to help insulate the food. An ice source should be packed with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box.

Keeping Cold Lunches Cold

Prepare cooked food, such as turkey, ham, chicken, and vegetable or pasta salads, ahead of time to allow for thorough chilling in the refrigerator. Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers for fast chilling and easier use. Keep cooked food refrigerated until it’s time to leave home.

To keep lunches cold away from home, include a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. These work very well! Of course, if there’s a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival. Some food is safe without a cold source. Items that don’t require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, breads, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.

Keeping Hot Lunches Hot

Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot- 140 degrees F or above. Few people use these containers anymore, but they work very well and can be a good addition to a lunch meal.

Microwave Cooking / Reheating

When using the microwave oven to reheat lunches, cover food to hold in moisture and promote safe, even heating. Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees F. What does that look like? Food should be steaming hot. Cook frozen convenience meals according to package instructions.

Microwaving a Lunch


Lunch at school or work needs to be a pleasant experience for your child and family members. If hot lunch is available, that is a good solution too. The primary goal for preparing lunches is to make sure that good choices are made for foods that children and adults need at that time of day, and that they are of the highest quality to withstand transportation and storage. Sometimes we can get carried away with bright packages and trendy new food products. Taking the time to provide the best foods possible from a variety of food groups and packaged safely should be the primary goal in good, safe school lunches.

What are your go-to meals for bagged lunches? Do you brown bag it, have a fancy insulated soft-sided bag, or rock a retro metal/plastic lunch box? Tell us in the comments!

Looking for more nutrition advice on healthy (and safe) daily lunches for work or school? We offer a great drop-in program called “Ask the Dietitian” plus other programs that allow you to meet with Rita, and learn the best ways to eat healthy! Not sure where to start? Let us help get you on track with a healthy diet plan!

Recreational Sports: The forgotten cardio workout

Can recreational sports be a supplementary part of your cardio workouts? I seem to be asking myself this question on a regular basis as I try to decide whether clients, and myself, should only participate in a workout designed for the fitness center. Would playing basketball three days a week be a good replacement for running on the treadmill?

As a sports junkie it is hard for me to continually run on a treadmill because it gets very monotonous with no chance of any of the conditions changing as I keep pounding away on that belt on the treadmill. Wouldn’t one rather take part in a sport during which the conditions constantly change, and still get the needed workout for your goals?

I am definitely an enthusiast for recreational sports as a part of your workout. It keeps one coming to the gym because they never know what will happen in a game of volleyball, basketball or even soccer at the club. Running on a treadmill or even using an elliptical would be great workouts as well, but as a “sports person” I can’t bring myself to participate in these activities on a regular basis.

If you are an individual that has been a sports enthusiast for much of your life it would make sense that you have trouble transitioning your workouts into a fitness center as you bypass your high school, and collegiate days on the courts. A typical fitness center or health club in general isn’t designed well for a former competitive athlete because everyone is there doing their own individual workouts. As athletes we are used to being a part of team workouts, or even competitions that bring us all closer together.

The best way we can get that feeling from our clubs is by participating in the recreational sports that our respective club may offer or even a group exercise class. For Elite Sports Clubs this could range all the way in the spectrum of sports from swimming, tennis, basketball, and volleyball to even indoor soccer in one of our Milwaukee Wave clinics. If one is used to the competitive spirit of sports then these recreational sports can at least help you offset your desire for competition. It is also a great way to get a workout in if you are an individual who only worked out because of sports in high school or college.

Men playing basketball photo

Playing basketball for an hour is an aerobic activity that can easily help offset running on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine. So, if you are someone who is looking for workouts that will not only challenge you physically, but also mentally then my club, Elite Sports Clubs, like many others offer opportunities to compete against others in a recreational sport of your choice.

Do you prefer machines for cardio or recreational sports? Does your health club offer recreational sports? How do you change up your treadmill runs, stationary bike rides or elliptical workouts to keep it new? Please share your comments.

Plus check out the recreational sports offered at Elite Sports Clubs.

Thank you,

Kyle Krogmann
Personal Trainer
Elite Sports Club-Mequon

Are you working hard enough at the gym?

