Long term power outage? What to eat first
I’m sure that every single person who lives with electricity has, at one time or another experienced a power outage. Or at the very least woke up some morning with all of their clocks flashing 88:88. The occasional power outage is just a fact of life.
Now some folks, like myself, may have experienced even longer outages. Several years ago, a huge ice storm knocked power out where I lived for over 36 hours, and for another 6-8 hours the power was intermittent.
Long term power outages are extremely rare, but when they happen it can lead to a whole host of issues. One of which is the perishable food items in your fridge going bad.
If you experience a short term power outage, there won’t be much concern over your perishable food items. But if the outage is more long term, or even “God-forbid” permanent, you might start thinking about what foods you should eat first before they go bad. Or you might wonder if you can refreeze last night’s leftover potato casserole.
Well, here are some pointers to help you should you ever find yourself in that situation.
Typically, a normal refrigerator will keep things below 40 degrees F for about 4-6 hours after it loses power. This can vary some depending upon other factors, such as the size and settings of the refrigerator and how often you open and close the door. But it is a good rule of thumb.
However, once the refrigerator gets above 40 degrees, the clock is now ticking for many items inside. Below is a list of items that need to be thrown out if they go above 40 degrees F for 2 hours or longer. So eat these items first! (If you do not know how long your fridge has been above 40 degrees, better to err on the side of caution and toss these items.)
- Raw or cooked (leftover) meat, poultry, fish, etc. If the meat looks or smells funny, toss it. This includes lunch meats, bacon, opened cans of meat, etc. Word of advice, seafood that has gone bad may not always smell.
- Eggs or egg products. This includes custards and puddings
- Milk and milk based products. This includes sour cream, buttermilk, etc
- Soft cheeses such as cottage, Monterey jack, mozzarella, quesos, low fat cheeses, and shredded cheeses
- Cooked and/or fresh pasta. Cooked rice. Cooked potatoes. Casseroles, soups, stews, etc
- Mayonnaise or vinaigrette based salads and pastas. (Mustard based potato salad too)
- Opened jars/cans of sauces, such as spaghetti sauce
- Fresh fruit that has been cut. Fresh greens that have been washed and pre cut. Opened containers of vegetable juice. Cooked vegetables and tofu
- Refrigerator biscuits and rolls. Cookie dough. Cheesecakes. Crème or custard pies
- Cream based dressings that are opened. This includes Ranch! Oyster sauces and tartar sauces that are opened are gone too.
- Opened containers of gravy
Surprisingly, there will be some items in your refrigerator that will remain in edible condition above 40 degrees for much longer than the 2 hour time frame.
- Hard cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and Colby are still ok. Same goes for processed cheeses and grated parmesan as long as it is in the jar or can. The less moisture the cheese has, the longer it should remain ok to eat. (Some of these will liquefy and may taste unpleasant.)
- Butter and margarine (1-2 days)
- Open containers of fruit and fruit juices
- Fresh fruits and vegetables that are still whole/raw. This includes mushrooms and spices/herbs (Around 3-7 days depending on item)
- Bread, rolls, tortillas, cakes, muffins, etc. This includes freezer based items like frozen waffles and bagels (A few days to a few weeks depending upon item.)
- Opened jelly, jams, peanut butter, mustard and catsup, pickles, BBQ sauce, cocktail sauce, containers of vinegar based dressings (1-3 months depending on product)
- Opened containers of mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and horseradish will stay good for about 6-8 hours above 40 degrees. After that, toss them out! (If you want to try and consume an entire jar of mayonnaise before it goes bad in 6-8 hours, well then best of luck to you!)
- Small individual packages of condiments are much more acidic than their counterparts in jars and bottles. They are designed to last MUCH longer at room temp as long as their foil packaging is not damaged. (1-3 years depending upon item)
- Even the individual plastic tubs of jelly like you find at Ihop or Denny’s will last 2-3 years if left in decent shape and condition
As always, if any of these items look or smell funny, toss them out.
Food that is frozen in a freezer will generally remain that way for one to two days after power loss, depending upon how full the freezer is. A half full freezer will be good for about a day, while a completely full freezer will last closer to two days assuming you keep the door closed as much as possible.
If your freezer is half full, I would quickly move all of the items together if possible. This will help keep your items colder longer. I would try to place any items that might drip while thawing on the bottom, or place something like foil underneath them to catch the run off.
