Food safety tips during and after a power outage

Many of us in Florida are dealing with power outages this hurricane season and that means our refrigerated and freezer items are at risk for developing bacteria.  The question that immediately comes up is, is it safe to eat? Perhaps it’s time for a refresher on a few food safety tips:

  1. Cold (refrigerated) foods should be kept at or below 40ºF. Your appliance will have a temperature setting to tell you where it’s at, but try to avoid opening it as much as possible so you don’t let the cool air out. A closed refrigerator that is full should keep the food cold enough for about four hours.  Once the temp drops below 40ºF, you have a two hour window before the food becomes an ideal environment to grow bacteria.
    • Hopefully you’ve stocked up on ice and coolers to start putting your important items in. Personally, I suggest consuming high risk items prior to reaching above 40º such as eggs, mayonnaise and mayonnaise based products such as tuna/potato/chicken salad and any leftovers.
    • Fruits and vegetables will last much longer than two hours and many are shelf stable, so don’t worry too much about these. An exception would be berries and grapes that tend to spoil quickly. Eat those first.
  2. Frozen items should be kept at or below 0ºF. Again, your freezer should tell you this, but don’t open it more than you have to. A full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full).
    • It is best to keep the items close together so they keep each other cold. Once it rises above 0ºF, watch it as many of those items will be okay if cooked before reaching above 40ºF. Unfortunately if they go over that 40ºF past two hours, especially frozen meats, it’s time to throw them out. It’s just not worth the risk of getting sick.
    • Remember, you can put some of your refrigerated items in the freezer to keep them under their 40ºF for a longer period of time and you may be able to save them.
    • Having extra ice packs, even dry ice if you can get some, full tupperware of frozen water, and full frozen ice trays stocked in your freezer can help keep the food at ideal temperatures for as long as possible.
  3. Hopefully you stocked up on nonperishables. If you didn’t, there will likely be a next time and might as well plan sooner than later. These are some of my favorites:
    • Quest protein bars
    • Starbucks light double shots (gotta have coffee)
    • Trail mix or mixed nuts or any kind of nuts are great
    • Peanut butter or any kind of nut butter
    • Triscuits (for spreading nut butter on – better than just plain ol’ bread to me)
    • Bananas
    • Tangerines
    • Tomatoes (I could eat these like apples!)
    • Apples
    • Beef jerky
    • Pre-seasoned tuna pouches
    • 3 ounce chicken cans
    • Cracklin oat bran cereal (or granola is good too!)
    • Animal crackers (okay, not most nutritional, but gotta have a crunchy snack!)
    • Dried fruit (I got mini raisin boxes, mangos, and apricots this go around)
    • Pita bread
    • Avocados
    • 1 gallon water per person per day
  4. A sample menu for you using only shelf stable food:
    • Breakfast:
      • Quest bar + tangerine
      • Pita bread with peanut butter and banana sandwich
      • Cracklin oat bran + 1/4 cup dried fruit
      • All to include Starbucks light double shot of course!
    • Lunch/Dinner:
      • Tuna pouch + sliced tomato + 8 triscuits
      • Pita bread + sliced avocado + canned chicken + 10 animal crackers
      • Peanut butter spread on 8 triscuits + mini raisin box
      • Pita bread with peanut butter and banana sandwich + 1/4 cup trail mix
    • Snack tips:
      • No stress eating! This is a stressful time, but it’s not going to make you feel better. I’ve written lots of posts on this in the past explaining why.
      • Stick to the rule of eating every three hours as much as you can. Your meals are possibly going to be smaller, however, so eat to hunger if necessary. High protein, shelf stable snacks include: nuts, trail mix, beef jerky, canned chicken, and tuna pouches. When the power goes out, cheese sticks and yogurt are great to eat up first. I also recommend hard boiling your eggs beforehand so you have snacks and breakfast items to eat while they are still in the correct temperature zones. Remember, you are probably going to have to throw out these highly perishable items anyway- cook them while you can!
  5. What do you do when the power comes back on?
    • Do not, I repeat, do not rely on odor and appearance to determine if a food is safe to eat. You gotta rely on temperatures. Trust me when I say, a food borne illness in the aftermath of a hurricane is not something you want to be dealing with.
    • Throw anything out that has reached above 40ºF for longer than two hours. Period. Especially meats that started to defrost and any frozen items that no longer have ice crystals.
    • If a food has been determined safe to eat and is perishable, such as eggs, meat, etc – be sure to cook it all the way. No rare steak or sunny side up eggs just to be sure.
    • Lastly, when in doubt, just throw it out. You can always replace the food later. Be safe!

P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free online support group here.

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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN