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I know that leaving raw fish out of the fridge for more than a couple hours makes it totally unsafe to eat. Most cooked meats are okay to pack in a lunchbox and hold at room temperature for the hours between breakfast and lunch, but some foods are considered unsafe to store at room temp even after preparation (like mayo-containing potato salad).

If I cook fish in the morning, let it cool, and pack it in my lunch, do I need an ice pack in my lunch or will it still be safe to eat 4-5 hours later when kept at room temperature?

  • The USDA disagrees with you regarding cooked meat, I can't imagine fish would be any different: cooking.stackexchange.com/a/17550/4194 – ElendilTheTall Aug 21 '14 at 12:47
  • @ElendilTheTall ...sandwiches are apparently evil. Go figure. – Yamikuronue Aug 21 '14 at 13:05
  • @ElendilTheTall you should post an answer. – derobert Aug 21 '14 at 16:39
  • BTW: The potato salad isn't special. It's just frequently left at room temperature for long periods and also (due to handling during prep) often starts with a higher bacterial load. The meat at least started refrigerated; the potato salad often doesn't... – derobert Aug 21 '14 at 16:48
  • You probably will be ok, but the safer method is just to cook it the night before and refrigerate it. Toss the whole thing in an insulated lunch container, and you should have no problems. Even if the temperature creeps up into the danger zone, it shouldn't be there more than an hour or two before lunch time, and should still be cool enough not to cause an issue. – JSM Aug 21 '14 at 17:44
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Play it safe.

It has been said:

You probably will be ok, but the safer method is just to cook it the night before and refrigerate it. Toss the whole thing in an insulated lunch container, and you should have no problems. Even if the temperature creeps up into the danger zone, it shouldn't be there more than an hour or two before lunch time, and should still be cool enough not to cause an issue. – JSM Aug 21 at 17:44

I happen to disagree with this advice, personally. While it may be OK, is this something worth trying to find out?

Here is an excerpt from an FDA research paper about pathogenic bacteria in food handling

Growth rates of pathogens are highly temperature dependent. Ordinarily, pathogenic bacteria growth is relatively slow at temperatures below 70°F (21.1°C). In most cases, growth is very slow below 50°F (10°C), and 40°F (4.4°C) is below the minimum growth temperature of most pathogenic bacteria, although there are some exceptions. On the other hand, pathogenic bacteria grow relatively fast at temperatures above 70°F (21.1°C).

Think of a real-world example, say a soda can. You get the can out of the machine at a temperature around 35°F-40°C, which is refrigeration temperature. You set it naked (i.e., no "can cushy") on a table and just leave it there. Within 1-1.5 hours or so, it will be very close to room temperature, which on average is about 70°F to 73°F. That's when your fish will begin growing bacteria more rapidly, which it would continue to do until you are ready to eat it.

TL;DR

At the very least put and ice pack or other method of absorbing heat inside your lunchbox. Always play it safe when it comes to pathogens.

  • It's a little confusing what you disagree with. That advice is for playing it safe: it aims to make sure the food is not in the danger zone for longer than is safe. Are you saying you think it'll reach the danger zone more than a couple hours before lunchtime? – Cascabel Dec 16 '14 at 2:11
  • @Jefromi I'm mostly saying there is a big "Who Knows" variable, and while the comment most likely will be safe to do, I don't think it's a safe approach to just risk it – Phrancis Dec 16 '14 at 2:15

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