Do you go to the gym, jump on a piece of cardio equipment for 10 to 20 minutes, then do 10 reps with a weight that you could probably lift 20 times, and call it a day? If this sounds a little like your average workout, then you are not working hard enough.

Four symptoms that you should feel every time you workout:

  1. Increased Oxygen Demand-You should feel out of breath.
  2. Lactic Acid Buildup-You should feel slight pain and burning in your muscles, but not in your joints!
  3. Body Temperature Rise-You should be sweating.
  4. Increased Heart Rate-Your pulse should be faster than usual (most gyms have charts that help you estimate your optimal heart rate).

You may not feel all of these in every workout, but if you do not feel any of them, there is a good chance that you are not working hard enough. Now get out to the gym and up your intensity so that you actually get something out of your workout!

Here is an exercise that should make you feel all four symptoms:

Dumbbell Clean & Press
Grab a dumbbell between your legs in a squat position and then stand up explosively, pulling the dumb bell up to your shoulder. In that same motion flip it over and press it above you.*

Thanks, and enjoy your next workout!

Seth Eckl
Personal Trainer
Elite Sports Club-West Brookfield

*If you don’t know how to perform this exercise or have questions about it, please ask your trainer.

How to Choose a Health Club

Choosing the right health club is very similar to buying/renting a home.  From the outside, most homes look very similar with bedrooms, a kitchen and bathrooms.  Unfortunately, when choosing a health club you do not have a realtor to point out the details.  There are a few questions that will help you choose the right health club for you.  It’s no secret that picking a quality club is key to sticking with your exercise program.

Is the location convenient to get to?  To be successful at your health club, it must be convenient for you.  Typically a club near your home, near work or near a place you travel to frequently–such as a school–works best for convenience.

Does the club have what you want?  Make a list of things before you tour a club that are important to your success at a health club–such as personal training, pools, tennis, exercise classes, childcare, towel service, etc.  If you are currently exercising, make sure you can do your exercises on the equipment provided in the health club.  If you do not currently exercise, make sure the health club staffs a personal trainer in the fitness center at all times to help you become accustomed to the equipment and answer questions.

Do the hours fit your lifestyle?  Think about when you are available to exercise and make sure the club is open during that time.  If you have children and you plan to bring them to the club, make sure childcare is available during that time as well.

How much does the membership cost?  Clubs vary in price and it is important to make sure you can afford the health club.  Do not write off the basic, low cost club or the high-end club as long as it is in a tolerable price range for you.  There may be hidden “intangibles” that you will find out about on a tour that might be worth the additional money or the basic health club may suit your needs and you do not want all the extras.  Besides the monthly membership fee, there are fees to beware of.  Is childcare an additional cost?  Is there a cost for group exercise classes?  Are lockers and towel service included?  The additional cost should be considered in your monthly membership fee even if it is not on the membership contract.  There is one question you must ask when you are discussing cost and contracts.  Does the health club “own” your contract or do they sell it to a third party?  In the latter case, there is little incentive to provide good service if the club does not “own” your contract.

The first four questions are the pre-qualifying questions to choosing the right health club.  This is like making sure your home has the right number of bedrooms, the appropriate garage space, enough bathrooms, etc.  Now it is time to narrow down the search and look at the intangibles of a club.

Can you try the club before joining?  It is important to try the club during the time you would normally use it.  You will be able to see how busy the fitness center is and make a more educated decision.

Does the clientele fit your lifestyle?  Health clubs are not just a place to exercise.  Health clubs provide a social circle for many people.  Make sure you are comfortable exercising around and with the other members.

Is the staff friendly and knowledgeable?  Did the front desk greet you?  Are the personal trainers certified?  Are the personal trainers college educated?  Ask the club if they have minimum requirements for their staff.

Here are a few other thought provoking questions to consider:

  1. Is the music too loud?
  2. Are there too many out of order signs?
  3. Do you need to sign up for group exercise classes?
  4. Do they offer a free orientation program when you join?
  5. Are towels and lockers provided?
  6. Are there a variety of programs to mix up your exercises?
  7. Are there personalized TVs on the cardio machines?

There is no perfect gym for everyone. Do your research, ask questions, be observant and know your goals and you’ll likely find a good fit.

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