School Lunch Safety Tips & a Chicken Noodle Salad

Friday, August 25, 2017

Kids here in Northern Virginia are headed back to school next week! If you're anything like me, you might be breathing a sigh of relief that your refrigerator will soon be safe from daytime raids. My son Jaden starts high school this year (I know...when did this happen?!) and my daughter Raven will continue to head down the street for daycare. After a hiatus between clients, I'll also be getting back to my regular schedule soon as a private chef part-time in DC. What does that mean for all of us? Time to come up with a game plan for lunch.

Most days, the kids take dinner leftovers for lunch or we keep it super simple with sandwiches. That gets boring over time, and I end up gravitating towards fast food or shelling out money for my son to buy school lunch. My goal this year is to dedicate a little more time and effort for better lunches. Everybody probably faces a different set of challenges for packing lunches to go. I'm catering to the fickle palates of both a toddler and teenager, as well as my own cravings for amped up flavors. My daughter takes lunch to daycare, so hers can be refrigerated; my son's stays in his locker until his lunch period. My work locations vary, but I rarely have more than a few minutes to grub. I'm always on the hunt for recipes that can cover all of these bases. For today's post, I'm sharing one of my old favorites, originally published in 2014 at Bon Appétit. It's a cold noodle salad with chicken, cucumbers, radishes, fresh herbs, and a sesame vinaigrette. I've adapted it over the years to be something that's convenient to make and satisfies everybody's taste buds. The prepped components keep well in the fridge for a few days, so I scaled the original recipe up to use a whole rotisserie chicken. It's filling enough to serve as a light dinner, making it an ideal meal-prep solution for a variety of needs. I've toned down some of the spice to make it kid-friendly, but feel free to dial that back up to suit your own tastes! 

One major consideration no matter what we all end up taking for lunch is food safety. For this reason I've partnered with the USDA to share some important advice to take into consideration when packing school lunches for your kids. (The same tips are also helpful if you pack your own lunch for work!)

Back-To-School Food Safety
Guest post by Greg DiNapoli, Public Affairs Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA

Summer is coming to a close and that means packed lunches will be regular nourishment for children headed back to school. Parents and caregivers are reminded that foodborne illness causing bacteria thrive in those lunchboxes where food temperatures rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Each year in the United States, there are an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths as a result of foodborne pathogens. Everyone is at risk, but young children in particular are at greater risk for experiencing serious illnesses or even death. So it is especially important to take the following precautions to make sure lunches and snacks are safe when sending children off to school with their midday meal.

Packing Tips
  • If the lunch/snack contains perishable food items like luncheon meats, eggs, cheese, or yogurt, pack it with at least two cold sources. Perishable food transported without an ice source won’t stay safe long.
  • Frozen juice boxes or water make great freezer packs. Freeze these items overnight and use with at least one other cold source like a frozen gel ice pack. By lunchtime, the juice box or water should be thawed and ready to drink.
  • Pack lunches in an insulated lunchbox or soft-sided lunch bag. Perishable food can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime if packed in a paper or plastic bag.
  • If packing a hot lunch like soup, chili or stew, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot - 140°F or above.
  • Parents should leave a packed lunch in the refrigerator overnight. The meal will stay cold longer because everything will be refrigerator temperature when it is placed in the backpack.
Storage Tips
  • If possible, a child’s lunch should be stored in a refrigerator or cooler with ice upon arrival.
  • Leave the lid of the lunchbox or bag open in the fridge so that cold air can better circulate and keep the food cold.
Eating and Disposal Tips
  • Pack disposable wipes for washing hands before and after eating.
  • After lunch, discard all leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illness.
Consumers can learn more about key food safety practices at, by following @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter, and by liking Consumers with questions about food safety, can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-
888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at, available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish. If you have questions about storage times of food or beverages, download USDA’s new FoodKeeper application for Android and iOS devices.

