You do everything you can think of to ensure your kids eat a healthful lunch. But do you also consider the safety of the food you pack in their lunch bags each day?

"Packing your child's school lunch not only helps you know they're eating healthful fare, it can also save money—an important consideration in the current economy," says food safety expert Dr. Don Schaffner of the Institute of Food Technologists and Rutgers University. "Parents also need to keep in mind, however, the importance of safe handling practices when preparing food for their children's lunch boxes."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a few safety tips to keep in mind when packing school lunches for kids or your own lunch for work:

Keep it clean

Hand washing is an important part of ensuring food safety. Washing your hands can stop bacteria from spreading. Before beginning food preparation, wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Wash them again before eating. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.

Start with safe food

Keep perishable foods like prepackaged lunch combinations—like the kind that include lunch meats with crackers, cheese, and condiments—cold by using freezer gel packs or a frozen juice carton. Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold. If you use a paper bag, be sure to create insulating layers by double bagging.

Pack light

Don't pack more than your kids are likely to eat. That way, you won't have to worry if leftovers they bring home have been kept at safe temperatures throughout the day and on the commute home. Consider preparing food the night before and storing it in the refrigerator. Then pack your lunch bag in the morning. This will help food stay cold longer.

Avoid cross-contamination

Never reuse packaging materials such as paper or plastic bags, food wraps, and aluminum foil; this can lead to cross-contamination. Throw away all food packaging after you eat lunch, and discard perishable leftovers unless you can safely chill them immediately after lunch and upon returning home.

Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold

Use an insulated container like a thermos for hot foods like chili, soup, and stew. Before using the container, fill it with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it and then pour in the piping hot food. Keep the container closed until lunchtime, which will help minimize bacterial contamination and growth. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the "danger zone" of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. Transport cold food with an ice source and refrigerate it immediately once you reach your destination.

The right way to reheat

If you reheat food in the microwave, cover the food to hold in the moisture and promote safe, even heating. Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees. Food should come out of the microwave steaming hot. Cook frozen convenience meals according to the package instructions.

"Following these simple steps can help you and your family enjoy a packed lunch at school or work, while reducing the risk of food-borne illness," Schaffner says.

To learn more about how to pack a safer lunch and download a free fact sheet, log on to Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).