Typically, items that have thawed from your freezer should be treated the same as if they were in your refrigerator. However, some items might still be able to be refrozen.
Here are some typical items you might have in your freezer, along with whether they are safe to refreeze (if above 40 degrees) or whether they should be tossed out.
- meats, eggs/egg products, and poultries – toss out
- any sort of dairy (other than hard cheeses) – toss out
- fruits – refreeze unless moldy or slimy to touch
- vegetables – toss out after 6 hours above 40 degrees
- breads, rolls, waffles, etc – refreeze unless moldy or slimy
- custards and pies – toss out
- frozen meals, entrees, casseroles, etc (like TV dinner or pizza) – toss out
Keep thermometers in your fridge and freezer. As long as the temp does not get above 40 degrees, the items in there will be safe to re-freeze should the power come back on. And if you are asleep or not home when the power goes out, you may not have an accurate idea of how long you have been without power. The thermometer will at least give you an idea of the internal temps.
Also, dry ice will help to keep your items cold. For a “normal sized” refrigerator, 10 pounds of dry ice on the bottom shelf will keep your contents cold for about 12-24 hours depending upon the size/contents of your fridge.
For dry ice in a freezer:
- Freezer on bottom: use 15 to 25 pounds.
- Freezer on top: use 20 to 30 pounds.
- Side by side Freezer: use 30 to 40 pounds. Place each slab, starting with the top shelf, on top of the food to be kept frozen. Bottom shelves will be kept frozen by the Dry Ice above it.
- Chest Freezer: use 40 to 50 pounds.
Be sure not to touch the dry ice directly; use gloves when handling it. And do not put the dry ice directly on the shelf itself. (Especially glass.) Use newspaper, pot holder, a towel, etc to act as a barrier. When the dry ice is sublimated, replace it.
Finally, keep in mind that dry ice is frozen CO2. This means that it will carbonate anything in an open container. (I have never had carbonated milk…not sure I want to!) And anything close to the dry ice may freeze. So you might move everything from the bottom shelf up in your fridge.
There is “no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.”
Other than baby formula, the Federal govt. does NOT require dates on food.
And for those food package that do have dates on them, this can sometimes be misleading. The following is from the website Stilltasty.com.
• Use-By, Best if Used By, Best By, Best Before: These “use by” and “best” dates are generally found on shelf-stable products such as mustard, mayonnaise, and peanut butter.
The date, which is provided voluntarily by the manufacturer, tells you how long the product is likely to remain at its absolute best quality when unopened. But, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service points out, it is not a safety date.
After the “use by” or “best” date has passed, you may start to notice gradual changes in the unopened product’s texture, color, or flavor. But as long as you’ve been storing the unopened item properly, you can generally consume it beyond this date.
Your best bet for gauging whether an unopened shelf-stable product with this type of date is still of satisfactory quality is to simply smell and examine it first. Always discard foods that have developed an off odor, flavor or appearance. You can also consult the Keep It or Toss It database for optimal food storage times, for both unopened and opened items.
• Sell-By: Most sell-by dates are found on perishables like meat, seafood, poultry and milk. The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product.
You should buy the product before the sell-by date expires. But you can still store it at home for some time beyond that date, as long as you follow safe storage procedures (check the Keep It or Toss It database for the shelf life of specific foods).
For instance, milk that has been continuously refrigerated will usually remain drinkable for about one week after the “sell by” date on the package. Likewise, you can store ground beef in your refrigerator for 1 to 2 days after purchasing it, even if the sell-by date expires during that time.
• Expires On: The only place you’re likely to encounter this type of date is on infant formula and some baby foods, which are the only food products the federal government regulates with regard to dating. You should always use the product before this expiration date has passed.
In a long term, grid down scenario, you might consider eating foods you normally wouldn’t. I know in my younger, more fool-hardy college days, I would order a pizza and eat half. Then I would leave half a pizza in its box on the kitchen counter overnight and eat the rest for breakfast the next morning. I never got ill from it. (Could be that any germs were killed by the mass quantities of alcohol I consumed.) But that is NOT something I would do today.
However, in a SHTF event, I might not get to be picky. But I would still try to remain as safety conscience as possible, eating the perishable stuff as quickly (and safely) as possible.
Remember, you cannot determine a food’s safety by smell, touch, or taste. Ultimately my rule of thumb is, “When in doubt, throw it out!”
Stay safe out there!
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