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Will My Perishable Lunch Survive A Long Commute?

Do I need an insulated lunch box for my meals from home or will my Pyrex do?

After a few months of omicron uncertainty, I sashayed back into the office on Monday. It was my first commute in a while, though I was in-office for most of last fall and early winter. During that time, I realized something unfortunate: I was spending an ungodly amount of money on lunch. As I adjusted back to the commuting lifestyle, I shelled out way more than I should've on quick bites near our downtown Chicago office. This time, I'm taking it easy on the lunchtime spending—which means bringing my lunch from home most days. I don't have an insulated lunchbox, so I tote my food in little Pyrex bowls. But now I'm wondering: Do I need to chill my lunch during my commute?

How long does food last outside of the refrigerator?

We've addressed this a few times; for example, the time we urged you not to store your food outside in the snow. But I want to know if my lunch can withstand my hour-long one-way commute (walk to train, train to office) without compromising food safety. Basically, do I need to get an insulated lunch box like some kind of freaking nerd?


The USDA writes that "food is unsafe to be eaten if it's kept in an old-fashioned brown paper bag longer than two hours." For my purposes, I'll assume that this includes Pyrex bowls, too. Fortunately, my commute is only an hour, so my perishables should be fine—right?

To confirm, I checked out this article from The Kitchn contributor Ayn-Monique Klahre. In the piece, Klahre interviews an expert with the International Food Information Council Foundation, who notes that perishable items shouldn't be held at room temperature for more than two hours. "And if it's super-hot out, like the 80- or 90-degree days we'll have during September here in the South, that food might only be safe for an hour if it's in an uninsulated bag," Klahre points out.


When is food unsafe to eat?

It's certainly not super-hot out here in Chicago, although our summers can get extremely steamy. When July temperatures start to climb, I might look into an insulated lunch container—but until then, it sounds like I'm safe. The USDA does point out that "foodborne illness can multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F," also known as the "danger zone." However, it'd be tough for refrigerated perishables to reach that temperature quickly outside of a very, very warm day.


So, will my chicken and orzo salad go bad during my morning trip on the El? Probably not—but, now that I look into it, some of these insulated lunch containers aren't so bad. This one's stackable!