Our reliance on electricity for keeping food fresh and for cooking is easy to take for granted. That is, until a lake-effect snowstorm barrels toward us or a hurricane churns off the coast.
Before a power outage
Clean the kitchen: Run the dishwasher and put everything away, so there will be no wasted water. Designate a flashlight for the kitchen/eating area, with extra batteries, and make sure you have strike-anywhere matches and a manual can opener.
Stock the pantry: The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross recommend a three-day emergency supply of nonperishable foods, such as canned fruits, juices, milks, vegetables, fish, meats or beans, as well as cereals, protein and granola bars and peanut butter. Also good choices are root vegetables, such as carrots, jicama or turnips, that can be eaten cooked or raw, and fruits, such as apples, bananas, lemons and oranges. Consider dietary needs because of diabetes or other illnesses. Don’t forget food — and water — for pets, too.
Each household should have at least a three-day supply of 1 gallon of water per person per day, plus more for preparing foods. If water pressure becomes low, toilet flushing can become an issue, so fill bathtubs, clean 2-liter-size soda bottles, trash cans or other clean containers.
Gather coolers and cooking supplies: If you have a charcoal, gas or propane grill or camp stove, collect the necessary fuel and tools. But remember always to cook outside. Never, ever bring an outdoor grill or stove indoors. Doing so is a fire hazard, and the carbon monoxide produced can kill you.
Buy gel packs and block ice and, as the storm draws closer, dry ice. Dry or block ice will help keep the refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot freezer for two days, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Don’t touch dry ice or place it in direct contact with food.)
Buy no-water antibacterial soaps, wipes and sprays.
During a power outage
Keep them closed. A refrigerator that remains closed will keep food safe for up to four hours during a power outage, according to the USDA. Food will stay safe for up to 48 hours in a full freezer and 24 hours in a half-full freezer. If your freezer is partially empty, add water-filled containers before the power goes out, so they can freeze.
If the power is likely to be off longer, transfer the food to coolers. Make sure to add enough ice, dry ice or frozen gel packs to keep food in the cooler at 40 degrees or below. An appliance thermometer is useful here. Add more ice to the cooler as melting begins.
Throw it out, if in doubt. Perishable food — meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers — held at temperatures higher than 40 degrees for more than two hours should be discarded, according to the USDA. That is because bacteria multiply quickly between 40 and 140 degrees.
Partially defrosted foods such as meats, casseroles, soups or stews, juices, flours, nuts and frozen meals/convenience foods, may be safe to eat/refreeze if they still contain ice crystals or have been kept below 40 degrees.
Condiments are more forgiving. Peanut butter, jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives, pickles and Worcestershire, soy, barbecue and hoisin sauces held at 40 degrees or above for more than eight hours can be consumed. However, opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish should be discarded after eight hours.
Do not taste food or rely on odor or appearance to determine if it is safe to eat. Even foods deemed safe should be thoroughly heated and cooked to minimum safe temperatures.
If a power outage looms and you think you won’t be home, consider these tips:
- Eat down the refrigerator and freezer. Focus on eating those freezer meals you’ve stashed and cook the fresh fruits and vegetables in your crisper drawers.
- Place perishable foods inside closed plastic bags inside the refrigerator and freezer, so that you can simply remove the bag of food and discard it, if necessary.
- How will you know when you return if the freezer had lost (and regained) power? To tell, before you go away, fill a bottle or jar halfway. Freeze it lying on its side. Then, once it is frozen, stand it up in the freezer. If it melts, sending the water down to the bottom of the bottle, you will definitely know to discard refrozen foods.
If you have more questions about food safety, contact the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 or chat live at ask.usda.gov, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time.
If you have more helpful tips for prestorm and post-storm eating, add them in the comments below this story.