Chicken Noodle Salad


For the vinaigrette:
3/4 cup grape seed or canola oil
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce or tamari
1 tbsp honey or brown sugar
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
2 tsp sambal oelek or similar chile sauce, more to taste
Juice and zest of 1 lime
3 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper

For the salad:
8 oz lo mein noodles or spaghetti
Shredded meat from 1 rotisserie chicken
1 large English cucumber
4 radishes
Small bunch of scallions
2 cups loosely packed cilantro leaves (or a combination of cilantro, basil and/or mint)

  • To make the recipe gluten-free, substitute your favorite rice noodle or gluten-free spaghetti. Cook per package instructions.
  • Original recipe calls for Sichuan peppercorns. They add a distinct, tingly heat that works well here, but might be too spicy for kids and a little harder to locate in the store. I've specified cracked black pepper instead. (I do highly recommend grabbing Sichuan peppercorns if you ever spot them!)
  • This particular recipe relies on having Asian pantry staples on hand, but could be easily adapted to other cuisines. (Swap out half the canola for olive oil, cilantro for basil, rice vinegar and soy sauce for a good balsamic, lime for lemon, ginger for capers - now you've got an Italian pasta salad going instead!)

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: Makes enough for 6 adult lunches; 8 or more for smaller kid-sized portions
Special Equipment: zester, colander

This comes together quickly with a stocked pantry. The most work that's really required is pulling the meat off a rotisserie chicken carcass. But before you get started with anything, bring a large pot of water to boil.

Making the vinaigrette is easiest in a mason jar or some other container with a lid, so that you can safely shake it to mix. Combine the oil, vinegar, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, sambal oelek, lime, garlic and ginger. Cover with a lid and shake vigorously to combine. 

The vinaigrette is divine. It's tangy, creamy and nutty even with just that little bit of sesame oil. I've also added other things to this like a splash of fish sauce or teaspoon of grated lemongrass. Leftover dressing keeps well in the fridge for a week or so, not that you'll be able to keep it around for that long!

Back to prepping the other ingredients. Once the water is boiling, drop the lo mein noodles in and cook per package directions - mine recommended 4 minutes. Strain the cooked noodles in a colander and rinse with cold water until cooled down completely. Shake dry and toss with a few spoonfuls of the vinaigrette. 

Shred the chicken up and add to the cooked noodles. (Don't you dare throw those bones out. Bag and store them in the freezer for homemade stock.

Rinse all your veggies thoroughly, including the cilantro. Peeling the cucumber is up to you; I tend not to so long as it's organic.  Slice the cucumber in half lengthwise then scoop out the seeds down the middle. Cut the cucumber into thin moon shapes. The radishes can be thinly sliced, as well as the scallions. Cilantro and any other herbs should be roughly chopped with any thick stems removed. I did a combination of cilantro and Thai basil here which was lovely.

That's pretty much it! Now it's time to assemble, but because it won't be eaten right away you'll want to store some things separately:
  • In the largest container, place the noodles and chicken. Make sure your child will have room to add the other salad ingredients without making too much of a mess.
  • In a small container, pour in a portion of dressing. A couple tablespoons per serving is fine; adults may appreciate a bit more.
  • In the last container or plastic sandwich bag, add a handful of veggies and herbs.
To assemble, your child can add the veggies and herbs to the chicken and noodles, then stir in the dressing. This way everything stays fresh and won't get soggy. Don't forget to use two kinds of ice packs - I typically use a frozen juice box and a freezer pack. Pack a fork if your child can't get one at school. If you're packing lunch for yourself or an older kid, it's the same idea just bigger portions. This could also lend itself well to a mason jar if you're familiar with layering salads that way (dressing on bottom, followed by chicken, noodles, veggies and herbs on top.)

Happy back to school week to all of my readers! I'd love to hear about what you're packing for lunch in the comments! What are some of your go-to solutions for school (or work) lunches?

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  1. I like how you cut the cucumbers, looks like an avocado.