The snow is falling outside my window as I type. In these situations, so many of us get our disaster readiness plans going. We gather flashlights and batteries, stockpile bottled water (one gallon per person per day for three days) and make sure there’s salt for the driveway and gas in the car. But equally important is thinking ahead about your food situation to ensure you’re covered both in terms of food availability and safety in the event that you need to rough it for a few days.
Stock up on shelf staples. The Federal Emergency Management Agency winter storm preparedness manual recommends keeping a three-day supply of non-perishables for all members of your household, including pet food and infant formula if needed. On this list, I’d include staples such as cereal, instant oatmeal, nut butter, canned tuna, bread, whole-grain crackers and bread, marinara sauce, pasta, shelf-stable tetra paks of milk, nuts, dried fruit, cans of hearty soups such as lentil or split pea, and even pouches of ready-to-eat meals (my husband is partial to those ready-to-eat Indian meals). If you have young kids, like I do, consider including Parmesan cheese on this list, as more than 48 hours without Parmesan certainly constitutes an emergency in many children’s worlds. Be sure to have a manual can opener on hand as well.
I’d also include semi-perishables such as apples (or other fruit such as pears, less-ripe bananas, avocados, citrus), carrots, eggs and hard cheese. These are all nutritious, easy-to-eat items that can safely last for a few days to a few weeks in cool storage conditions. If the power goes out, fruit can be stored at room temperature, and eggs/dairy can go outdoors on a balcony or in your yard to stay cold, provided the temperature stays under 40 degrees. Having these foods around will help ensure that your family’s diet doesn’t consist solely of cookies and chips for the duration of the disaster.
Protect food from possible power outages. In advance of a storm, the Food and Drug Administration recommends making sure your freezer temperature is at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and the refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This will ensure your food is the coldest it can possibly be, and help keep it safer for longer in the event of a short power outage. You should keep appliance thermometers in both locations as well to monitor the temperature of your fridge and freezer. A full freezer at the correct temperature should keep food frozen for a full 48 hours after a power loss if you keep its door shut; a half-full freezer will keep food frozen for 24 hours. A fridge will keep perishable food such as milk, yogurt, eggs, hummus and meat safe for four hours with the door shut. In other words, keep those doors shut!
After these safe storage periods end, perishables can be transferred to a large cooler with plenty of ice packs, or better yet, stored outdoors on a balcony or in your yard to stay cold — provided the outdoor temperature stays under 40 degrees. In the past, I’ve stored string cheese in our mailbox and eggs nestled in a snowy outdoor planter.
If you have lots of fresh milk or meat, consider freezing some of it. This will also keep it at a safe temperature for longer in the event of power loss, as it will take a long time to thaw out when it’s starting from frozen.
Prepare for gas cooking if available. If you’ve got a gas range or outdoor grill, you should still be able to cook even in the event of a power outage. If you’re planning to rely on an outdoor grill, move it to a sheltered outdoor location if possible, and check to see your gas tank is full enough to fuel your culinary endeavors. If you’ve got a gas stove, you’ll be able to boil water for pastas and rice; heat up soup; make omelets and grilled cheese; pop popcorn on the stovetop in a covered dutch oven; or pull together a simple stir fry from rice, eggs, frozen peas and grated carrots touched off with some soy sauce and sesame oil.
Pre-cook some proteins if gas cooking is not available. If you aren’t going to have gas cooking facilities available in the event of a power outage, you could consider pre-cooking one or two meals’ worth of chicken or meatballs that could be stored in your fridge — and moved outdoors for snowy storage if needed in the event of a power loss — to eat cold on a sandwich. If you plan to do this, pay attention to proper storage temperatures and either eat the food within four hours of losing power or transfer it to an icy nest outside to prolong its safe shelf life.
Assess food safety once the power is back on. If you did lose power, it’s important to review your food stock to determine what’s safe to keep and what should be discarded. Guidelines provided by foodsafety.gov recommend checking your freezer thermometer when the power is restored; if it reads 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, the food is safe and can be refrozen. In the absence of a freezer thermometer, use a food thermometer to check each individual food package; if it still contains ice crystals or is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, it’s safe to refreeze or cook.
If refrigerated foods such as meat, cold cuts, dairy, eggs or leftovers were kept in a powerless fridge for longer than four hours, they’re not likely to be safe; toss them. Any such food that was not kept at 40 degrees or colder for a period of four hours or more should be considered a food safety risk — even if you were to thoroughly cook it — because many potential toxins could develop under such conditions that would not be killed by heating.