Out Go the Lights. What About the Food?

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The past few weeks in Ohio have been a flurry of weird weather, so to speak. Thunderstorms, followed by days of humidity, then cooler temperatures and zero rain. In the midst of it all, we’ve had two significant blackouts. Normally they last a few hours, but the past two lasted for over 12 hours. We're not the only state going through this, so I thought I'd better put together a guide to what many people don't necessarily think about when they lose electricity... food safety.

Whether it's a hurricane, flood, grid issues, or a windstorm, when the lights go out and the appliances stop working, it’s time to start thinking about what you should keep, pitch, or re-freeze. Turn your flashlights on and let’s dig in!

Prep Ahead:

For starters, don’t stuff your freezer. While it’s great to get bargains on meat and frozen foods, allow some space in your freezer for extra ice and gel packs, as well as food that could be refrozen. Remove food from boxes (i.e. popsicles or other individually wrapped items) to further make room.

While you can’t predict a blackout, keep at least two to three large gel packs frozen for use during a power outage. These can be used right in the refrigerator or in a separate cooler to extend the shelf life of leftovers, dairy products, or other perishable and refrigerated foods.

Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees or colder. Frozen food should be kept at zero degrees. Most food in the refrigerator is safe to eat for up to 4 hours after a power outage. During an outage, keep the freezer and refrigerator closed unless you’re ready to eat something. This will help maintain cooler temperatures.

What to Keep:

Fresh fruits like apples or citrus fruits will be safe to eat after an outage and can be stored on the counter. Berries will mold faster at room temperature and should be eaten first. They last about two to three days at room temperature, depending on how hot or humid your house is.

Eggs in the shell are good for roughly 2 hours after the power is off, but should be used or pitched after that. So should milk, leftovers, opened deli meats and soft cheeses. Raw or cooked eggs in the shell shouldn’t be frozen. If you’ve got a gas stove that can be lit, omelets or scrambled eggs make fast meals.

Hard cheeses, butter, uncut fruits or vegetables, condiments, salad dressing, jams or jellies, and breads are generally safe to keep even after you've been without power for 4 hours. Toss out any cheese or condiments that develop mold.

What to Refreeze:
Meat, dairy products, or leftovers that aren’t going to be eaten right away should be placed in the freezer or stored in the frig or a cooler with gel packs. Once power is restored, frozen food should be used within a month for the best quality.

Soup, spaghetti sauce, or cooked grains can be refrozen and used. Hearty vegetables like green beans, broccoli or carrots can be frozen for later use if you’ve got the room. Berries can be cleaned and frozen for use in smoothies, yogurt or cereal.

What to Throw Away:

The general rule of thumb with food safety is, “when in doubt, throw it out”. Foodborne illnesses can be common after a blackout, so it's better to be safe than sorry.

Salads or other perishable vegetables can be kept cold with the use of gel packs but should be eaten or thrown away after two hours at room temperature, according to the FDA.

Store for the Future:

In the unfortunate event that most of your food must be tossed, it’s good to have some non-perishable items in your pantry just in case. Below is a top 10 list of foods to have on hand in case of a power outage:

  1. Dry cereal. Choose low-sugar, high-fiber types like bran flakes or shredded wheat. Cereal is a source of iron as well as B vitamins.
  2. Powdered milk. Just add water and make only what you’ll use at the time. Powdered milk is fat-free and provides calcium, vitamin D, and protein.
  3. Canned tuna or salmon. These are quick protein sources that provide omega-3-fatty acids without cooking.
  4. Canned veggies. Go for carrots, green beans, peas, mixed veggies, or greens for vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.
  5. Canned fruit. Look for fruit packed in water or juice, not syrup.
  6. Dried fruit. Apricots, raisins, dates, or prunes keep for months and give you fiber and potassium.
  7. Canned beans. These are inexpensive protein and fiber sources. Combine them with salsa or dried herbs to season them.
  8. Whole-grain crackers. These are loaded with fiber, zinc, and other minerals.
  9. Nuts and nut butters. These have healthy fats and protein, and will pair well with your crackers.
  10. Seeds. Pumpkin or sunflower seeds are great for snacks or added to cereal.

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

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