Going Away for All or Part of the Winter? Prepare Your Kitchen for your Absence


If you’re going to be vacationing away from home for a few weeks or even months, lucky you!  But you won’t feel so lucky if you come home to a smelly or germ-laden refrigerator and a freezer with a sticky mess of melted ice cream. When considering the proper way to prepare your kitchen for your absence, consider your answers to these questions:


1) Which refrigerated foods should I throw out because, during my absence, they’re likely to spoil or become contaminated?


2) How should shelf-stable foods be stored while I’m away?


3) What should and shouldn’t be left in the freezer during my long absence?


4) How will I know if there was a power outage while I was away and the food spoiled and/or became contaminated?


For answers to these questions, look no further. They’re in the article below, which contains expert advice from the food scientists on our Advisory Board.


The Refrigerator:  What to Keep, What to Discard


Here’s what is generally okay to keep while away:


High-acid foods:  salad dressings that contain vinegar, cocktail sauce, mustard, catsup, and pickles should be okay, says food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser,” High-acid foods in jars or plastic containers should be safe if their containers are tightly closed and intact, but use the expiration dates to help guide your judgment.”  Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein adds that for products normally kept in a liquid, there should be enough liquid to cover the items completely.


Foods containing a lot of sugar: Syrups (chocolate, etc.), fruit dessert toppings, jelly and jam should remain edible since sugar is a preservative.   However, check these for mold when you return. “Even if the jelly gets moldy, in a closed jar, it isn’t going to affect anything else in the fridge,” says food scientist Dr. Karin Allen.  Note:  low-sugar jelly, jam, and preserves will not last as long as the regular products.   Because some of the undesirable compounds from the mold may diffuse throughout the product, it’s probably preferable to discard any such products, Dr. Regenstein suggests.


The expiration date on a food refers to the unopened product, so if any of your refrigerated items have been open for a long time, take a conservative approach and discard them.  Keep in mind that food can become spoiled (that is, become undesirable to eat because it tastes, smells, or looks bad), and/or it can become contaminated and therefore unsafe to eat. The presence of a high level of pathogens (without spoilage) is not detectable by taste, appearance, or smell.


What about everything else in the fridge?  Discard it, freeze it, or give it away.  If you’re freezing it, be sure to wrap it well in heavy plastic labeled for freezing (or double-wrap) to protect it from freezer burn.  Butter should be frozen if the expiration date is beyond the time you expect to be away.


Here’s some advice on shelf-stable products:


“Low-moisture, packaged foods (such as cereal, flour, pancake mix, and cookies) can be sealed tightly in their original or secondary packaging and either kept in the pantry or frozen,” says Dr. Bowser.  Dr. Regenstein points out that if put into closed glass or metal containers, they can also be kept in the refrigerator.


The Freezer: What to Keep, What to Discard;


Protecting the Freezer against Power Outage


Here’s Dr. Bowser’s advice: “Anything in the freezer that would go beyond its shelf-life before your return should be used, donated, or discarded prior to your trip.” Bacteria cannot grow in frozen items, but the quality of frozen items deteriorates with time. 


Discard, consume, or give away any ice cream in your freezer for two reasons:


1) It won’t taste good when you return.  Dr. Allen points this out:  “Ice cream is stored at -20°F when it’s manufactured.  Our home freezers are actually too warm for ice cream. It doesn’t taste good after a few weeks in a home freezer.”   


2) If there’s a power outage long enough for it to melt, you’ll have a mess to clean up.


What about ice cubes? The following test is recommended by both Dr. Allen and food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter:  Throw out most of the ice cubes but keep a few in the ice maker container or other container.  Why? If, when you return, those ice cubes have become a solid lump of ice, you’ll know the freezer was off for quite awhile, and the ice cubes melted and then refroze when the power went back on.  That’s an indication to discard all your frozen food.


Here’s another excellent suggestion from Dr. Allen: Before going away, put 8-10 ice packs in your freezer.  Then, if the power goes off and the freezer is not opened, the food will stay cold for quite awhile.


Dr. Regenstein points out the following:  “In a power outage, a full freezer would survive better than an empty or half-empty one, especially if foods are properly wrapped.”   However, if your freezer is full, you have more to lose as a result of a long-term power outage.  Our suggestion: before going away on a long trip, consume any expensive items you have in your freezer.


Use plastic freezer-grade wrap rather than aluminum foil, Dr. Regenstein recommends.  


“If the freezer does lose power while you’re away and the power outage lasts long enough for the food to thaw, you will need to toss everything,” says Dr. Bowser. Also, Bowser suggests asking your neighbors how long the power failure lasted and what they did with the contents of their freezer.  Their actions should be a good guide for you.


Have a great vacation (or business trip). 




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D.  Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science




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