How To Protect Your Food During a Power Outage

After having a devastating impact upon the Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian is now headed for communities in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many areas are preparing for evacuation as millions of residents may be affected by "wind, rain, flooding and high storm surge," according to the American Red Cross.


Hurricanes, snowstorms, floods, and earthquakes are often predicted, while earthquakes  and tornadoes may take us by surprise.  Any of these weather-related disrupters can leave us without power and clean water.  Any of these can be a threat to our perishable refrigerated and frozen foods, our shelf-stable foods, and the water we need for drinking, cooking, and washing. 


The disastrous effects of Hurricane Sandy encouraged us to pull together the following collection of tips about preparing for bad weather and handling food during bad weather.  It  suggests items to have in your home at all times, items to rush out and buy when weather-related trouble is imminent,  and steps to take while one of these incidents is in progress.  Our site's Advisory Board scientists made many contributions to this article.  



Before the electricity goes off:


  • Buy some supplies:  If you can still get to a store that isn't all sold out, purchase enough canned and other shelf-stable foods to create meals for several days for everyone in your household. Other items to buy if you don't have them: candles, flashlights, batteries, two appliance thermometers (for the fridge and freezer), a food thermometer, bottled water, bags of ice (or block ice), gel packs to freeze, and one or more  large insulated coolers.

  • "Dry ice works very well to maintain frozen foods over long periods of time," says food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser. However, it must be handled with care since it can cause burns and may require venting.  A little goes a long way.

    You may also want to purchase a camp stove or propane grill to cook on since a storm might make your stove unusable. These need to be used outdoors.

  • Turn Up the Cold:  Turn your refrigerator down to 35°F and set your freezer on the coldest temperature possible. Also, if your refrigerator contains items that can be frozen, freeze them.

    Note:  hard cheeses freeze well especially if well-wrapped. Milk can also be frozen. Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein offers these reminders:  Don't turn the fridge down so much that you freeze the food, and remember that there are energy costs associated with more cooling.

  • Put Water, Water Everywhere: If the water coming from your faucets is still safe, use it to save money on purchasing ice.  Freeze as many containers of water as you have space for.  Clean milk jugs and sturdy plastic bags can be used to freeze water.  If the power goes off, put some of your frozen water in the refrigerator to keep the temperature down there.  Both the ice and the bulk will help to keep the fridge and freezer cool longer.  Also, if your water supply becomes contaminated, you'll have a good supply of safe drinking water as your ice melts.

    Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter recommends another way to save a huge quantity of water: "Clean, sanitize, and fill up the bathtubs and sinks with fresh water.  Just make sure you have good seals so the water doesn't leak out over time.  The water can be used for cooking or cleaning."

  • Freeze those gel packs:  You'll need them to put in coolers so that you don't have to open the refrigerator often.  The coolers should hold perishable food you need frequent access to (milk, butter, etc.).

  • Think ahead.  Get nonperishable foods you (or other family members) may want to eat often out of the fridge (for example, peanut butter and jelly) so it won't be opened a lot.

  • Use those thermometers: Put appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer (unless these are built in).



Once a power outage begins:


  • Put a sizable quantity of ice from your freezer into your refrigerator. 

  • Group together the foods in your freezer. That will help them stay frozen.

  • DON'T open your refrigerator and freezer doors, or, at least, open them as little as possible. If there are kids in your household put a "Do Not Open" sign on the fridge and freezer.  The goal is to keep the cold air locked in. According to the USDA, an unopened refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours.  A well-packed freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours if the door is not open.  A half-full freezer will keep foods frozen for about 24 hours.

  • After 4-6 hours of no electricity, if food in your refrigerator still tests below 40°F, it's safe to eat.  Food in your freezer is still cold enough to be safe if it has ice crystals in it or is below 40°F.

  • Use your food thermometer to check the temperature of any perishables you take out of the refrigerator, freezer, or coolers to consume.  Any perishable food that you believe has been above 40°F for more than 2 hours should be fed to the garbage can.  Bacteria that can cause food-borne illness grow rapidly in the "danger zone" between 40 - 140°F.

  • Eat your perishable foods first.  If the outage lasts awhile, that's when you can resort to spaghetti and canned everything.
  • Use coolers to hold food you want to get at often. Also, when the fridge is no longer cool enough, move perishables to your coolers (ice chests) packed with a lot of ice. Dr. Bowser adds these suggestions: "Pack ice chests in blankets or other insulation to help minimize the need to replace the ice.  Heavy cardboard boxes work well for storage when you run out of ice chests. Insulate them with the best materials available--for example, blankets, foam pads, or newspapers.  Keep ice in plastic bags to prevent water from soaking foods."
  •  "Water is one of the biggest food issues after any large storm," says Dr. Bowser.  "Municipal water sources can be polluted and may endanger those that drink polluted water or wash food or hands with it prior to treating the water.  I like to prefilter water to remove heavy particles, then use carbon filter, followed by microfiltration (or reverse osmosis) treatment."

  • A power outage doesn't have to mean eating nothing but cold food.  A charcoal or gas grill can be used but not indoors.  Dr. Cutter recommends a camp stove or propane grill.  However, a camp stove that uses gasoline or solid fuel should never be used indoors.  If you have an electric generator, you can cook on a small electric appliance.  You can also cook with wood in a fireplace if the chimney is in good condition.  For more information on cooking when the power is off, click here

  • Good looks don't necessarily mean good food!  Remember that different  pathogens can ruin food in two  ways: 1) by causing the deterioration of quality (appearance, taste, smell, etc.) and 2) by the multiplication of the kinds of germs that  can cause food-borne illness. Don't assume that, if a food looks or smells fine, it's safe to eat.  Perishable foods become risky if their temperature is below 40°F for more than 2 hours.  This is the government's advice:  "When in doubt, throw it out."




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   "A Consumer's Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes" - 5 "Food Safety in Power Outages" "Food and Water Safety During a Hurricane, Flood, and/or Power Outage"


After having a devastating impact upon the Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian is now headed for communities in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many areas
are preparing for evacuation as millions of residents may be affected by "wind, rain, flooding and high storm surge," according to the American Red Coss

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